La Ley de Herodes (Herod's Law) (1999)
Director: Luis Estrada.
Starring: Damián Alcázar (Juan Vargas), Pedro Armendáriz Jr. (López), Delia Casanova (Rosa), Juan Carlos Colombo (Ramírez), Alex Cox (Gringo Bobby), Miguel Ángel Fuentes (Pancho), Noemí García (Secretaria), Guillermo Gil (Cura), Ernesto Gómez Cruz (Gobernador), Leticia Huijara (Gloria), Luis de Icaza (Alcalde Alfredo García), Eugenia LeZero (Esposa del nuevo alcalde), Eduardo López Rojas (Doctor), Lari Lorenzo (Esmeralda), Pedro Lorza (Cadáver).
satire of political corruption in Mexico
Spoiler Warning:below is a summary of the entire movie.
1949. In the town of San Pueblo a man lies dead on the floor of the town hall. The mayor is busily gathering up all the money hidden in various places in the room. A mob of Indian residents of the village pursue the mayor as he runs to make a get-away. One of the Indians catches him and chops off his head with a machete.
In the office of Governor Sanchez. The Governor speaks to his secretary, Mr. Lopez, about current events in San Pueblo. He says that the natives have lynched the mayor and that Lopez must find a temporary replacement for the mayor for about three or four months. The man should be someone not too smart. Sanchez wants to be the president of Mexico and Lopez wants to become his replacement in the governorship. Lopez speaks with his underling Ramirez telling him to find someone to be the mayor of San Pueblo. Then when the Governor moves to the presidency and Lopez moves to the governorship, Ramirez can become the governor’s secretary.
Ramirez selects Juan Vargas, Cleaning Department Supervisor. Vargas is taken to meet Lopez. Lopez tells the not too smart man that he will need his help. Vargas replies: "Just tell me who I have to kill." Lopez shoots back: "No, no, no Vargas. Times have changed."
Vargas and his wife drive to San Pueblo. They get lost and stop at a backwater dump. They are shocked and disappointed to learn that this nothing of a town with a population of only 100 is
San Pueblo. The place is surrounded by desert with lots of tall cacti.
Carlos Pek is the mayor’s secretary. They enter town hall and find it filled with Indian locals all with unresolved matters to discuss with the mayor. Pek tells him that the village has had three mayors in five years: one was killed with a machete, one was hanged and one was almost burned alive.
The next morning when Vargas walks into his office, he finds Dr. Morelos hovering over a dead body. Morelos tells the mayor the man died from six gun shots and that the local brothel is the problem. The doctor wants the new mayor to shut the brothel down or else Vargas will have to answer to him. It appears that Morelos has run for mayor four times and lost four times and is a committed opponent of all the village mayors.
Vargas walks to the brothel to tell messy-looking Madame Lupe that he has to shut her down. She tries to bribe him but he will not accept the money. She then tells him that he will have to speak to the town priest since he runs the house. So Vargas goes to see the priest. The priest takes money for anything he does, charging confessors a peso for every sin and five pesos for saying a blessing for the mayor. Vargas decides not to do anything against the cat house right now.
Vargas tells Pek that he is going to do something big for the village. Pek, however, tells him there is a big problem: they only have seven pesos in the treasury. His wife advises him to go see Lopez to ask for a bigger budget. Vargas does just that, but his car breaks down on his way to see the governor’s secretary. An American named Bobby stops to help him, fixes the car and then charges him $100 dollars for the repair (which consisted of just reconnecting one of the spark plugs). Vargas does not have that kind of money and tells the American he can catch him another time. In Lopez’s office Vargas learns that Lopez will not give him any monetary funds. Instead, he gives Vargas a huge law book and a pistol. Lopez tells the mayor that he must follow Herod’s law: either you fuck them or they fuck you. Vargas is to use the law book to impose fines and taxes and the pistol to enforce the laws. Lopez adds: "Remember. In this country, honesty gets you nowhere."
With the pistol in his belt Vargas tries to close down the brothel. Madam Lupe refuses to oblige him. Vargas pulls out his pistol, but Lupe forces his pistol hand behind his back. The pistol goes off in the struggle and Lupe is wounded in the leg. The mayor runs away from the cat house.
Back in his office, Vargas receives Lupe. She is much more reasonable now and gives the mayor a lot of money to leave her and her business in peace. This time Vargas accepts the bribe. Next he takes money from the local bar owner. He even jails the local drunken bum, puts him in a jail cell and fines him six pesos.
One night the mayor’s wife Gloria sees all the money he has collected. She tells her husband that Dr. Morelos says that he is the worst mayor yet. Gloria takes the money and tells her husband she will throw a dinner party for the influential people in town to improve his image.
