Hold on to your Roman candle, forget Burning Man, the National Pyrotechnic Festival in Tultepec, Mexico, is the place to watch things fantastically explode.
A truly beautiful and even hypnotic experience, “Brimstone & Glory” is a cinéma vérité documentary that chronicles the preparation for a very unusual and dangerous fireworks celebration. Set in Tultepec, Mexico, filmmaker Viktor Jakovleski works with cinematographer Tobias von dem Borne to cover an event in honor of San Juan de Dios, the patron saint of firework makers. Since most of the townspeople are employed in the fireworks industry, such a celebration makes complete sense, even though the event itself seems rather chaotic.
In addition to the fine camera work which remarkably captures some of the finest pyrotechnic displays perhaps ever filmed, the narrative gets somewhat into the history behind the festival. But instead of spoon feeding us, director Jakovleski lets the subjects discuss their passion giving us takes from various perspectives—young and old. The gunpowder that is often on display stains the hands of the workers, and, as it is suggested by one subject, the powder is literally in their blood.
The craftsmanship involved is impressive. The festival takes place over 10 days, and we’re introduced to several artisans involved. One of the days features massive towers, referred to as castles, that burn intricately with spinning wheels with hundreds if not thousands of color combinations. Armies of skilled craftsman assemble the towers braving unsafe conditions in order to raise their enormous towers.
Meanwhile, other artists build huge paper mache bulls that will be rolled throughout the streets of the town. This particular night of the festival has the bulls burned with fireworks that crackle with sparks engulfing the participants. And it burns them!
The festival is damned dangerous. And the government is shown preparing for the injures that are inevitable. It is crazy, because this festival could burn the entire town to the ground. At points in the film, we see people throwing buckets of water on fires burning near buildings. At other times, partiers, even very young ones, are shown being treated for serious burns. But the partying continues despite the obvious dangers.
While the fireworks demonstrations are the draw here, I wanted to learn more about the history of the town and its relationship to pyrotechnics. In one scene, we see an old man packing a large ball, described as a “bomb,” with gunpowder. He has lost one of his hands. We aren’t given any information on this worker, but I couldn’t help but speculate as to how that hand went missing.
“Brimstone & Stone” is one of the most visually stunning and strangely inspiring films of the year.