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De noche vienes, Esmeralda [Esmeralda Comes by Night] (1997)

María Rojo and Tito Vasconcelos

María Rojo and Tito Vasconcelos

Elena Poniatowska’s work is part of the fabric of modern Mexico. In her non-fiction she’s dealt with the traumatic events that have shaped the nation, and in her fiction she’s been a sharp critic of her country’s culture. Her short story De noche vienes is a humorous attack on the hypocrisy surrounding sex and marriage in Mexico (and elsewhere). A woman is charged with bigamy when it’s discovered that she has five husbands. The official interrogating her is shocked at her behavior, insisting that her actions are an attack the very foundation of civilized society. What shocks him most, though, is the fact that she feels no shame about marrying five different men. They love her. She loves them. She accepted their proposals because they all seemed to need her.

Jaime Humberto Hermosillo’s film, De noche vienes, Esmeralda, expands on Poniatowska’s short story, filling out the characters, embroidering the situations, but staying close to the author’s original intent. He makes it a modern day fairy tale, and at the center is the innocent heroine, whose only sin is that she doesn’t feel guilty about sleeping with five men. Hermosillo does alter Esmeralda’s motivation. In Poniatowska’s story, she feels it’s her duty to help those in need. Getting married five times is her way of helping these five needy men. In the film, Hermosillo explains Esmeralda’s behavior by making her a product of the culture she lives in. Since childhood she’s been led to believe that sex without marriage is a sin. When she opens her closet we see the door is covered with photos from her weddings, and in each picture she’s dressed in immaculate white.

Claudio Obregón and María Rojo

Claudio Obregón and María Rojo

The other thing Hermosillo does is expand on the theme of sexual freedom. The original story stays with Esmeralda and the judge, and we never get to meet her husbands. In the movie we meet all five of them, and we learn that most of them are pretty open-minded about sex. The first husband is an older man who knows he can’t keep up with her in bed, so he accepts that he’s not the only man in her life. The second is a musician, and Esmeralda realizes early on that he’s sleeping around. Another is gay, and in this case she’s helping him hide that fact from his mother. The judge may see her behavior as promiscuity, but it’s really just generosity.

The premise may seem far-fetched, but María Rojo acts the part of Esmeralda with such conviction that the character is completely believable. She doesn’t just play innocence, she radiates it. The judge does everything he can to shame her, and she seems oblivious. She answers his questions with total honesty, a beatific smile spreading across her face when she thinks of how much she loves her husbands. Rojo gives the character such warmth that she wins us over completely.

Claudio Obregón has the difficult job of making us believe that the cranky, uptight judge could slowly melt into one more of Esmeralda’s smitten suitors. He makes the transition totally convincing. Martha Navarro and Antonio Crestani both give ingratiating performances as court employees who quickly find themselves on Esmeralda’s side. Roberto Cobo brings a wonderful sweetness to the role of the aging poet that Esmeralda married on what seemed to be his death bed. And Tito Vasconceles is a joy to watch, popping up over and over again in numerous guises as Esmeralda’s guardian angel.

Martha Navarro, María Rojo and Tito Vasconcelos

Martha Navarro, María Rojo and Tito Vasconcelos

Hermosillo doesn’t create images so much as he creates scenes. He tends to use long takes, allowing the actors to develop a situation, and the camera slowly roams around them. For the most part, this relaxed, leisurely approach works well, but there are times when I think the structure could be tighter, and that Hermosillo could provide more focus. On the plus side, by not cutting to impose his own pace on the scenes, the director allows the actors to really get into their roles. They can find their own rhythm, and develop relationships in their own way.

The director references Juana de Asbaje and Frida Kahlo, two Mexican women who also broke the rules, and it might be tempting to see the film as an argument for women’s liberation. Certainly you could see Poniatowska’s story that way. But Hermosillo is after something broader. He wants to liberate everybody. In his mind the whole world is held prisoner by guilt and shame. And his message is, you have nothing to lose but your chains. At the end of the film, the judge confesses his love for Esmeralda, and after she encourages his advances, he goes dancing down the street in the rain. He’s let go of his hang-ups. He’s a free man.