The American Bobby arrives at his house asking for his money. To stall him the mayor asks him to stay the night. The next day the mayor makes a deal with Bobby. He will give him 50% percent of whatever he makes to Bobby in return for Bobby modernizing the village. Bobby stays in Vargas’s house.
At the dinner party Dr. Morelos tells everyone that the mayor has not done anything for the village. Vargas responds by saying that he and Bobby are going to bring electricity to the village.
Vargas tries to collect taxes from Lupe but she tells him that he has hurt business so much that she cannot pay the taxes. The mayor tells her that he will take sexual services for partial payment.
Dr. Morelos and the priest come to see the mayor. Morelos tells him that he knows that Vargas is in business with Madam Lupe. After Morelos leaves the priest tells Vargas that he will handle Morelos for him if in turn the mayor will give him some money to help him buy a used car. Vargas agrees.
When the mayor reappears at the brothel, Lupe has a giant of a man beat Vargas up and then throw him in the pig stye. When Vargas gets home he finds Bobby and his wife dancing. Later that night Vargas gets up from bed and ambushes the giant and Lupe killing both of them with his pistol.
Gloria confronts her husband telling him that she knows all about his whoring at the brothel. More bad news. Vargas realizes that his political party pin is missing from his lapel. He has to return to the murder scene to search the bodies of his victims, but does not find the pin. The bodies of the victims are discovered by the Indians. Vargas attends Lupe’s funeral.
Vargas needs a suspect for the two murders. So he plants evidence on the town drunk and then arrests him when the drunk is found with the evidence. Vargas has sex with his brothel employees.
Governor Sanchez did not get the nomination of his party. He was defeated by a relative of the president named Terrazas. Lopez is ordered to give his boss’s enemies a scare, so he orders a hit on Terrazas through his second hand man Sharkey.
Vargas interrogates the town drunk and forces him to confess to the murder of Lupe and the giant and to implicate Dr. Morelos as well. Later the drunk makes a big mistake when he mentions to Vargas that he found his political party pin near the bodies of the two victims. The mayor takes the drunk for a ride, stops by the side of the road and then shoots the drunk in the head while he is urinating. At the brothel the drunken Vargas virtually admits to killing the drunk. The next morning he wakes to find that everyone has abandoned the brothel for good.
Vargas returns home to find his wife having sex with Bobby. He slaps Gloria twice and then tries to shoot Bobby, but Gloria knocks him unconscious with a frying pan to the head. Bobby leaves the house for good and Gloria tries to explain to her husband that Bobby forced her to have sex with him. Vargas doesn’t believe her, beats her and then chains her to a post.
The locals want to lynch Morelos because they think he is the town murderer. Vargas disperses the Indians, but then tells Morelos and his wife that they have to leave town for their own safety. They agree and leave.
Without Morelos in his way, Vargas now raises taxes on the locals. And he changes the town constitution so that the mayoral term will be for twenty years instead of six with a maximum of four terms. Pek warns him that he is going too far and the mayor throws him into jail.
Families are leaving the village because of the excesses of the mayor. As Pek told him: "You are the worst mayor we’ve ever had."
Vargas lets his wife off the chain, but when she fixes him dinner he thinks she is trying to poison him. He chains his wife again.
Apparently Morelos talked to Lopez, because he and Sharkey pay a visit to Vargas. Pek tells Lopez that Vargas has gone quite mad. When Lopez speaks to Vargas, he is impressed by the extent of his evil accomplishments in the village. He then tells Vargas to turn all the town’s money over to him. Vargas returns to his house, accompanied by Sharkey, only to find that Gloria has fled with Bobby to the United States and taken all the money with her. Vargas slits Sharkey’s throat. He then returns to see Lopez and shoots him five times. He tells Lopez: "Sorry, but it’s me or you. . . . It’s Herod’s Law"
Vargas talks to the two dead bodies of Sharkey and Lopez propped up in chairs. While he talks, the Indians throw torches into the town hall to burn him alive. Vargas runs out of the building only to be chased by the Indians led by the priest and Pek. The law arrives looking for Lopez and Sharkey, accused of trying to assassinate Terrazas.
A new town mayor and his wife arrive in San Pueblo to start the cycle all over again. Ramirez is now the new Cleaning Department supervisor.
Vargas is now a congressman. He was credited with thwarting the Lopez conspiracy against Terrazas. Cynically, he gives a flowery speech about maintaining the revolutionary goals of his party to the congress.
Good movie. It is a very cynical one, but perhaps a cynical ending is the best for Mexican politics for the so-called democracy in Mexico has always been more fiction than real. We know from current headlines and Mexican movies that the Mexican political and justice system are rife with corruption and scandal.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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