Monthly Archives: September 2015
When the history of America is told, it’s often portrayed as a series of movements, driven by the people, pushing this country slowly toward an ideal of justice and equality for all. I’d like to believe it was true. But really, that version doesn’t begin to tell the whole story.
At the beginning of The Departed, we see images of the violence that erupted in Boston in the seventies when the courts ordered desegregation of the city’s schools. As scenes of chaotic street clashes flash past, we hear a voice telling us how the Irish and the Italians fought to get their piece of America. The narrator’s advice to the Black community is simple.
“No one gives it to you. You have to take it.”
We may not like to think of America this way, but much of the country’s history was written by various warring factions taking power any way they could. This is how the great factories of the industrial era grew. This is how the unions got the factory owners to make concessions. It’s how the country expanded its territory from coast to coast. It’s how our cities were built. It’s nice to think that the US became a world power because of our belief in principles like freedom and democracy, but usually those principles take a back seat to ruthless self-interest.
Director Martin Scorsese has explored this territory before. While morality is crucial to his vision, he knows that high principles often get trampled underfoot in the day to day rat race. He’s fascinated by characters who struggle to survive in a corrupt world, and he doesn’t offer those characters easy choices. The issues aren’t laid out in black and white. It’s not that simple. While The Departed could be described as a story about cops and robbers, the relationship between the two is so complex and incestuous that it makes it difficult to tell the good guys from the bad guys. They’re all rolling around in the mud together.
It’s been widely reported that The Departed was inspired by a thriller from Hong Kong called Infernal Affairs, but there’s another source that’s also important. Much of the story is based on the real life career of crime boss Whitey Bulger, who ran most of the illegal activity in Boston for years. Being from Boston himself, screenwriter William Monohan was the perfect choice to take the earlier film’s outline and work it into this new context. And this isn’t just a matter of being familiar with the city. Monahan knows the people, he knows the culture, he knows the life.
Like any city, Boston is made up of various overlapping groups. The Irish have a long history there. And as with any ethnic group, the Irish are divided into different sub-groups. You’ve got the working class guys who live on the south side and cling ferociously to their customs and their culture. Then you’ve got the upper class guys who want to climb into the cozy world of high-end condos and pricey restaurants. And then you’ve got the guys who are stuck in between.
That’s the crux of the conflict in The Departed. It starts with two young men brought up on the south side, both of them desperate to get out. Their escape route takes them to the state police academy, where they both graduate with high marks, but the paths they follow put them on opposite sides of the law. Colin is a mole working for crime boss Frank Costello. Bill is a straight arrow cop assigned to infiltrate Costello’s gang. This symmetrical pairing, the crook playing cop and the cop playing crook, could’ve ended up being a simplistic gimmick. But Monahan reaches deep into these characters, pulling away layer after layer, showing us what makes these two “southies” tick.
Colin is picked up by crime boss Frank Costello as a kid and groomed for the role he’s going to play. Frank is no simpleminded thug. He knows that to stay ahead of the law he needs to have inside information, so he sends Colin to school knowing that he’ll rise quickly in the state police. And Colin has no qualms about playing the role, using his intelligence and his education to build the kind of life he’s always wanted. He dresses well, dines at fine restaurants, and buys a condo that has a view of the Massachusetts State House. Colin gazes out the window at the gold dome that caps the dignified, classical structure. It symbolizes everything he wants, and he’s certain that he can have it all, if he just plays his cards right.
Bill, on the other hand, is an honest man who spends his days with thieves and murderers. He’s chosen for the job, in part, because he learned early on how to adapt to different environments. His parents’ separation meant that even as a kid he led a double life, playing the good student and dutiful son when he was with his mother, then playing the roughneck southie when he hung out with his dad. Bill joined the state police hoping to put all that behind him. He has no family and he wants to start a new life. Unfortunately, his background makes him the perfect choice to infiltrate Costello’s gang.
Thrust into this role, the lawman/thug, means the conflict that’s always troubled him is now at the center of his life. Bill thinks he can handle it, he wants to do the job, but really he’s falling apart. Being from Boston, being Irish, being a man, he tries to play it tough, insisting he has nerves of steel. When he’s by himself, though, he’s popping pills to numb the pain. He has no family. No friends. Even his identity is a question mark. Only his two superiors know who he really is. When one of them dies and the other disappears, Bill is completely isolated.