The bride on her way to the alter.

The bride on her way to the alter.

Rojo amanecer [Red Dawn] (1990)

rojo amanecer 6An older man wakes up, gets out of bed and makes his way to the kitchen. He tears a page off the calendar, revealing the date October second. This date probably has no meaning for most people, but for Mexicans who were alive in nineteen sixty eight, it means a great deal.

In nineteen sixty eight, the Olympics were held in Mexico City. The government had a huge investment in the event, and so did many powerful business interests. But like several other countries back in the sixties, Mexico had a growing protest movement. Students and others had been holding marches and rallies for months, speaking out against police violence and asking that political prisoners be freed. Tens of thousands of people had shown up for some of the gatherings. Finally, as the opening of the games drew near, the government decided to shut the movement down once and for all. On October second, a protest was held in Tlatelolco, a neighborhood in Mexico City. As speakers addressed the crowd, police and soldiers surrounded the square. Just as the meeting was ending, government forces opened fire on the protesters. It’s estimated that between three hundred and five hundred people died that day, though no one will ever know for sure. Hundreds more were taken to prison and tortured.

Governments don’t usually acknowledge acts like this, and often the media doesn’t either. It was left to artists to address one of the more horrific events in Mexican history. Rojo amanecer is a fictionalized drama based on massacre of October second, nineteen sixty eight.

The movie tells the story of a middle-class Mexican family living in an apartment block in Tlatelolco. The family is made up of three generations, the grandfather, the mother and father, and four children. Through this one family, screenwriters Xavier Robles and Guadalupe Ortega Vargas give us a broad overview of Mexican society at end of the sixties. The grandfather is a veteran of the revolution, an arch-conservative who respects the military and thinks the protesters need to be taught a lesson. The father and mother just want a quiet, middle-class life for themselves and their children. The two older sons are part of the protest movement, determined to change the system, convinced that victory is inevitable. The younger boy and girl are enjoying a happy, carefree childhood and have no idea what’s going on around them.

Director Jorge Fons immerses us smoothly and swiftly into the life of the family. The screenwriters waste no time in setting the scene and laying out the divide between the generations. As the grandfather tries to pour his morning coffee he complains that his grandsons are useless. The TV carries news of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. A Beatles song on the radio sparks a debate about long hair. The chatter around the breakfast table is initially pretty innocuous, but quickly gets heated. The two older sons are full of talk about the injustices committed by the government, and are convinced that the protesters will win in the end. But the father, who works for the city, becomes angry and tells them they’re playing with fire. He has heard rumors around the office of a coming crackdown. The mother is upset by all the arguing and worried about her sons. She just wants her family to get along.

The film is remarkably compact both in terms of space and time. Everything unfolds in the family’s apartment and the corridors just outside. The action takes place in a twenty four hour period. We are constantly reminded of the time. Fons frequently cuts to clocks, and we even hear the ticking of a clock under the opening credits. Fons’ approach is admirably straightforward. He doesn’t try to dramatize the events. For the most part he simply focusses on the actors, first as they go about their business, unaware of what’s coming, and later as they’re desperately trying to cope with the horrifying reality of their situation. The film is given resonance and texture by the characters’ surroundings. Production designers José Luis Garduño and Helmut Greisser, along with set decorator Mario Sánchez, deserve a good deal of credit for creating the family’s home. Not only does the apartment feel lived-in, the pictures, posters, knick-knacks and bric-a-brac that fill it up tell us a lot about these people. The older boys have a Beatles poster on their door, and a picture of Che Guevara on the wall. The living room is filled with family photos, including a black and white picture of the grandfather at the time that he fought in the Mexican Revolution. Early on in the film we see a picture of Christ on the wall. After the shooting has started, we see it again, now pierced with a bullet hole.

