Brimstone & Glory
BRIMSTONE & GLORY, documentary, not rated, in Spanish with subtitles, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3.5 chiles Every year during the festival of San Juan de Dios, the Mexican town of Tultepec springs to fiery, fervent life with a stunning display of pyrotechnics, earning Tultepec the distinction of being called Mexico’s fireworks capital. Brimstone & Glory, the first feature by director Viktor Jakovleski, is a mostly visual documentary about the town and the risks its inhabitants take by literally playing with fire.
There’s no real narrative to speak of, but Jakovleski does provide a visceral cinematic experience for viewers. Early in the film, a young narrator explains the connection between fire and San Juan, who is said to have rescued a group of people from a hospital in flames without suffering a single burn. The dangers from the firework displays are real enough for the celebrants, who risk life and limb to light up not just the night sky but also towering carousels, castles, and huge spinning wheels in a kaleidoscope of color and flames. Jakovleski himself suffered a knee injury from a firework during filming. “We’re not chemists, so our measurements aren’t perfect,” says one inhabitant of the town, as they cram sacks full of gunpowder and other combustible materials into massive rocket tubes.
The fireworks are the real stars of Brimstone & Glory, erupting and exploding in a slow-motion spectacle that’s awe-inspiring and hypnotic. At times you might feel you’re bearing witness to the moment of creation, watching stars and worlds being born in a maelstrom of fire. Filming with high-speed Phantom cameras shooting at 1,500 frames per second, cinematographer Tobias von dem Borne offers audiences something that makes up a little for not getting to actually witness the festival firsthand: an up-close, intimate look at pyrotechnics in their penultimate moments. The rousing score by Dan Romer and the film’s co-producer Benh Zeitlin, director of 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, keeps the quieter moments, in which townsfolk are busily engaged in preparations, moving. The music in the slow-motion scenes, with violin notes sustained for long durations, is no less dramatic than the thumping beats that punctuate the shots of people constructing whirligigs or racing through the streets at night with sparklers trailing behind.
Amid all the spectacle, amateur enthusiasts light their own fireworks, not really competing with the professional displays, but adding to the thrill of it all. Religious processions fill the streets; men, women, and children dance and play amid the rain of sparks; and papier-mâché bulls, a highlight of the festival, burn as the pyrotechnics inside them are set off. It seems that Jakovleski approached this project with one particular mission in mind: to dazzle you. And in that, he succeeds.
Keeping the home fires burning: A scene from Brimstone & Glory