‘Panamerican Machinery’ (‘Maquinaria Panamericana’): Film Review

Far more bitter than sweet, Joaquin del Paso’s bleakly comic satire picked up best Mexican film at that country’s recent Guadalajara festival.

“Live your life intensely,” booms a loudspeaker voice to the workforce in Panamerican Machinery, as a worker uselessly decorates a digital flower on his desktop. We’re back in the world of Modern Times here, as Mexican director Joaquin del Paso limns the effects on workers of the death of their boss to surreal and engaging effect. Although fundamentally a political satire on Mexico, the film’s lack of specific focus means it could just as well be about reactions to the global crisis, about what happens when the social safety blanket is suddenly and cruelly withdrawn. It’s here where viewer interest will presumably lie as Machinery heads off down the festival road following its success at Guadalajara.

Don Alejandro (Rafael Velez) has been running the company which gives the movie its name out of his own pocket, presumably since technology has decimated manufacturing. He dies within the first few minutes, and the rest of the film traces the often peculiar effects of his death on his former employees, all of whom are now suddenly and shockingly out of a job which was actually a useless job anyway, since the company has been unproductive for years.

The Bottom Line

Of machinery and men.

His accountant Jesus Carlos (Javier Zaragoza), a borderline madman who at one point staples a document to his forehead, quickly becomes the object of everyone’s ire when it’s revealed that he has let the accounts fall into disarray and that there’ll be no payoffs or pensions. Assuming the role of leader despite his incompetence, Jesus Carlos issues instructions that they must shut the doors to prevent looting and not tell anyone that Don Alejandro is dead: They must freeze time.

After the doors close, the world and the relationships between the characters change. None of them wishes to leave, as none of them seems to have a life outside the company, from which they can no longer become disentwined. That alone should make it clear that Panamerican Machinery, an ideas-driven movie which doesn’t much care about whether, for example, we like or dislike its characters, is guided by the filmic spirit of Luis Bunuel, with all the bleak humor and dislocation which that implies, and by the political spirit of Karl Marx and his followers.

There’s quite a lot about this generally wordless story which remains unspecified, particularly one bizarre strand involving a soap opera-like romantic history, presumably tossed in there because this is, after all, Mexico. For example, quite why Celestino (Edmundo Mosquiera) dislikes Juan Carlos so much is not clear. Celestino sets up a lecture for the employees about the cycle of loss and grief which the staff, in their different ways, then play out almost to perfection.

The Panamerican machinery is thus, of course, not only the hulking mechanical objects which occupy the uncanny spaces of the unearthly, broken-down factory — shot to often memorable effect by Fredrik Olsson, a big fan of the detail-grabbing traveling shot — but of course the employees themselves, who allow themselves to be driven by forces they don’t understand. All except one — the peaceful, isolated security guard Ignacio (Ramiro Orozco), a kind of holy fool who plugs in his headphones to listen to guitar music and abstracts himself from the troubling events surrounding him.

Modern Times and Bunuel apart, there’s a little of a lot of things in Panamerican Machinery. Absurdist, grotesque Lynchian comedy, as with the employer who strikes the ground with a metal rod in search of burst pipes, rubs up against the air of ‘70s countercultural protest movies, when anything went and when the satire wasn’t as subtle as it is today, and even with Lord of the Flies, as the staff considers murdering an intruder. The dated, timeless air is something del Paso seems to have been striving for with his decision to shoot on expired film stock: the visual consequence is a bleached-out, slightly uncanny look that’s entirely in keeping with its woozy narrative.

Perhaps the strongest sequence in a film whose effects ultimately make more impact than its narrative is the early-morning aftermath of a drinking party. As Olsson’s camera characteristically travels slowly around the scene, Panamerican Machinery briefly achieves a poise and a peacefulness which is not much in evidence elsewhere.

Production companies: Amondo Films, Black Maria, Mantarraya Producciones, Estudios Churubusco, Terminal
Cast: Javier Zaragoza, Ramiro Orozco, Irene Ramirez, Edmundo Mosqueira, Delfino Lopez, Cecilia García, Regina Dupacci, Cesar Panini, Javier Camacho, Israel Ruiz
Director: Joaquin del Paso
Screenwriters: Joaquin del Paso, Lucy Pawlak
Producers: Joaquin del Paso, Jaime Romandia, Susana Bernal
Director of photography: Fredrik Olsson
Production designers: Lucy Pawlak, Paulina Sanchez
Editor: Raul Barreras
Composers: Christian Paris, Pedro Martínez del Paso
Sales: Luxbox

Not rated, 88 minutes