One of the reasons the film is so compelling is that the actors inhabit their roles completely. Watching Hector Bonilla as the father, it’s easy to see that his anger with his idealistic sons comes out of a very real fear that something will happen to them. María Rojo starts off as a housewife complacently doing her chores, is reduced to abject panic when the shooting starts, and then forces herself to deal with the situation as best she can. One of the most interesting performances is given by Jorge Fegán as the reactionary grandfather. He is disgusted by his older grandsons, but has a special bond with the youngest, and takes care to protect him when violence threatens the family. Bruno and Demian Bichir play the college students, brimming with fiery passion and frightening naivete.

Really, everyone involved in this making this film deserves respect, not just for the skill with which it was made, but for keeping the events of October second in the public consciousness. The Mexican government lied about the incident when it first occurred, and then spent years trying to bury the facts. Decades later, President Vicente Fox launched an investigation, but the results were severely compromised. Fox promised that those responsible would be brought to justice. Somehow that still hasn’t happened.

Rojo amanecer is hard to watch. It would be difficult even if the film were pure fiction, but because we know it was inspired by actual events, that people actually died, it is deeply disturbing. If you’re like me, you’d probably prefer to watch something entertaining, some escapist fantasy that pushes the real world into the background for a while. The news is filled with atrocities, so much so that it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the horror. If we spent all our time dwelling on the violence, we’d go crazy. But it’s just as dangerous to tune the world out and live in blissful ignorance. So how do we strike a balance? How do we acknowledge the bloodshed that’s occurred and still go on with our lives? Believe me, I know it’s tempting to forget….

But we can’t forget. We have to remember.

Released on DVD by Quality Films. In Spanish. NO ENGLISH SUBTITLES.

Danzón (1991)

María Rojo

María Rojo

You’ve seen this story before. A middle-aged woman goes on a trip, has a brief fling with a guy, and then goes back home. There are dozens of movies that have used this premise. But in Danzón, it isn’t the story that matters. I get the feeling that director María Novaro isn’t interested in plot, she doesn’t care about drama. Her films are just about people. The characters in her films are vivid and lively, but never bigger than life. Novaro is most interested in the ordinary joys and sorrows of ordinary people. She wants to get as close to them as possible, moving right into their world, allowing us to see, to hear, to feel their lives unfold.

In the first frames we see a woman’s feet, clad in silver high-heel shoes, moving slowly across a dance floor as a band plays. The camera pulls back to reveal a large nightclub filled with couples, their arms posed in respectful embraces, their feet tracing short, precise movements in time to the music. This is el danzón. Originally from Cuba, this style of dance migrated to Mexico about a hundred years ago and has enjoyed huge popularity there. It is a very elegant, very formal ritual, and its devotees even adhere to a fairly strict dress code.

Every Wednesday night Julia comes to the Salon Colonia to dance with Carmelo. This is what she lives for. Julia is a single, middle-aged woman with a daughter who lives in Mexico City. During the day she works for the phone company as an operator. But she lives for el danzón. Her long-time partner, Carmelo, is a quiet, courtly man who seems to be at least ten years her senior. Though they’ve been dancing together for years, apparently their relationship doesn’t go beyond that. Then one day Carmelo disappears. Julia becomes depressed, frustrated, angry. Finally she decides to go looking for him in Veracruz, a port city on the Gulf of Mexico.

When Julia arrives in Veracruz the movie’s tone shifts. In Mexico City, a massive metropolis, everything is concrete and plaster, fluorescent and neon. In Veracruz we can feel the breeze rustling the trees, the sunlight warming the pavement. Novaro and cinematographer Rodrigo García make Julia’s wanderings in this port city a sensual experience. On the night of her arrival, one of the first things she does is walk down to the water. She smiles as the surf gently rolls around her feet. The pace of life seems to be slower in Veracruz. People seem to spend their days outdoors. Julia is still intent on finding Carmelo, but we can see her gradually relaxing in her new surroundings.

