The Proposal (2019)

Mexican-born Luis Barragan was known as “the artist among architects” and, when he died in 1988, most of his professional work was locked away in a Swiss bunker, never to be seen again. In 2013, artist and first time feature filmmaker Jill Magid began a campaign to make Barragan’s catalog available to the public once again in “The Proposal.”

Laura's Review: B+

Fledgling filmmaker Jill Magid enjoys challenging power structures, so when she heard that the professional archives of Mexico's most famous architect, Luis Barragán, had been inaccessible since his death in 1988 and his intellectual property copyrights controlled by Swiss furniture company Vitra, she began The Barragán Project. Her documentary, which completes that project, immerses us in Barragán's aesthetic while she concocts a plot to expose the censorship of an artist's legacy with "The Proposal." There is a lot to admire about Jill Magid's work here. It is far more than a documentary, more a filmed piece of political performance art. That Magid manages to instill an appreciation for Barragán's work is remarkable, as she does it while documenting that Vitra has such a stranglehold on it, that a photographer who owns the rights to his own photos of the architect's work has no right to circulate them. And yet, in order to make her ultimate point, Magid stages such a distasteful and underhanded publicity stunt, one which hadn't a chance in hell of achieving her ultimate goal, that it makes for a conflicted viewing experience. "The Proposal" left me feeling manipulated from both a cinematic and intellectual perspective. Magid reads a letter written to Barragán Foundation head Federica Zanco about gaining access and we hear Zanco's polite denial. This will be repeated from Barragán's Mexican home, where Magid takes up residence to study the personal archive still in Mexico's possession. We hear the history of how the professional archive was offered for sale yet received no interest until after it had been swept up. Magid claims to be charmed by the story of how Federica Zanco, hearing of the archive's availability for $2.5 million, asked Vitra's owner, who had just proposed, to buy it as her engagement gift. But the woman who publicly claimed she'd begin to make it available within a couple of years still hadn't let anyone see it twenty years later, using the excuse of her own academic work. Furthermore, she'd stifled a documentary project and other works of appreciation for Barragán. Barragán, whose home was declared a World Heritage site and whose Torres de Satélite (recently featured in the Mexican film "Museo") tower above Mexico City, used severe angles, color and water features to create a feeling of serenity, something Magid finds in his home with its natural lava staircase and walls built to catch the shadows of trees. She had permission to film in the chapel he created, but is denied by a nun citing copyrights. So Magid tried another tactic with Federica - seduction. She continues writing letters, no longer asking for access to the collection, instead sharing her own work on the architect, one way gifts coupled with psychological manipulation. She's angling for a face-to-face meeting, but what she's planned is a shocker, a gruesome condemnation of the commodification of art masquerading as a lover's gift. Thankfully, Magid involved Barragán's family in her plot and it is, frankly, surprising that they went along with it. We are witness to its stages, if not brought in on her final move, and the film takes on a Lynchian tone, tiny ants crawling in closeup, the jazz score conveying doom. The documentary Magid's most reminded me of was the ground-breaking "Capturing the Friedmans," another work assembled like a piece of mystery theater, its purpose not just to relay information in the most artistic manner possible but to astonish us by just what it has withheld. Grade:

Robin's Review: B+

This efficiently told documentary is really two works in one. It tells the story of Luis Barragan and his architectural art, of course. Mainly, though, it is about filmmaker Magid’s quest to open the architect’s professional catalog to the public and bring it home to his native Mexico. There is a bit of a detective story going on in Magid’s quest to get access to Barragan’s professional archives and their return to the people of his native country. This quest begins in Brooklyn, New York as the filmmaker reaches out to the archive curator and owner, Federica Zanco, in a letter. The request is rebuffed – thanks but no thanks. This begins Magid’s (and our) journey that brings her to Casa Luis Barragan, the designer’s home and studio in Mexico City. She is there to study his personal archives and gets to know more of the man. The correspondence with Zanco continues, with each request getting the same reply – a polite “no,” because Magid’s study is “artistic” and Zanco’s “scholarly” and never the twain shall meet. What could have been a self-indulgent project – Magid is on-camera for much of the documentary – is, instead, the story of an artist’s commitment to bring back Barragan’s work to his country and its people. She inhabits his home, studies his work and his personal life – his art collection includes Picasso and Diego Riviera – and solicits the Barragan family to allow her to collect a sample of the architect’s ashes – to make a diamond! Magid’s passion and perseverance for her quest is not a done deal. But, watching the process unfold makes me know that she will succeed.