Remember the first 10 minutes of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” when Hushpuppy was just running around with sparklers and the music was blaring and you were profoundly moved for reasons you couldn’t quite understand? Well, Viktor Jakovleski’s “Brimstone & Glory” is essentially the feature-length adaptation of that feeling. Produced and scored by “Beasts” mastermind Benh Zeitlin, this euphoric documentary is a veritable orgy of lights and sounds, a pyroclastic symphony of explosions in the sky that makes you happy to be alive, even if you’re not entirely sure why.
Largely experiential, though laced with pearls of narration that pull it back from being quite as impressionistic as the likes of “Baraka” or “Leviathan,” “Brimstone & Glory” opens with a title card that gives us most of the context we’ll need for the hour that follows. Every year, the Mexican town of Tultepec holds a week-long celebration of San Juan de Dios, a patron saint who supposedly rescued people from a burning hospital without getting a single burn on his body. The festivities center on two incredibly elaborate fireworks displays: The Castles of Fire and the Burning of the Bulls. Many of the participants survive.
In a film that mostly surrenders to pure spectacle, Jakovleski wants to make one thing very clear: That spectacle comes at a cost. The people of Tultepec are quite literally playing with fire. Not that they seem to mind. “We’re not chemists,” jokes one of the locals as he stuffs some explosives into a small metal sphere. “It’s all done in handfuls.” Of course, a good portion of the residents no longer have hands — one brief moment finds an old man using the nub at the end of his wrist to pack a sparkler full of tinder.
To outsiders, it’s madness. To the people of Tultepec, it’s a way of life. Not one that all of them approve of, necessarily, but one that they seem to accept.
It may not be a long life, but it sure is a beautiful one. Set to a percussive soundtrack that almost seems to sync with the fireworks and fill in the beats between blasts, “Brimstone & Glory” gets so close to the chaos that you can’t help but flinch. Cinematographer Tobias von den Borne watches from ground-level as men equipped with GoPros climb into the sky to build the Castles of Fire. Drones are judiciously used to capture the action when things really get heated and the crowd starts to swell. Later, when it’s time for the Burning of the Bulls, von den Borne mounts a camera atop a giant horned effigy as it’s steered into a crowd of onlookers, matadors of fire. One of the locals is permanently blinded when something explodes in his face. The paramedics react so calmly that it all feels like part of the show; maybe it is.
Structured like a fireworks display, with only a handful of small reprieves throughout, “Brimstone & Glory” naturally builds to a marvelous grand finale. It coheres into some kind of sense towards the end, especially when a young Tultepec boy assures us that “The scars on our skin are from when the saint reaches down and pulls from the fire.” You never feel more alive than when you’re dancing with death, and all that. Maybe there are better ways to achieve that mortal ecstasy, but — watching this utterly transfixing 67-minute film — you’d be hard-pressed to imagine what they might be.
In December of 2016, long after Jakovleski had left town, a fireworks explosion in Tultepec’s San Pablito Market killed 42 people.
“Brimstone & Glory” is now playing in Los Angeles. It opens in New York City on Wednesday, November 22.