For the most part Novaro keeps the film firmly rooted in reality, but there is one extraordinary sequence that feels strangely unreal. Julia decides to go down to the port to ask about Carmelo. On her friend Susy’s advice, she’s wearing a sheer red dress, red earrings and a red flower in her hair. As she strolls past the workers, men turn to stare at her and she feels self-conscious. But then Julia comes to the docks, and her attention turns to the ships floating by. They bear names like Puras Ilusiones (Only Illusions), Lagrimas Negras (Black Tears), and Amor Perdido (Lost Love). A wistful song plays on the soundtrack, but there is no dialogue. Julia walks slowly along the docks as these massive ships drift past, and it’s almost as though her fantasies of love have taken shape in the gigantic vessels gliding across the water.

In playing Julia, Maria Rojo’s face is so open, so expressive, so naked that you feel like you can read every thought, every emotion. Julia is fragile and easily hurt, so she goes to great lengths to hide her feelings, and yet Rojo always allows us to see beneath the surface. At times it’s maddening to watch this woman pursuing her quest for a man she barely knows, but Rojo always keeps us on the character’s side, making sure we can relate to her.

As I said before, Novaro’s films are about people, and she fills the movie with a number of memorable performances. Margarita Isabel, Carmen Salinas and Víctor Carpinteiro all seem to live inside the characters they’re playing. Tito Vasconcelos is especially interesting as Susy, a man who dresses as a woman. Susy is excited by Julia’s romantic quest, but at times seems attracted to Julia herself. Rhapsodizing about love one minute, bitterly cynical the next, Susy appears to be intoxicated both by the joy and the sadness of life.

At the end, Julia returns to Mexico City, and Carmelo magically reappears. He doesn’t say where he was or why he went away. They simply start dancing again, and Julia is radiant with happiness. Nothing has been explained, nothing has been resolved. There’s no dramatic climax, no message to be gleaned from our heroine’s adventures. Life just goes on. And life is what Novaro is interested in. The director and her sister Beatriz, who co-wrote the screenplay, achieve something very close to what Vittorio De Sica and Cesare Zavatinni created in films like Bicycle Thieves and Shoeshine. They don’t create drama, they just dive into life. It’s enough for them to explore the joys and frustrations of friendship, the unpredictability of daily living, the beauty of the world around us.

Lo que importa es vivir [Living Is What Matters] (1987)

Maria Rojo and Gonzalo Vega

I don’t think I really understand this movie, and that’s one of the reasons I like it so much. At the start I thought I was watching a romantic melodrama. Then I thought the film was pushing a political message. By the end I wasn’t sure how to react. But I can say this movie is beautiful, disturbing and moving.

Gonzalo Vega plays Candelario, a wanderer. At the beginning of the film he walks into a sleepy little town in the middle of nowhere. He asks for shelter at a ranch, intending to stay for one night, and he ends up staying for years. The premise is familiar, but the story takes unpredictable turns. The screenplay is by director Luis Alcoriza and his wife Janet. While they deal with themes that are familiar from other Mexican films, the characters don’t always act the way we’d expect, and the screenwriters avoid delivering any comfortable resolutions. Initially many of the town’s residents react to Candelario with suspicion and fear. Over time some of them come to regard him as a man to love and respect. But he never seems quite sure how to take it all. Should he accept his new life and take the good with the bad, or just walk away from it all?

This ambiguity is at the heart of the movie. Like Renoir, Alcoriza seems to be interested in the way people interact, and doesn’t feel the need to judge his characters. He takes his time in telling the story, and the film has a easygoing, unforced rhythm. Miguel Garzon’s cinematography captures the muted colors of rural Mexico, and Pedro Plascencia’s sparse music has an air of gentle melancholy. I don’t feel like I need to understand this movie completely, because the director isn’t asking for that. He seems to content to let us watch these characters as their stories unfold, and life takes its course.

Released by Desert Mountain Media (Latin Cinema Collection).  In Spanish with English subtitles.