There’s a fine line between melodrama and myth. And maybe they’re inextricably linked. What is it that transforms a familiar story with a predictable conflict into an archetypal struggle between pride and passion? Emilio Fernández travelled down this road many times, with wildly mixed results. In much of his later work he seems to be a shameless hack grinding out genre flicks. But in his prime, even though he was working within the conventions of commercial filmmaking, he made movies that offered a soaring poetic vision of Mexico and its people.
Enamorada begins with images of cannons firing and soldiers on horseback riding across an open plain. A band of revolutionary insurgents rides into the town of Cholula and takes over. Their leader, General José Juan Reyes, gathers the town’s merchants together and delivers a simple message. They can hand over their wealth to support the cause of the revolution or face a firing squad. But then Jose Juan falls in love with Beatriz, the daughter of one of the richest men in town, and things get complicated.
On the surface, what we’re seeing is a romantic melodrama set during the years when Mexico was in the throes of a civil war. It features some of the leading stars of the time, and the story follows a more or less predictable path. But in spite of the fact that Enamorada is firmly rooted in the conventions of the Mexican studio era, it cuts much deeper than you’d expect. At his best, Fernández was able to burn through the pop culture cliches and tap into his country’s mythology. Though Enamorada is wrapped in the trappings of delirious melodrama, the director uses the story to explore the tension between the material and the spiritual, and by the end it has become a deeply personal meditation on pride and humility.
Like most nations that achieved their independence from a foreign power through violence, Mexico has idealized it’s history. The years of bloodshed and chaos have been woven into a story that glorifies the country’s national identity. Heroes were created and celebrated, stirring tales were told of the brave insurgents who wrested power from the evil oppressors. The truth is a lot more complicated and a lot less pretty. Mexico actually won its independence in the nineteenth century, but for decades the people suffered under a dictatorship that was little better than the previous colonial powers. At the beginning of the twentieth century, anger at the government was so widespread that a series of uprisings took place, which eventually snowballed into the Mexican Revolution. The idea was that the impoverished peasants would rise up and overthrow the government, bringing freedom and justice to the land. It didn’t work out quite that way. While the Mexican Revolution certainly had its share of heroes, over the years it devolved into a a brutal orgy of violence, with “revolutionary” fighters robbing and murdering the peasants they were supposed to be liberating.
Enamorada doesn’t show us the bloody, brutal side of the confict. It gives us an inspiring, poetic picture of the struggle. This is a storybook version of the Revolution. It avoids the messy, ugly side of things, giving us instead a picture of a noble leader and his faithful men. So why should we buy it? If Fernández was just a studio hack using the standard tropes to manipulate the audience, the film would be a slick entertainment at best, and an ugly distortion at worst. He had a sentimental streak a mile wide, and at times relied on his gift for sumptuous visuals and sweeping gestures to work the audience over shamelessly. But the thing that raises Fernández’ best work to the level of art is that he believed passionately in his vision of Mexico.
Which is not to say he believed it was the truth. No saint himself, Fernández knew well the depravity that people were capable of. But he held the conviction that we could overcome our worst impulses and act with compassion and courage. As with the vast majority of Mexicans of his generation, the Catholic faith was deeply engrained in his spirit. His naive acceptance of the church as a beneficent force may be hard for modern viewers to take. How can we accept the director’s portrait of the saintly, altruistic priest after years of shocking headlines about clergy misconduct? And we could also ask how the director, whose mother was a Kikapu Indian, could offer such a glowing picture of an institution that oppressed Mexico’s native people for centuries.
But this actually gets to the heart of who Fernández was. The man was a walking contradiction. While to some degree his faith in the church was wrapped up in a love of symbols and ritual, he also held a deep belief in the teachings of the Gospel, and this is the foundation for the drama that plays out in Enamorada. The noble priest Rafael may be a movie fiction, but he’s there to speak for the morality that forms the basis of Christian faith. When José Juan visits Rafael in the cathedral, he sees a painting of the three kings kneeling before the infant Christ in a manger. José Juan is deeply moved by the image of these men, symbols of wealth and power, down on their knees before a child. For him this symbolizes everything the revolution is about, erasing the lines between the proud and the humble, bringing justice to the world.
