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Una familia de tantas (1949) [One Family of Many]

Fam Dinner 1

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.*

Martha Roth, Eugenia Galindo and Fernando Soler

Martha Roth, Eugenia Galindo and Fernando Soler

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.

Fernando Soler

Fernando Soler

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.

Martha Roth and David Silva

Martha Roth and David Silva

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.

Espaldas Mojadas [Wetback] (1955)

Mexicans have been crossing the border to work in the United States since the border was drawn back in the nineteenth century. Many make the trip to escape poverty or persecution, hoping to find a better life. There are some success stories, but the vast majority end up working long hours for subsistence wages. Those who don’t have the papers they need to work legally get stuck in exhausting, low-paying jobs, and often the employers who know they’re stuck take full advantage of the situation.

One of the most powerful films I’ve seen about those who make the crossing is Espaldas Mojadas by Alejandro Galindo. While the story is driven by melodrama, and the director makes his points forcefully, the film also has a haunting sadness that stays with you long after it’s over. This isn’t just a movie about a guy who’s trying to make a living and stay ahead of the law. Espaldas Mojadas is about the painful loneliness and crushing isolation that people feel when they have to leave their home behind.

The film begins with a lengthy disclaimer explaining that it has nothing to do with the US/Mexico border, and that in reality it’s about people who break the law and the consequences they must suffer. It’s all totally bogus, of course, but it’s a sign of how worried the Mexican film industry was about offending American audiences. The US market was vital for the Mexican producers, and the fear of losing that market was always hanging over their heads.

David Silva

David Silva

The story opens in Ciudad Juárez, where we find a man, Rafael, desperately looking for a way to cross the border. He’s in trouble with the law and needs to disappear quickly, but he doesn’t have the papers he needs to enter the US legally. Rafael makes a deal with a coyote who takes him across the Rio Grande into Texas, but this is just the beginning of his troubles. He finds work, but his American bosses use him and abuse him. And if he gets fed up and leaves, then he’s back at square one and has to go begging for a job all over again.

Espaldas Mojadas is a lament for all those who’ve been trapped in the US while their hearts are still in Mexico. Though Galindo relies heavily on melodrama, the film doesn’t treat Rafael’s plight as an excuse for action. The director spends a good deal of time with his characters, allowing us to get inside of them. For me it’s the quiet moments that are the most affecting. Rafael standing by the railroad tracks as he talks to a friend about how it feels to be lost in a strange country. A Mexican border official scolding Rafael for working illegally in the US, and then falling silent as his prisoner tells him about the desperation that drove him to do it. But the most beautiful and haunting scene takes place in a work camp where the men have been laying tracks for the railroad. They have a day off. They’ve been breaking their backs all week long, and now they’re lounging under the railroad cars to stay out of the sun. A man with a guitar starts to play, another starts to sing. The song is Canción Mixteca by José López Alavez, and it’s about the loneliness felt by those who are far from home. The camera tracks past the men as they listen, and in this melancholy moment Galindo crystallizes the sadness they feel and their longing for the country they’ve left behind.

While there’s a good deal of music in the film, the underscoring is provided by nothing more than a single guitar, and this was exactly the right choice. Instead of having a full orchestra to pump up the drama, we have a single musician providing a very spare and very effective backdrop for the story. The lonely tones of the solo guitar match Rafael’s sense of isolation perfectly. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s a thrilling performance by Lola Beltrán and El Trío Calaveras at a bar in Ciudad Juárez. They set the crowd on fire with their passionate rendition of a song about the pride they feel in being Mexican.

Unfortunately, this film, like so many other Mexican films from the same era, is only available as a budget DVD. The print is okay. The transfer is acceptable. But there are no subtitles, which is probably going to keep anyone who doesn’t speak Spanish from watching it.* I’ve written before about the challenges of trying to preserve Mexico’s cinema. I know the list of films that need attention is long, and the money available is short. But is it too much to ask for a quality DVD release of a classic film by a major director from Mexico’s golden era?

Is anybody at Criterion listening?

Honestly, Galindo is very good at communicating through images, and I think most people could follow the story even without subtitles. You might miss some of the plot points and some of the humor, but I still urge you to give it a try. It’s a powerful experience.

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.

Mecánica nacional [National Mechanics] (1972)

Mourning the dead in Mecánica nacional.

Mourning the dead in Mecánica nacional.

You could say that these days Mexico is going through a period of tumultuous change. But really, Mexico has been in a state of constant change for the past century. Upheaval has become a way of life, and all the citizens can do is try to ride out the latest chaotic wave without getting pulled under.

