Victimas del pecado [Victims of Sin] (1951)
In 1949 Emilio Fernandez made Pueblerina, painting a poetic mural as a tribute to Mexican rural culture. Two years later he made Victimas del pecado, which plunges us into the dark side of life in urban Mexico. Where the earlier film is is gentle and leisurely, Victimas is brutal and frenetic. Where the earlier film is illuminated by love and tenderness, Victimas is brimming with disgust and fear.
Aside from Touch of Evil, it’s the only film I’ve seen from the fifties that creates such a vivid, tactile picture of life at it’s harshest. And apparently censorship in Mexico back then was not as strict as it was in the US, because Vicitmas is racier and raunchier than any American movie I know of from that era.
The story starts of in a nightclub where Violeta dances. She finds out that one of the other dancers has dumped her newborn baby in a trash can at the insistence of her gangster boyfriend. Violeta rescues the baby, but ends up getting fired from the club. The roller coaster plot gets more and more complicated as we follow our dancer heroine through a series of harrowing reversals. The script could’ve used some trimming, but you won’t be bored. Fernandez’ script, based on a story by himself and Mauricio Magdaleno, keeps the over the top melodrama coming, and the images are framed and shot to create a feverish intensity. The film’s keyed up visuals are handled by Gabriel Figueroa, who brings richness and texture to the gritty images.
One aspect of the film that startled me was the interaction of blacks and whites in the clubs. American movies from the period generally keep black performers strictly segregated. Here not only are the bands integrated, but we see blacks and white dancing together. At one point Violeta brings a black musician onto the floor and they engage in one of the most overtly sexual dances I’ve ever seen on the screen. This is a film made in a Catholic country, where the church’s attitudes were extremely conservative. I’m amazed that Fernandez was able to get away with this stuff.
There’s an odd paradox in Victimas. Somehow it manages to be moralistic without being judgemental. Fernandez seems to believe that we’re all “victimas del pecado”, or victims of sin. The film seems to be saying that it’s not a crime to drink or take drugs or steal, but it is a crime not to have compassion for other people.
If Victimas is any indication, it appears that Fernandez was horrified by modern urban life. The serene, stately rhythms and expansive compositions of his earlier work give was to a rough and tumble approach that highlights the chaos and confusion of life in the city. Here he focusses on sprawling industrial zones, streets lined with prostitutes and crowded nightclubs. One of the nightclubs in named La Maquina Loca, or The Crazy Machine, and my feeling is that this is the director’s comment on modern cities. This feverish film portrays the city as a machine out of control, a monster that feeds on peoples’ worst impulses and grinds its victims down to dust, without even being aware of it.