Questions about identity are at the heart of The Departed. The two main characters are both living a lie. Bill does it from a sense of duty, but Colin does it to get what he wants. He has carefully constructed the persona he presents to the world. Smart and ambitious, he knows that he can rise through the ranks if he maintains the proper image. His boss tells him marriage is one of the keys to success, and Colin, already understanding that, zeros in on a psychologist who works with law enforcement. Does he care for her? Maybe. Will she be useful? Absolutely.
Scorsese has made gangster movies before, but The Departed is very different from Mean Streets or Goodfellas. In those earlier films he used vivid color and kinetic camerawork to pull us into the mobsters’ world. The Departed is much more subdued. Obviously, the look and feel of Boston sets the tone to a degree, but production designer Kristi Zea and art director Terri Carriker-Thayer use the city to create a world of muted colors and subtle hues. The dark wood and weathered brick of the south side is contrasted with the clean, conservative blues and greys that define the offices of the state police. This is carried further by costume designer Sandy Powell. Colin’s crisp suits show that he’s dressing for success, while Bill’s denim jackets and work boots make him fit right in on the south side. In addition, we see all the characters wearing a variety of baseball caps and sweatshirts to let us know whose side they’re taking. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, a veteran of several Scorsese films, seamlessly weaves all this into a coherent, unobtrusive visual fabric. Ballhaus’ cinematography is impressive in its simplicity and directness. He always finds the right tone without ever calling attention to his work.
The movie is called The Departed, and when death isn’t in the foreground it’s hovering in the background. Aside from the parade of corpses and caskets, the characters often talk about those who’ve passed away. Frank asks a man in a bar how his mother’s doing, and the man answers that she’s on her way out. “We all are,” Frank responds jovially. “Act accordingly.” In the final scenes, bodies pile up left and right. At times the killings happen so quickly it takes a minute to figure out what went down. This is one of Scorsese’s most cynical films. There are no winners. By the end of the movie, almost all of the principals are among the departed. In the final shot, the director gives us an image of a golden dome rising in the background as a rat scurries across a railing in the foreground. A symbol of human aspiration side by side with a symbol of human frailty. And in the end, it all adds up to the same thing.
In the late forties Mexico was changing rapidly. Industrial growth fueled the economy. Thousands abandoned their farms for manufacturing jobs in the city, where construction was booming and mass media was becoming a part of daily life. Of course, all of this meant that the culture was changing, too, and the family was a central part of Mexican culture.
Buoyed by the booming economy, the Mexican film industry was riding high, and family dramas were a popular genre. A number of movies were made about the pressures that drove mothers and fathers, sons and daughters apart, but generally everything came together in a happy ending that reinforced the importance of traditional values. This was a Catholic nation, after all. If a son strayed from the straight and narrow, he had to repent. If a daughter disrespected her parents, she had to beg forgiveness. No matter how bad things got, order had to be restored before the music swelled up and the credits rolled.
It was unusual in this era for a Mexican filmmaker to question those traditional beliefs that supposedly held society together, but that’s exactly what Alejandro Galindo does in Una familia de tantas. In this film Galindo presents a portrait of a middle-class family living a comfortable life in Mexico City. He shows us first the rigid discipline that holds the family together, and then he shows us how that same rigid discipline tears the family apart.
The Cataños are a typical middle-class family of the period. The five children and their parents live in a large house which is run with an iron hand by Sr. Cataño. He dominates the household, insisting that all the proprieties be observed. A child is not to leave the room without permission. No one sits down at the dinner table without saying a prayer. When he gives a command the children scamper to obey.
And this rigid order is overthrown by a young man selling vacuum cleaners. This smooth-talking salesman with an answer for everything belongs to a new breed. Roberto is hard-working and ambitious, and smart enough to see the potential in the household appliances which are now becoming available to anyone with money to spend. He goes door to door, speaking with such glib assurance that his customers don’t know quite how to respond. He invites himself into the Cataño house when one of the daughters, Maru, is home alone, never thinking that this would be improper. He is only focussed on selling her a vacuum cleaner.
When Sr. Cataño finds out that Maru was alone in the house with a stranger he’s furious. After learning that this brash young man is coming back in the evening to seal the deal, Sr. Cataño can hardly wait for the encounter so he can overwhelm the intruder with outraged indignation. And when Roberto arrives, the self-righteous patriarch lays into him with an angry lecture. But he’s met his match. Roberto at first tries to politely calm the outraged father, but when it’s suggested his motives for entering the house were improper, he becomes outraged himself. And when he mentions that he’s supporting his widowed mother, Sr. Cataño is taken aback. The stern patriarch’s own values make him suddenly docile. Being a devout Catholic, he understands that respect for motherhood trumps everything.
