All stories have to begin somewhere. Brimstone & Glory, a documentary about Mexico’s week-long National Pyrotechnics Festival, takes place in modern-day Tultepec, but its origins lie on the other side of the Atlantic, in Portugal specifically, at the end of the 15th century with the birth of João Duarte Cidade: or, John of God.

Born March 8, 1495, Cidade was both a believer and a wanderer. From Portugal to Spain to Africa and back to Granada, Cidade cared for the sick and the poor, once running into a burning building to rescue those trapped inside. He died in 1550, and a century later, Cidade was canonized as San Juan de Dios, patron saint of hospitals, nurses, firefighters, alcoholics, booksellers, the sick, and firework makers.

Little of this backstory is found in Brimstone & Glory, but what happens on screen is so compelling you leave itching to know more. Sometimes knowing why things are happening isn’t nearly as exciting as wondering. That seems to be director Viktor Jakovleski’s overall aim in this immersive and captivating work, one that favors the immediacy of an art film over the explanation of a documentary.

Here’s what we learn from the movie: Half of Mexico’s fireworks are crafted in Tultepec. Crafted and not manufactured because you won’t find assembly lines or heavy machinery putting together the goods in Brimstone & Glory. Instead, the focus is on the people who make and assemble the fireworks by hand in a tradition passed down from generation to generation. A tradition based on intuition: “A handful of this, a handful of that,” one firework maker jokes.

There is an enviable casualness to their work. While an old-timer tapes a cherry bomb together, we can’t help but gawk at his hands, clearly crippled from an explosion. However, it’s not slowing him down. While he works, another is taught to slowly mix gunpowder by hand so as not to create too much friction.

The casualness of craft gives way to the chaos of creation when the residents of Tultepec recreate San Juan’s heroic inferno with fireworks galore. These two celebrations, Día de los Castillos (Day of the Castles of Fire) and Día de los Toros (Day of the Bulls), are a form of penance for the residents of Tultepec. One subject refers to the scars the fireworks leave as the places where “the saint reaches down to pull us from the fire.” Others believe burns that occur during the festival will protect them for the rest of the year.

Jakovleski passes no judgment. Instead, the director revels in their festival, placing his cameras as close to the action as possible, and dances among the sparks with everyone else. Some shots are taken with the Phantom camera’s seductive slow motion. Others play out in real-time with the enchanting kinetics. At a lean 67 minutes, Brimstone & Glory leaves you fascinated and hungry for more. When was the last time you watched a documentary and left with more questions than answers? When that happens, you know you saw something special. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Brimstone & Glory (2017)
Directed by Viktor Jakovleski
Produced by Casey Coleman, Affonso Gonçalves, Antontio Tonitzin Gómez, Viktor Jakovleski, Dan Janvey, Erdem Karahan, Kellen Quinn, Elizabeth Lodge Stepp, Benh Zeitlin
Oscilloscope, Not rated, Running time 67 minutes, Premiered March 2, 2017 at the True/False Festival.

The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 25, No. 16, “Out of the frying pan.”