Change is a central theme in Luis Alcoriza’s Mecánica nacional. Ostensibly the film is about a family that goes to the countryside for an overnight party that coincides with the finish of a cross-country race. In reality, it’s about a country that is evolving so rapidly that it’s not even sure of its identity any more. This is a portrait of Mexico in the seventies. The roads are jammed with cars, but all the cars are from America. The youth movement is going strong, and it’s clear these kids don’t share their parents’ values. Once the party starts, we hear the easygoing rhythms of traditional Mexican music clashing with the jacked up rhythms of rock n’ roll. Popular vocalist Lucha Villa is featured in a key role, but by the time she starts singing her character is so wasted that the song comes out as a tuneless groan. There’s a brief but fascinating exchange when a young Anglo woman, holding her camera ready, surveys the crowd looking for something to shoot. Her expression is perplexed, and after a few moments she says, “But there’s nothing Mexican here.” One of the partiers comes up behind her and says with a smile, “We are.” This is still Mexico, just not the Mexico she was expecting.

The movie opens at a large auto garage where family and friends are preparing for the picnic. One of the first things we see is a sign that says in bold letters “SOLO DAMOS SERVICIO A CLIENTES MUY MACHOS” (“WE ONLY SERVE CUSTOMERS WHO ARE REAL MEN”). In Mecánica nacional Alcoriza takes a long, hard look at his male characters, who try so hard to act like real men and end up coming off like foolish children. A few minutes into the film the garage owner and a truck driver are ready to fight each other over an almost meaningless verbal exchange. A gun is flashed, one guy stands down, and nothing happens. But the scene is important. These men spend a lot of their time trying to live up to a “macho” ideal that their culture has created. They just accept that you’re supposed to fight, drink and chase women. They don’t question it. That’s just the way it is.

Or that’s the way it used to be. Eufemio, the boss at the garage, is an ordinary guy trying to cling to the life he knows, but his world is falling apart. He heads off to the countryside with his wife, his mother and his two daughters, looking forward to a weekend filled with booze and cars. But in the course of a single night, he comes to suspect that his wife is unfaithful, he finds his daughter making out with her boyfriend, and his mother dies. Obviously, this would be a lot for anybody to bear, but Eufemio’s meltdown is mostly the result of his absurd notions about how things should be. The seething rage he directs at his wife and daughter seems insanely hypocritical since we’ve just seen him sneaking off in hopes of having sex with a hot-looking babe who’s been flirting with him. And while he’s awash in weepy sentimentality after his mother dies, we recall that this “saint” he’s mourning was a crotchety, obnoxious old lady who kicked the bucket after binging on food and booze.

Alcoriza has a real gift for handling actors. The film is overflowing with characters, and they’re all lively and entertaining. Mecánica nacional has a wonderful, chaotic spontaneity. The camera roams through the crowd allowing us to watch these people dance, drink, fight and flirt. As Eufemio, Manuel Fábregas may be pushy, lecherous, ridiculous, but he’s always human. As his wife, Lucha Villa swings from happy complacency to outraged hysteria and makes it all completely believable. Casting Sara García as the grandmother is a beautiful satiric joke. After years of playing saintly older women, García turns her film persona on its head by making the grandmother cranky, petulant and foolish. When the old lady dies and the family gathers round to say a rosary, their tearful devotion turns to anxious impatience as they realize they’re going to miss the cars crossing the finish line. After they’ve all run off, one by one, to watch the end of the race, we see the dead grandmother lying alone on the ground. The image is a blunt metaphor for a society that is ready to abandon tradition in favor of fast cars and color TV.

In a way Mecánica nacional seems like a Mexican version of Weekend. Aside from the obvious parallels, endless traffic jams and frustrated people getting into violent confrontations, both films are about societies coming apart at the seams. But unlike Weekend, the characters in Mecánica nacional don’t pick up guns to start a revolution. By the end of movie they’re so exhausted it seems that have no energy left for anything but to slide back into the routine of their lives. Like most of us, they really don’t want to confront the change they see in the world and try to deal with it. They’d rather go home and watch TV.

Released by Laguna Films. In Spanish. NO ENGLISH SUBTITLES.

¡Que Viva México!

When I started this blog back in two thousand ten, I was just discovering Mexican film, and I thought it would be a good idea to do a short survey of the country’s cinema. At the time I envisioned spending a few months on the project. And here I am actually wrapping it up almost two years later. During that time, I learned a few things….

First, I learned that blogging can be hard work. I initially thought I’d try to post every two weeks. On average I’ve actually been posting about every two months. One reason for this is that I write slowly. Not sure if I can change that. But another reason is that almost all of the films I’ve written about were new to me. I had to watch many of them two or three times just to figure out what I wanted to say. In the future I’d like to spend more time on movies I’m familiar with. Hopefully that will translate into more frequent posts.

Second, I’ve learned a lot about Mexican cinema. When I started writing on the subject I’d only seen a handful of films. My knowledge is still pretty limited, but I’ve come to realize how rich Mexican cinema is. It’s been like opening a door on a whole new world. Mexico has produced some amazing talent, both behind the camera and in front of it. I know there are a lot of wonderful films I have yet to see.

