The opening scene of Redes, the groundbreaking 1936 film directed by Fred Zinnemann and Emilio Gómez Muriel, shows a man casting a net in to the ocean and pulling it in to find only a single tiny fish he throws back. The fish are late to the village’s waters this year, and so there is no work.
We soon learn his son is sick, and he has no money for the trip to the hospital. Hat in hand, he asks the mustachioed businessman who runs the town for help and is turned down. The scene fades through black directly to the funeral procession carrying the tiny casket. His wife in black watches their son’s burial from atop a nearby tomb. “It’s not right for a child to die because his father couldn’t pay to cure him” Miro says after helping to shovel dirt on his son’s casket.
The man’s name is Miro — I look in Spanish — and he does look. Much of the film is without dialogue, allowing the acclaimed score by Slivestre Revueltas to tell us what Miro is feeling as he broods over the injustice.
In the U.S. in 2020, it is hard not to see the death of Miro’s son as our 167,133 (and counting) Covid-19 deaths; the businessman who refuses to do anything about it, Trump. Or perhaps the businessman is the larger system, and Trump is the flunky politician bought and paid for by the fishing village oligarch.
“You call it bad luck. I call it misery.” Miro says to the politician.
But Miro has a plan. He calls for a meeting of all the fishermen. He calls for the fishermen to resist.
Half the village follows Miro, the other half follows the lead of another fisherman, Miguel, who stays to listen when politician speaks to the crowd after Miro in his “make the fishing village great again” hat. Earlier Miguel expresses a belief that things will never change, that resistance, “would make no difference. The big fish always win.”
Miro and Miguel’s men end up fighting each other while the oligarch’s lackeys pick up the fish on the ground Miro was withholding for higher pay. Commerce and profits keep flowing while the oligarch-seeded infighting among the working class continues, answering the question one of the men posed earlier, “Who’s more stupid? Man or fish?”
More tragedy ends the fighting, but the film finds a hopeful note in the end as Miguel’s faction sees the error of their ways. The workers, united, speed towards the village in their armada of fishing boats — presumedly to crush capitalism — though Revueltas’ heroic score suggests the result of the battle to come after the closing credits is far from certain.
The cinematographer of Redes is Paul Strand, famous as a pioneer of modernist still photography. He began shooting photographs in Mexico in 1932 at the invitation of composer/conductor Carlos Cháves, who was then working for a government arts program. The two originally conceived of the film as a documentary in line with Strand’s interest in photographing working-class life. He shot much of the film at a low angle: grim faces, boats, muscled arms and backs, and dead fish are stark and isolated against the sky in the same minimalist style of Strand’s still photography. Again, the sparse dialogue allows the eyes to focus on art in scene after scene.
My friend Stephanie chose Redes for Las Kikas Cine Club, which normally meets in Brooklyn. During the Coronavirus shutdown it has opened to the world via videoconference. It is a good way to reflect on film: watch at your convenience, discuss the film for an hour or two at a set time, practice Spanish along the way. As we’ve all become accustomed to jumping in to far-flung conversations like this over video from our quarantine bubbles, I’m hopeful the connections will pull us all closer together, like the fishing net, or network the word redes translates to. And hopefully those connections will help us overthrow the fish market oligarch this November.