A bracingly pessimistic drama of societal breakdown and day-after-tomorrow dystopia, Michel Franco’s “New Order” spares no one: not the entitled rich, not the downtrodden poor, not the youths setting fire to the streets, not the police and army rounding them up for torture. It’s as bleak as movies get, but there’s undeniable power in watching an artist commit to the darkest possible vision of human civilization. It gives voice to our worst fears and makes all the good news sound naive.
The film opens with shock images of violence erupting in Mexico City: It’s not a revolution so much as a boiling over of underclass rage. Elsewhere, in the walled-off grounds and home of a wealthy developer, a wedding is taking place, and the guests arrive bearing envelopes of cash and the gentility of those protected by their wealth. The bride, Marianne (Naian González Norvind), wears a bright red pantsuit, while some of the guests show up splashed with green paint, the color of the revolution. That those are the colors of the Mexican flag is not coincidental.
The first act of “New Order” plays as class farce with sharpened teeth. A political power player, Victor (Enrique Singer), arrives, and the other men obsequiously defer. The maids and cooks and butlers trade gossip. Rolando (Eligio Meléndez), who once worked for the family, turns up at the gate needing a large sum of money to give his wife, also an ex-employee, a life-saving operation. Only Marianne heeds his pleas — she’s always been so good with the help — and leaves the celebration with Cristián (Fernando Cuautle), the son of the maid Marta (Mónica del Carmen). They drive through increasingly chaotic city streets.
Back home the walls are breached and there are barbarians in the wedding garden, at which point Franco lets loose all constraints. The scenes that follow are horrifying in their depiction of social collapse, of servants turning against employers, of chickens coming home to roost, and of a city and a country devouring itself in an orgy of violence, rape, and revenge. If there’s a message here, it’s that those who place their faith in human nature, no matter their class, are doomed, while those who seek out the centers of power will live to see another day. Also that a people’s revolution will almost certainly become a general’s coup sooner or later. History rarely proves that last one wrong.
“New Order” invokes comparisons to Kubrick at his most dyspeptic; it’s also been likened to Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning “Parasite,” a comparison that does no one any favors. Both those films address class war, but that’s it; where Bong employs a scalpel, Franco wields a blowtorch. If anything, the new movie is a cinematic fresco with nods to Hieronymus Bosch and to the modernist artwork on the rich man’s walls; according to the credits, the latter is by Omar Rodríguez-Graham and it’s called “Only the Dead Have Seen the End of War.”
Such undiluted nihilism can turn glib. The characters of the early scenes in “New Order” become the sacrificial stick-figures of the final moments, and the film’s dichotomy of a light-skinned European upper class versus a brown, indigenous underclass is simplistic enough that Franco was roasted by critics and commentators in Mexico for his perceived racism. It’s easy to imagine a worst-case scenario for humanity without taking the trouble to imagine any solutions. Yet the film remains impossible to shake, so rare are the stories we’re told that refuse to cushion the blow and so close do this story’s blows come to where we live now. The scariest aspect of “New Order” is that in 2021 it doesn’t feel far-fetched at all.
Written and directed by Michel Franco. Starring Naian González Norvind, Diego Boneta, Fernando Cuautle. In Spanish, with subtitles. At Boston Common. 86 minutes. R (disturbing and violent content, rape, graphic nudity, language).