Director Alfonso Arau has just wrapped an ambitious $10m biopic of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata - the most expensive Mexican film ever shot.

It's been a long and tortuous effort for Arau to get the film off the ground. Arau - whose magic realism drama Like Water For Chocolate was a global box office hit - first made the headlines with the Zapata film back in 1997 when Universal Pictures acquired all Latin American rights to the film.

Originally set to be shot in English, the budget for Zapata: The Hero's Dream was then $25m and French actor Vincent Perez was attached to play the revolutionary.

Other cast names bandied about were Jennifer Lopez, Edward James Olmos, Elpidia Carrillo (the female lead in Like Water For Chocolate) and Spanish actress Aitana Sanchez-Gijon.

Perez dropped out as the project start date kept being pushed back for myriad problems, including the demands for a completion bond. Through his sales company Seventh Dimension presided by sales veteran Shebnem Askin, Arau claimed to have collected $10m from international pre sales, starting at the AFM in 1998.

It's now been six years since Universal dropped out and Arau's aspirations for an international cast fell through. According to Arau, the pre sales agreements have also expired but these same companies will be given first crack at bidding for the project once it is ready.

Meanwhile private Mexican investors have mainly backed the project. "I didn't tap the funds of Imcine [Mexican film institute] because they are nearly depleted and I thought they'd best serve other filmmakers," he said.

When Arau decided to take the project back to Mexico, he soon discovered that although he had escaped the development hell of Hollywood, he faced even graver threats of kidnapping in Morelos, Zapata's hometown and the film's primary location site. A change in local government and a lower crime rate paved the way for the shoot.

Then Arau made two controversial decisions: he cast Alejandro Fernandez, a renowned Mariachi Mexican singer and pop icon with absolutely no acting experience and opted for a screenplay in Spanish and Nahuatl, an indigenous dialect of Aztec origin. Fernandez has had to learn Nahuatl as Arau's Zapata is supposed to have practised Shamanism and spoken the obscure dialect. These moves have irked historians and some of Zapata's descendants who argue that Zapata was a Spanish speaker who never practiced the ancient religion.

But Arau has two Oscar-winning aces up his sleeve, his loyal friends Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (who has Oscars for Apocalypse Now, Red, The Last Emperor) and Argentinian production designer Eugenio Zanetti (Restoration), who kept their promises to lend their expertise to the film.

The original co producers, Spain's Comala Films, also remain on board. Arau also has brought in Carlos Santana to contribute to the soundtrack.

"My manager tells me that this film would have cost $70m if I had made it in Hollywood," said Arau.

Battles scenes with hundreds of extras on horseback and CGI special effects also have inflated the budget of what is Mexico's most expensive film to date.

Local distributor Televicine has slated a release date of February 5. It remains to be seen whether Mexico and the rest of the world will agree with Arau's vision of the man who led the 1910 Mexican revolution.