A kind of poetic essay, rich in imagination and a macabre sense of humour, this is neither a narrative film nor a documentary. The Secret Formula is based on texts written especially for the film by Juan Rulfo and it deservedly won the 1st prize in the First Experimental Cinema Competition.
The film examines the cultural and economic effects of foreign influences in Mexico, questioning national identity, power structures and religious beliefs.The Secret Formula, which at first Gamez wanted to call Coca Cola in the Blood, was one of the films that set a new course for experimental cinema in the 1960s.
This is not an easy film. It’s obscure, relatively unknown, and practically impenetrable. Director Rubén Gámez would go on to make only one more film, and, after this odd, surrealist, confounding opera prima, some viewers may express relief at the fact.
La Fórmula Secreta recalls both the dreamscapes of Un Chien Andalou and the montage of Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. It is virtually wordless, save for a poem by author Juan Rulfo and smatterings of cryptic narration. There’s no story to speak of, and even the individual fragments never make much sense, unlike a similarly difficult film like Tarkovsky’s The Mirror, where the unifying thread is likewise murky, but the separate fragments are frequently easy to follow.
In the opening scene of La Fórmula Secreta, the camera does circles around the Zócalo, the historic plaza at the center of Mexico City, while on the ground we see the unconvincing shadow of what is meant to be a bird. What does this image mean? Does it hope to convey freedom, an escape from the formal conventions that enslave those at ground level? But this particular bird – and the camera anchored to its flight – can only perform circles a few feet above the ground. It never takes off, forever trapped by gravity.
Following this introduction, the movie goes on to portray the lives of common people tangled up in the coils of their surroundings. After several vignettes, La Fórmula Secreta reveals itself to be a litany of misery, peopled by slaves chained to their lifestyles, like the flightless bird who pathetically circles the Zócalo.
Early on, we see a man stacking bags atop a truck. He finds a woman lying unconscious on the ground and stacks her along as if she were an object. He then jumps onto the stacked bags himself and waits until the truck, with him and the woman on it, begins moving through the freeway. At that point, the woman wakes up and defeats all our expectations by deciding to kiss the man. Is this an irreverent flourish? Or is it the story of a man escaping his job to conquer eternal love?
We then run into a group of farmers. One of them stands next to the camera, but the camera tries to look away, panning left and right, in a shameful attempt to ignore the truth in front of it. But the farmer has something to say and he stubbornly walks back into the frame, over and over again, until the camera is obligated to gaze onward and pay attention. The farmers are tired and they are dying, says our advocate for the rural vanished. Meanwhile, we watch images of broken men prostrated in piles amidst the crevices of undulating dunes.
La Fórmula Secreta continues to dash along in its improvisatory spirit. We enter a schoolyard, appear inside a slaughterhouse, and finally run out into the city streets, where a cowboy ropes in pedestrians as if they were livestock. Viewers are asked to consider how they would feel if humans were treated like animals. We have already seen a woman maneuvered like a bag. Earlier in the film, we also saw a boy carrying what looked to be a skinned cow across the length of his bending back, until the cow magically morphed into both a woman and a man. Gámez inverts the hierarchies that rule in the animal kingdom, like in Planet of the Apes, making humans the victims of the very savagery they have inflicted upon “lesser” species since time immemorial.
After so much incendiary imagery, the film closes with its most explicit protest, a long list of American companies, reinforcing its recurring motif of the Coca-Cola bottle. One of the working titles for La Fórmula Secreta was, in fact, Coca-Cola en la sangre, or Coca-Cola in the Blood. We can insert this final outburst into the film’s larger pattern. Big capitalism – the cowboy with the rope – ensnares the people of the world into lives of fear and servility, turning them, thus, into animals.