And finally, I’ve learned a lot about Mexico. I’ve looked at books on the country’s history. I’ve spent some time following current events on the net. So I feel like I have a vague grasp of where Mexico is and how it got there. But you can only learn so much from reading history, and the media never gives more than part of the story. Art in general, and cinema in particular, can bring us right into a nation’s soul. As I said in writing about Pueblerina, the film does not show the reality of Mexico, but it brings us to the heart of the country’s mythology. Movies like Lo que importa es vivir and El jardín del Edén reveal subtle, complex truths that can’t be stated in words. An image of a man walking down a dusty street. The sound of musicians playing in a camp by the border. Language can be used to communicate, but it can also create barriers. Images and sounds can speak to you no matter what your native language is.

Mexico has just elected a new president. It’s hard to say exactly what that means. Given the massive problems facing the country, it’s unrealistic to hope that a different chief executive will bring about some kind of magic transformation. But one thing that Peña Nieto could do is stop the government’s insane war on drugs. Even if this policy has weakened the cartels, it hasn’t weakened the basic dynamic that drives the drug trade. And it has caused incredible violence, killing tens of thousands of citizens.

The violence needs to stop. ¡Viva México!

No Mas Sangre/No More Blood

Miss Bala (2011)

A word about the title of this film for those who don’t speak Spanish. The main character wants to enter the Miss Baja California beauty contest, but is instead drawn into Mexico’s drug war, dodging bullets to stay alive. The word “bala” means “bullet”, so the title is a play on words, contrasting her goal with her reality.

Stephanie Sigman

How do you survive if you live in a war zone? You keep your head down and hope nobody blows it off. Parts of modern day Mexico are war zones. Since the Calderon government sent in the army to combat drug traffickers, over forty seven thousand people have died in the ensuing violence.

The film’s first shot tells us a lot about the central character. We are in a young woman’s bedroom, and her mirror is plastered with photos of models and celebrities. Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) is a young woman living in Tijuana with her father and brother. The family pays the bills by selling clothes, but Laura has dreams of a different life. Moments after her father drives away to sell his wares, Laura runs off to enter the Miss Baja beauty contest. This is her chance to make it big.

Everything goes horribly wrong. Laura goes looking for a friend in a dance hall and ends up in the middle of a bloody gun fight. In trying to find her friend she’s captured by drug dealers. From that point on her only goal is survival. She swings back and forth between desperate panic and catatonic numbness.

Looking at all this through Laura’s eyes, the director captures the state of mind of contemporary Mexico. The script, by Naranjo and Mauricio Katz, takes us on a dizzying tour of the drug war that’s consuming the country, putting us in the middle of chaotic shootouts and confusing subterfuges. All the men carry guns, and it’s often hard to tell if they’re drug dealers or government agents. Though really, does it matter who they’re working for?

Naranjo and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély shoot scenes in long, fluid takes with a minimum of cutting. We stay with Laura throughout, following her from one chaotic situation to another, experiencing it all with her. The film has a dizzying, kinetic energy, pulling us from busy streets to underground garages, from noisy auditoriums to deserted beaches. But Miss Bala is not an action film. The director does not play it for suspense. There is no traditional story, no structure we can hang on to for reassurance. We share Laura’s fear because, like her, we never know what’s around the next corner.

Laura does win the beauty contest. Her wish does come true. But as she stands on the stage wearing her tiara, music blaring, confetti swirling around her, Laura feels only fear and confusion. And hours later she’s again the center of attention, this time having been arrested in the course of a massive police action. She is dragged in front of cameras as part of a press conference staged by government officials to boast of their anti-drug efforts. In both cases she is nothing more than a prop used by the media to tell lies. The story of the ordinary girl turned beauty queen and the story of the beauty queen turned drug dealer are both equally dishonest, both equally meaningless.

Don’t Forget Mexico

I’ll be honest. When I said I wanted to participate in a blogathon to support film preservation, I envisioned writing a thoroughly impassioned and well-documented account of the challenges faced by those who were trying to preserve Mexican cinema. I’ve been writing about Mexican films for over a year now, and during that time I’ve reached two conclusions:


Mexico has produced a lot of great movies.


A lot of them are really hard to see.

Up until a few years ago, I was pretty much completely ignorant about Mexican film. I’m still pretty ignorant, but I realize now what an amazing cinematic tradition the country has. I get the sense that most Americans are in the same place I was a few years ago. People talk about films from France, Denmark, Iran, Azerbaijan and Croatia, but I never hear anybody talk about films from Mexico. Sure, you can point to the buzz about del Toro, Iñárritu and Cuarón, but the fact is that none of them are making films in Mexico any more.

