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.
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.
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.
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.