In my review of Minari, the opening night selection of IFFBoston’s Fall Focus series, I posited it as something of a corrective in these times when something might be distracting you: a kind, gentle film about the American Dream, with all the hardships and triumphs that come with it. At risk of sounding reductive, New Order, the new film by Mexican provocateur Michel Franco, is the exact opposite of Minari: a shocking, willfully difficult film about a truly awful family plunged into an even worse nightmare of class warfare and creeping fascism which, if you’re not paying attention, might bleed directly into your nightly doomscrolling ritual.
New Order opens in flashes of context-free, borderline surreal violence: chaos in the streets, trucks stacked with corpses, dazed survivors splattered with green paint, hospital staff shuffling patients from ward to ward to make room for its sudden intake. In the first of a series of jarring transitions, we jump from this mayhem to the posh wedding of Marianne and Daniel at her parents’ palatial, gated estate. At first, this feels like a “two weeks earlier” timejump, but we quickly learn that this is not the case; these wealthy revellers have simply found for themselves an insulated world in which they can pretend the outside tumult simply isn’t happening (sound familiar?). Reality intrudes when former housekeeper Rolando shows up at the gate with a request: as a result of the chaos, his ill wife has been transferred to a private clinic which is charging an additional $200,000 for her life-saving operation. Rolando is tossed like a hot potato from one family member to another, most of whom seem mostly annoyed to have this unpleasant commoner intruding on their Big Day. Eventually, his request falls on Marianne, who appears to be the one member of the clan with a shred of kindness. Marianne ducks out of her wedding with Rolando and his nephew, and not a moment too soon: no sooner have they pulled out of the driveway than the party is raided by protestors, who trash the furniture, loot the valuables, and summarily execute their one-time oppressors.
Astoundingly, this turns out to be the least horrible thing that happens in this story. To combat the protests, the area is clamped down by the militarized police (or perhaps a deputized military– at this point, it seems safe to say the difference is negligible), who manage to quickly quash the uprising. In all-too-familiar give-a-mouse-a-cookie fashion, however, the authorities take the opportunity to turn the city into a rogue police state. Marianne is whisked away from Rolando’s home to a shadowy prison camp, where the military holds wealthy detainees hostage and issues ransoms to their high-toned families (with blame, of course, being shifted to the anarchists). Can Marianne escape– and will there be much of a society left to escape to?
In case it’s not clear from the plot description, New Order is a decidedly difficult sit. For its first act– up to and until the culmination of the wedding– it plays as a gleeful, if jet-black, bit of eat-the-rich satire in the vein of Bacurau; imagine a movie version of the country club breakdown in the Dead Kennedys’ “Chemical Warfare,” and you have an idea of the tone. Beginning with Marianne’s capture, however, the tone shifts to unrelenting grimness, as Franco’s camera lingers on all manner of atrocities inflicted on the well-heeled prisoners. Class, it turns out, is something of a moot point in the midst of a totalitarian regime; everyone, rich or poor, executive or insurgent, only matters inasmuch as how much grist they can supply the state. If New Order has a “hero” in the traditional sense of the word, it’s probably Cristian, Rolando’s kind nephew trying to both save his dying aunt and find and rescue Marianne (who primarily exists for the second and third acts as a repository of abuse). But even Cristian is ultimately running a series of fools’ errands; it’s pretty clear from the moment we witness the casual cruelty of the military powers that be that nothing is going to end especially well for anybody.
New Order is probably the bleakest thing I’ve seen all year– no mean feat in 2020. Its central warning– the ease with which fascists can use “law and order” as an excuse for appalling behavior– is nothing if not timely, and once you’ve seen it, it will be depressingly easy to connect it to at least one news story per day. But I’m also not sure I can recommend it in good conscience. Like a 21st-century Salò, New Order is less a narrative story than a series of awful things happening in unsanitary, dimly-lit rooms. It’s a reminder of how easily It Can Happen Here. Whether you feel like you need that reminder right now is entirely up to you.
dir. Michel Franco
Part of IFFBoston’s Fall Focus series – click here for more information!
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