So when I was offered the opportunity to participate in a blogathon devoted to film preservation, I decided this was my chance to let everybody know how rich Mexican cinema is, and how important it is to preserve that heritage. Unfortunately, after a week of scouring the net for information, I haven’t come up with a lot of hard data.

The good news is that Mexico seems to have the largest film archive in Latin America, and also seems to be a leader in the preservation of Spanish language films. The Filmoteca at UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico) and the Cineteca Nacional have thousands of films in their archives, and have a fair amount of funding to pursue their work. Within Mexico, there is widespread recognition of the importance of conserving the country’s cinematic tradition.

The bad news is that, just like in every other country, there are a lot of films that are neglected, forgotten, or just plain gone. Here’s my imperfect, inadequate, but still impassioned account of some of the challenges that face those who are working to preserve Mexico’s film history.

It won’t surprise anybody that many of the films made during the silent era in Mexico are gone. But in reading about some of the lost films from that period, I came across the name Elena Sánchez Valenzuela, who starred in La luz, tríptico de la vida moderna (1917). Not only was Sanchez Valenzuela one of the first stars of the Mexican film industry, she was also one of the first people to understand the importance of preserving cinematic history. In the 20s she wrote about film for for a daily newspaper, and later Sánchez Valenzuela helped lay the groundwork for the Cineteca Nacional, which today plays a leading role in film conservation. Back when most people saw movies as cheap entertainment, Sánchez Valenzuela understood their importance in the larger culture.

If I tell you that El anónimo (1932), directed by Fernando de Fuentes is considered lost, you may not get too worked up about it. But imagine that Howard Hawks’ first feature was gone forever, and maybe you can understand how sad this really is. If you haven’t seen Vamonos con Pancho Villa or El Compadre Mendoza, you have no idea how important Fuentes was to the history of Mexican film. I wouldn’t want to push the Fuentes/Hawks comparison too far, but this director had a clear-eyed, unsentimental view of the Mexican Revolution, and did not shy away from the scarier aspects of the country’s culture of machismo.

Some of you may be familiar with Maria Candelaria (1944), one of the more famous films directed by Emilio Fernandez. However you may not be familiar with the ongoing struggle to return the film to its original form. When MGM bought the rights to distribute Maria Candelaria in the US, for some reason the original negative was shipped to Hollywood. There it was cut by more than 20 minutes and the film was dubbed into English. While the Filmoteca/UNAM was able to reclaim the negative, the soundtrack has not survived. So at this point, there is no way to restore Maria Candelaria to its original form.

It’s difficult to find information on more recent movies, but I can tell you I’ve had a hell of time tracking down many titles. I should emphasize that I’ve had to watch all of this stuff on DVD. Nobody in the LA area is showing Mexican films on the big screen, and as far as I can tell that applies to the rest of the US. It’s disturbing enough that many of the films I’ve purchased are cut rate releases that use degraded prints. It’s even more disturbing that a number of works by established directors aren’t even available on DVD.

I wish I had more information to pass on. But I’ll close by saying that if you haven’t seen anything by Fernando de Fuentes, Emilio Fernández, Arturo Ripstein or María Novaro, you’re missing some of the most beautiful and interesting films ever made.

And if reading this makes you want to throw a few bucks at film preservation, follow this link….

El jardín del Edén [The Garden of Eden] (1994)

You could take El jardín del Edén as a meditation on borders.  Not just the boundaries that separate nations, but also the lines we draw between ourselves and even the barriers we create inside ourselves.  Most of the film is set near the border between Mexico and the US, in and around Tijuana.  This is a place where different cultures come together, sometimes merging in a happy chaos, other times grinding against each other and shooting off sparks.  Labels like “Mexican”, “American”, “Indigenous” start to lose their meaning.  It all depends on your perspective.

The film centers on three women who have come to Tijuana, each for different reasons.  Liz is a Mexican-American woman working on an exhibition about cultural identity.  Her friend Jane is Anglo and speaks almost no Spanish, which doesn’t stop her from trying to be friends with everyone she meets.  Serena is a single mom who is struggling to make a living and trying to deal with her teenage son.  The script, by director María Novaro with Beatriz Novaro, doesn’t try to fit these women into a standard dramatic framework.  The film isn’t about drama.  It’s about people trying to find a way to live their lives.

Novaro seems to be as interested in the place as the people.  She takes the time to dwell on details that give us a feel for the city.  The cinematography captures the tacky beauty of the border, the dusty landscapes and cheap hotels.  English and Spanish collide and mutate in garish neon and hand-painted signs.  While the movie doesn’t have a traditional score, we hear music all over the place, in dance halls, border camps, and on the street.

References to Eden and paradise come up throughout the film.  Is paradise across the border?  Is it right here inTijuana?  Or does it exist on some other plane?  Novaro doesn’t answer these questions.  Instead she follows these people who want to find that perfect place, but don’t know how to get there.