El Mariachi: Robert Rodriguez Low Budget Actioner

No festival is true to its name, if it doesn’t discover at least one remarkable film made on a shoestring budget. As was demonstrated in both the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals, last year’s record was achieved by the young American Robert Rodriguez’ El Mariachi, a Spanish-speaking feature sporting a total budget of $7,000!

This actioner tells the story of an escaped convict with a contract out on him and a traveling mariachi player, both arriving in a Mexican town identically dressed in black and carrying similar guitar cases. With one difference: The mariachi is carrying his beloved guitar, whereas the hitman’s case contains an assortment of deadly weapons.

After the mariachi is mistaken for the hitman, he is taken in by a beautiful bar owner and a relationship of guarded trust develops between them. Set in a Mexican border town, the energetic tale is not devoid of humor–and pathos too. The expected mix-up provides some excellent chase scenes, gritty violence, and an imposing doom at the end.

El Mariachi demonstrates charm and also proves Rodriguez’ inventiveness as a storyteller. The film’s stylish pacing of tension and good humor made it a crowd-pleaser in every festival I attended over the last year.

What’s amazing about this small picture is not just its minuscule budget, but also the fact that it is practically a one-man show. Rodriguez not only directed the film and did the editing and sound, he also co-produced and co-wrote it (with Carlos Gallardo). Born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, Rodriguez says he showed an interest in cartooning and filmmaking from early childhood. For his first, award-winning short, Bedhead, he conveniently used a “ready-made” cast: his four brothers and five sisters.

Columbia grabbed the film for distribution and invested some money in polishing its post-production values. Rumors continue to circulate in town that El Mariachi will be remade in English.