Monthly Archives: November 2010

Pueblerina (1949)

Columba Dominguez

Pueblerina is one of the purest examples I’ve seen of film as poetry.  Director Emilio Fernandez takes a fairly simple story and uses it to present a panorama of rural Mexico.  His love for the people, the music, the landscape is evident in every frame.

The opening sequence sets the tone for the film.  A man is released from prison and begins his journey home.  In most films this would be handled with a few lines of dialogue and a quick succession of shots.  But Pueblerina has its own rhythm, and Fernandez wants to do far more than just tell a story.  We see the prison.  We see the man in his cell.  We see him walk out the gate.  He hitches a ride with some men on a cart.  A song is sung.  We see several shots of the cart rolling across the landscape.  The song continues.  Eventually the man arrives at his destination and gets off the cart.  Not a word of dialogue has been spoken.  Obviously Fernandez is in no hurry to get anywhere.  Beyond just telling the story, he wants to bring the viewer into the experience of rural Mexico.

The story is based on one of the central themes of Mexican popular culture.  It tells of a poor farmer who must confront an oppressive landowner.  The way Fernandez tells the story transforms it into a poetic myth.  He shoots the characters as monumental figures standing against dramatic landscapes.  The farmer and his wife are good, decent people, while the landowners are thoroughly corrupt and cruel.  The climax takes place as a thunderstorm rages.  It’s all bigger than life.  It’s all heartbreakingly beautiful.

Part of the reason it’s so beautiful is that Pueblerina was shot mostly on location by Gabriel Figueroa.  Much of the film is spent observing people moving across the land, working the land.  Figueroa photographs the fields, the mountains, the rivers with the same loving attention that he gives to the characters.  Antonio Diaz Conde contributes a dramatic score that emphasizes the grandeur of the landscape and the intensity of the emotions.  Since the film is a portrait of Mexican culture, there is a good deal of folk music.  A lover’s serenade sung to solo guitar, dance music at the town’s fiesta, a band playing for the bride and groom at a wedding.

The film is a fantasy.  Fernandez’ idealized portrait of the Mexican farmer isn’t grounded in reality, but in the country’s mythology.  The poor in Mexico have been exploited and oppressed for centuries.  Few manage to raise themselves out of poverty, let alone score the kind of spectacular triumph that the main character does here.  But in this film the director isn’t making a social drama or a political statement.  With Pueblerina Fernandez has created a sweeping poem that says little about his country’s reality, but a great deal about its soul.

Vamonos con Pancho Villa [Let’s Go with Pancho Villa] (1936)

It may not be the most uplifting look at Mexican history, but Vamonos con Pancho Villa (Let’s Go with Pancho Villa) is an effort to puncture destructive myths the have crippled the Mexican people.  Director Fernando de Fuentes confronts the tragedy of the “revolution” head on, and comes up with some disturbing observations about his countrymen.

We start with a rancher named Tiburcio, who is appalled at the state of things in his country.  Porfirio Diaz and his allies have taken control of most of Mexico’s land and resources, allowing a tiny elite class to live like kings while the  ordinary folk scrape by on what’s left.  Tiburcio decides that the only course of action is to join the revolutionary Pancho Villa.  He leaves his wife and children, riding off with his friends to fight with the rebels.

Tiburcio is an honest man seeking justice, but he is also naive.  Still worse, he and his friends believe that being a man means taking on any challenge, no matter how insane.  In order to prove how macho they are, Tiburcio and his comrades hurl themselves head first into a whirlpool of violence and destruction.  The results are predictable.

While Fuentes doesn’t shy away from the horror and the madness, he always keeps his characters human.  The story is a tragedy because it shows how good people can destroy themselves and the country they love, even when they sincerely believe in the cause they’re fighting for.

The script, by Fuentes and Xavier Villarrutia from the novel by Rafael Munoz, stays with the circle of friends as the war rages around them.  As the film goes on we get closer and closer to the characters, making it harder to watch as their numbers dwindle.  Fuentes direction is mostly simple and straightforward.  We don’t get the furious poetry or the epic sweep that Pudovkin or Ford might provide.  The photography, by Jack Draper and Gabriel Figueroa, catches some lovely moments, but mostly the camera is there to observe the action.

The most frustrating thing about the film is the sound quality.  It sucks.  This is bad enough when the dialogue is muddled.  It’s even worse when Silvestre Revueltas’ score gets mangled.  Part of the problem may be the print, but unfortunately Mexican filmmakers of the thirties didn’t have access to state of the art equipment.

The acting is mostly solid.  Antonio Frausto is well cast as Tiburcio, a good man whose illusions about the revolution are slowly stripped away.  The stand-out performance, though, is Domingo Soler as Pancho Villa.  Soler is lively and magnetic.  It’s easy to believe that people would be charmed into following him through the gates of hell.  And he convincingly shows Villa’s transformation from a defender of the poor into a savage egotist.  The “revolution” never really happened, in part because it was driven by charismatic leaders rather than a set of ideals.

Mexican Cinema

The first thing I want to write about is Mexican cinema.  There are a few reasons.  First, in recent years I’ve been watching a lot of Mexican films and a lot of what I’ve seen is really impressive.  Second, I get the sense that most people, even people who see a lot of movies, are completely unaware of the country’s film culture.  I sure as hell was.

And third, I feel like this is a good time to say something positive about Mexico.  The news has been full of horrible stories about the ongoing drug wars, the country’s economy is in terrible shape, and anti-immigrant sentiment is rising on this side of the border. 

All this as the country celebrates a couple of important anniversaries.  On September 16, Mexico marked two hundred years of independence.  The one hundredth anniversary of the revolution will be observed on November 20.  It’s important to say that both of these dates were chosen arbitrarily, and that their real meaning is pretty dubious.  Still, they have a lot of symbolic importance, and September 16 looms especially large in the country’s mythology.

So for the next several weeks, I’m going to be posting on Mexican films I’ve seen.  This won’t be an exhaustive survey, but hopefully it will give readers a rough idea of what’s out there.