"A handful of this, a handful of that." That's one of the interview subjects in a new documentary about Mexican fireworkmakers, speaking about the relaxed recipe used to make the combustible powder for pyrotechnic devices. After all, the man says, "We're not chemists."
The feature debut of director Viktor Jakovleski, the film "Brimstone & Glory" looks at the city of Tultepec, the so-called fireworks capital of Mexico, during the National Pyrotechnic Festival. That celebration — essentially the city's high holy days — has its roots in the festival of St. John of God, patron saint of fireworkmakers and (coincidentally) firefighters. There are two main elements to the celebration: "castillos," or huge frames of wood and firework-laced paper, which flame and spark for up to 30 minutes; and the "pamplonada," in which teams of fireworkmakers build giant bull effigies, which they ignite and carry through the city streets — the attached fireworks exploding as they run.
Jakovleski's film features some admirable cinematography, including the use of a super-high-speed camera that catches sparks against a dark night sky. He also outfits some of the fireworkmakers with head-mounted cameras, providing vertiginous views as they scale 30-foot-tall scaffolding with no safety equipment. Perhaps most unnervingly, one of the workers smokes a cigarette near a castillo, using it to light the fuse.
"Brimstone & Glory's" greatest grace comes from its subjects, whom Jakovleski neither patronizes nor fetishizes. Instead, he shows them as he might any group of blue-collar workers in a dangerous industry that is a town's only way to make a living. Early in the film, a preteen boy says that he doesn't want to go into the family business because he knows it's dangerous. At the end, though, we see his eyes shining as he looks up at a sky studded with sparks. It's easy to imagine him wondering what kind of stars of his own he might one day create.
Unrated. At Landmark's West End Cinema. Contains mild coarse language and a close-up of a burned eyeball. In Spanish with subtitles. 67 minutes.