Magic Words (To Break a Spell) Chronicles Nicaragua’s 40-Year Political Turmoil


With its ability to jump across vast swaths of time in an instant, cinema is uniquely capable of creating complex historical narratives that use the past to comment on the present, and vice versa.

Such a narrative is presented in Magic Words (To Break a Spell), Mercedes Moncada Rodríguez’s chronicle of Nicaragua’s political turmoil spanning the past 40 years. Like Chris Marker, whose influence bears heavily upon the film, Rodríguez is interested in collapsing time in order to highlight how nations so often see the same political currents recede and then return.

Rodriguez dramatically illustrates the similarities between the U.S.-backed regime of dictator Anastasio Somoza, whom the Sandinistas overthrew in 1979, and the current regime of Daniel Ortega, a Sandinista who has come to resemble the dictator he helped depose. The film’s continual shuttling back and forth in time illuminates how history both repeats and inverts itself.

Yet Magic Words is not merely a condemnation of the current government; it also bears witness to the struggles of Nicaraguans trying to better their circumstances over the decades. Rodriguez — again recalling Marker — understands remembering as an ethical imperative, the foundation that supports those struggling against oppressive regimes.

In one deeply moving archival clip, an interviewer asks a young Sandinista if he’s afraid to die in the struggle. “I’m not afraid,” he responds, “because I know this will become history.” It certainly has.