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2008 , 87 minutes, color. Distributed by Dominio Digital , jfarre@dominiodigital.com

Fidencio Constantino (1898–1938) became so famous for his miraculous cures that he drew thousands of afflicted patients to his isolated, arid village of Espinazo, located on the dividing line between the northern Mexican border states of Coahuila and Nuevo León. His reputation as a saintly healer was enhanced by a genetic condition that kept him from passing through puberty, leaving him a permanent niño (young boy). Fidencio's physical state marked him, according to the religious and sexual conventions of the area, as eternally blessed and exempt from sin: his boyish cheeks, high voice, and (by rumor) undeveloped genitals marked him as a natural-born saint. Even before his death at the age of forty, Kardecist Spiritists (followers of a religious movement in vogue during the Mexican Revolution) began to serve as spiritual mediums, embodying Niño Fidencio's spirit and healing in his voice and in his name.

Today, some 70 years later, Fidencista mediums, called cajitas (“little boxes”), continue to provide spiritual and physical healing in small chapels in the back rooms or garages of family houses spread across northern Mexico and the United States. Their followers meet twice weekly to recite the Catholic rosary, sing religious songs, and whisper their ailments or personal problems into the benevolent ears of the Niño's spirit, as incarnated by the healing medium. Twice a year, on March 19 and October 19, thousands of the most faithful Fidencistas congregate in Espinazo for major festivals to celebrate the birth and death of the folk saint and participate in nonstop weeklong healing ceremonies.

If any of this information becomes clear to viewers from watching the new film Niño Fidencio: De Roma a Espinazo, I would be tempted to call it a miracle from the Niño himself, for the film is a visually arresting, but ultimately frustrating, exploration of Fidencio Constantino's life and the movement that holds him to be a saint. Eschewing the traditional documentary reliance on subtitles or authorial voice-overs to give coherence to the film's narrative, the filmmaker relies almost entirely on the voices of interviewees, images filmed during the annual celebrations in Espinazo, and archival photographs and footage from the 1920s to tell the story of Fidencio Constantino and his followers. The only exceptions to this rule are two long informational captions, one in the opening frame and the second halfway through the film; neither is translated into English.

This method makes it difficult to discern just what the film's narrative is supposed to be. Niño Fidencio begins with a montage of aerial views of Espinazo, digitally animated archival photographs of Fidencio, short clips from interviews with local experts (historians, writers, and for the contrarian point of view, a few Catholic priests and bishops, all of whom will be identified only much later in the film), and random shots of Fidencista ceremonies, cut frenetically without explanation or commentary, set to music and a mélange of voices and prayers from Espinazo in a way that seems calculated to increase their exotic appeal rather than to provide enlightenment. After six minutes of this stimulating but confusing sequence, the first part of the film begins: the life of Niño Fidencio, as told in the words of “living witnesses from Espinazo” who knew Fidencio in the 1930s, and as interpreted by the expert talking heads and by the leaders of a handful of Fidencista groups. Fidencio's life story is not told consecutively; indeed, it is hard to discern any organizing principle for the order of the scenes, other than the filmmaker's propensity for juxtaposing interviews that contradict one another (“The Niño was dark and thin,”“He was very white and fat”), as if to emphasize Fidencio's mythic status.

It is only half an hour into the film, after announcing Fidencio's death, that spiritism is mentioned and the presence of the mediums who incarnate the healer's spirit begins to be explained. The next ten minutes contain some of the most interesting footage in the film—the cajitas perform their healing rituals against the voice-overs of the experts. However, viewers who are not already familiar with spiritism are left to wonder what is going on as well as to assume that the cajitas shown are all embodying Fidencio (some are doing other spirits instead, such as the semi-anonymous Niño Tomasito and the Niño de Atocha, an image of Jesus as a small child). Also missing is any attempt to interact with the ordinary Fidencistas and ask them why they attend, what they get from the ceremonies, or indeed who they are and what they do when they are not in a Fidencista meeting. This section ends with another frenzied montage of rituals.

The second half of the movie opens with a caption (untranslated) explaining that “four major groups exist within Fidencismo,” a debatable proposition. (The film gives unaccountable emphasis to one out of many hundreds of Fidencista chapels, elevating it to the status of a “group within Fidencismo,” and draws a questionable distinction between “independent Fidencistas” and “Catholics who are devoted to Niño Fidencio.”) This framework proves useful for introducing a multiplicity of views of the Niño. A remarkable montage of interviews, beginning one hour into the film, presents a multivocal portrait of Fidencismo's place within (or without) the Catholic Church, and then addresses the key question of why people turn to Fidencio and the cajitas. Once again, we hear only expert voices intoning about the marginalized, the poor, those who have had all other doors shut on them, or (bishops speaking here) those whom the Church has failed to educate properly. The participants themselves are interviewed for seconds at a time, on the street, the microphone visibly stuck in their faces. No attempt is made to interact with Fidencistas on their home ground in the local chapels that dot northern Mexico. This section too ends with an unnarrated montage of ceremonies and festivities. The film then concludes with a minute or two of remarkable but unanalyzed archival footage of Fidencio himself curing individuals and whole crowds.

It is quite understandable that filmmakers have turned away from the stentorian “voice of God” narrative style that marked (and marred) so many earlier ethnographic films. But the complete lack of narration in the present film leads only to frustration. What point of view is being presented? Is there a narrative arc here? Those not familiar with Fidencismo will discover little but imagistic impressions about the movement. By introducing the silent interviewer who must be standing (one assumes) behind the camera, these problems might have been alleviated. The filmmaker's absence from the film means that all we see are heads speaking into a vacuum. For instance, when one expert (identified as the “evangelist of the Niño Fidencio”) asserts that Fidencismo is a “postmodern, postindustrial religion,” one hopes that any interviewer, if present, would have challenged him to clarify what such a statement might mean.

The problems with the film's structure are exacerbated for those unfamiliar with Spanish. The English subtitles, while welcome (where they exist), are not always up to the task of translating the colloquial Spanish of northern Mexico. In a key example, an aging patient of Niño Fidencio explains in an interview that she went to him in the 1930s to be cured of a festering eye disease caused by envidia, “envy,” one of a set of folk illnesses (along with ojo, aire, and susto [evil eye, bad air, and fright]) that are generally recognized in rural Mexico as the province of spiritual healers, not medical doctors. The subtitle translates her comment, “Era un envidia” (“It was a case of envidia”) as “I was so covetous.” Viewers will be justifiably confused.

To sum up, Niño Fidencio presents well-filmed footage of Fidencista ceremonies and interesting commentaries on the relations between Fidencistas and the Church. Because of the film's loose structure, inadequate English subtitles, and lack of interviews with participants, its use in the classroom is only recommended if the instructor is prepared to step in and explain what is going on—and what the filmmaker missed.