And of course, he ends up buying the vacuum cleaner.
It’s important to say that Sr. Cataño isn’t fundamentally bad. He loves his children and wants the best for them. It’s just that he’s so completely immersed in the rigid culture that shaped him, he sees any deviation as a sin that must be corrected. Because his children are afraid of him, there’s a wall between them. When he talks, they listen. When he asks them a question, he will only accept the response he considers correct. As a result, he’s completely isolated from his own family. He has no idea what’s going on in their lives.
The story is centered on Maru, the young woman who was unfortunate enough to let a salesman in the house. She’s fifteen years old, and her family is her whole world. That world is dominated by her father. She would never think of challenging him. But then Roberto enters Maru’s life and her world starts to change. Roberto talks to her about his ambitions, his hopes, his fears, and she has no idea how to respond. No man has ever talked to her this way before. She’s completely stunned when he asks her what she thinks. No one has ever asked for her opinion.
Maru’s quinceañera, the celebration of her fifteenth birthday, is a hugely important event. As is traditional, Sr. Cataño throws an elaborate party to mark his daughter’s passage to womanhood. He dances the first dance with her, stiff and stately, but obviously proud of Maru. Afterward, he makes a dignified speech about the importance of this moment in a young woman’s life, and the responsibilities that she must fulfill. In his mind, her future is completely settled. He’s got it all figured out.
Unfortunately, this is where everything starts to fall apart. Maru is already is in love with Roberto, and deeply unhappy about the fact that Sr. Cataño has already chosen another suitor for her. But she’s shaken to the core when her father beats her older sister savagely over a suspected breach of propriety. From this point on she gradually realizes that she has two choices. She can go on living in fear, or she can run for freedom.*
As Maru, Martha Roth gives a remarkable performance. Her transition from obedient child to defiant woman takes place in a very short time, but Roth makes it completely believable. Maru is riding an emotional rollercoaster, and we have to ride it with her. There are many moments when the film could veer off into melodrama, but Roth always keeps it real. David Silva seems completely at home on the screen, but without the self-consciousness that some stars betray. He has a presence that makes him the center of attention, and at the same time he’s completely absorbed in the role he’s playing. Roberto may be a fast talking salesman, but Silva shows us that he also has other sides. Eugenia Galindo plays Sra. Cataño expertly. She knows better than anyone the price for confronting Sr. Cataño, and the actress shows us the struggle that goes on within her as she slowly realizes the cost of her husband’s authoritarian attitudes. The director was fortunate to have Fernando Soler playing the father. In the hands of a less gifted actor, Sr. Cataño could have become nothing more than a monster. Soler plays the role forcefully, and at times he’s terrifying, but he also brings depth to the character, allowing us to see the moments of doubt and uncertainty that make him human.
Honestly, the entire cast is excellent. Galindo shows his skill with actors, not only eliciting fine individual performances, but making the ensemble feel like a real family. The morning chaos in the bathroom, the subtle glances at the dinner table, the whispered conversations behind closed doors, all add up to a richly detailed portrayal of life in a middle class household. As for the visuals, Galindo’s style is simple and straightforward. He often lets the camera hold a master shot, observing the actors as they play out a scene, cutting only when necessary. He seems to know intuitively where to place the camera, allowing it to serve the actors, telling the story with a fluid, unpretentious ease.
You may be asking why the screenshots I’m using to illustrate this post look so fuzzy. It’s because I was working from a cheap DVD where the source material looks like it was 16 mm and the transfer is less than stellar. Sadly, this is currently the only way you can view this movie. I posted on another Galindo film a while ago, and complained about the fact that his work was only available in sub-standard releases with no subtitles. Really, this is true of the vast majority of Mexico’s cinematic output, and it’s a terrible shame.
I was encouraged recently when I heard that MOMA was showing a Mexican noir series. Hopefully this will encourage more people to explore the country’s cinema. Una familia de tantas is just one of many remarkable movies waiting to be discovered by English-speaking audiences.
I’m sure many readers will be startled to learn that the central character is a fifteen year old girl who’s being groomed for marriage. These days we see this as deplorable, but in post-war Mexico it was an accepted part of the culture. We can condemn it, but we should be keep in mind that American cinema from the studio era is filled with attitudes that seem pretty shocking today.