But as the movie goes on, the notion of humility takes on a more personal meaning. This proud, stern leader, realizes that he too must humble himself before the woman he loves. For days he’s been going to the grand house Beatriz lives in, waiting beneath her window for a chance to speak to her. One night, when the streets are deserted, he comes again, bringing musicians with him to sing to her. As the trio plays La malaguena, José Juan stands below the window and speaks to her, begging for forgiveness. Beatriz wakes, goes to the window, and peeks out, unseen by her suitor. She hears his words, but can’t bring herself to acknowledge them.
This scene, one of the most famous in Mexican cinema, has a haunting beauty that lifts the film into another realm. Though it’s been clear from the beginning that the tension between José Juan and Beatriz would be resolved, the way it happens is completely unexpected. Here the director goes beyond melodrama, instead speaking to us through breathtaking visual poetry. As José Juan offers his humble confession, the director gives us rapturous close-ups of Beatriz. Though she doesn’t saw a word, we can see that she’s deeply moved.
One of the things that gives this scene such power is the heartbreaking rendition of La malagueña sung by the Trío Calaveras. One of the most popular Mexican vocal groups of their time, they enriched a number of movies with their performances, but I can’t think of another film where the Trío has such an impact. This is the perfect match between the music and the moment. It’s also important to mention Gabriel Figueroa’s rapturous cinematography. Figueroa had an amazing gift for creating rich, resonant images, and for a time his talents were perfectly in tune with Fernández’ vision. For the editing we can thank Gloria Schoemann. Her work throughout the film is sharp and effective, but especially during the scene in which José Juan makes his confession. Because the moment relies so heavily on the images, it’s important that they flow together, that we see the impact the rebel leader’s words have on Beatriz.
There’s no way to talk about Enamorada without talking about María Félix. One of the brightest stars of Mexican cinema, she has a presence that animates every scene she’s in. As Beatriz, the proud daughter of a wealthy family, Félix shows a fierce independence. When her father, on leaving to meet the rebels, hands her a gun, there’s no doubt that she knows how to use it, and that she wouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger if necessary. And as José Juan, the equally proud revolutionary leader, Pedro Armendáriz makes it clear that he’s attracted to Beatriz for reasons that go beyond her beauty. Armendáriz was a gifted actor who put his heart and soul into his performances. Subtlety was not his strong point. He displays his passion openly, where everyone can see it.
At the end of the film, José Juan is leading his forces in a retreat from the town, and Beatriz is preparing to marry the devoted American engineer. We know that the two of them will be brought together, and the only question is how. Fernández uses a simple but powerful metaphor to show that Beatriz’ pride has finally come undone. The bride’s fiancee has given her a beautiful pearl necklace as a gift. This elegant and expensive piece of jewelry not only symbolizes the bond between them as husband and wife, but her standing as a woman of wealth and position in society. As Beatriz leans over to sign her name as a married woman, the necklace breaks, and the pearls are scattered in all directions. At the same moment she realizes that her love for José Juan is more powerful than her pride, and runs off to join him.
Enamorada is one of the peaks of Fernández’ career. As he continued making films into the fifties and sixties, it became harder and harder for him to tap into the potent mythology that resonated throughout his films of the forties. Mexican cinema moved away from the naive melodramas of the studio era, and he seemed to lose touch with the blend of passionate emotion, moral simplicity and reverence for nature that made his early work so powerful. He wasn’t alone. As the studios declined in Mexico, the US and Europe, audiences grew to distrust the simple innocence that was a staple of movies made before WWII. Directors all over the western hemisphere found themselves struggling to adapt to shifting tastes.
It would be foolish to accept Fernández’ early melodramas as credible portrayals of life in Mexico. But it would be stupid to ignore them just because they’re not “realistic”. Fernández discards reality in favor of poetry, and with his poetry he writes a history that has a truth of its own.
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.
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.