Vértigo (Antonio Momplet, Mexico, 1946)

vertigo

The lesser, and less well-known Vertigo, a maternal melodrama from Mexico. As the credits unfold Mercedes (María Félix) is shown coming out of a Church in a wedding dress, though she tells her Nana that to her she’ll always be the Niña Mercedes, her little girl; in the first two minutes of the film, she has a baby, buries her husband and takes control over the large land-holding that the off-screen narrator tells us will cause her so much pain and so many tears. A minute after that, Mercedes’ daughter Gabriela (Lilia Michel) is off to school and Felix is shown old, hair humbly braided in the back of her head, with a shawl and wearing glasses. A minute after that, the daughter is back with a fiancée, Arturo (Emilio Tuero) ready to get married. The daughter convinces the mother to get rid of her mourning, and then the real trouble begins.

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Out of her drab mourning clothes Mercedes looks, well like María Felix, and of course Arturo is overpowered by his desire for her. She finds herself responding as well. Meanwhile, the letters to the lawyers never seem to get there, the wedding dress doesn’t arrive, the wedding keeps getting more delayed, until one day by the river, a shot of crashing torrent of water from the nearby waterfall informs us that Arturo and Mercedes have had sex, even whilst Gabriela is wondering why  the arrangements for her wedding are taking so long.

 

The dialogue is a combination of bad melodrama — -‘I don’t want to live chained to a lie’; ‘let’s love for a moment that must last us a lifetime’ – and folk sayings in Spanish that are taken as wisdom: ‘Speak. Don’t keep the words inside until they bite your soul’; ‘boda retrasada, boda quebrada/ a wedding delayed is a broken wedding’; ‘Happiness if for those that find it’; ‘What fault have I of what life has made of me?’; ‘Sooner or later everything arrives in this life, even that which we don’t want to..’

 

When Gabriela confronts he mother about the delays to her wedding and tells her that it’s poisoning her life, Gabriela responds with: What do you know of a poisoned life, a life without hope without promise, what know you of bitterness and pain’. And the daughter responds with ,’You don’t’ know what it’s like to love someone as I love Arturo’. But, of course, she does. She goes to church to pray for guidance, ‘Don’t let me arrive at desperation, destroy this fire that consumes me.’ She decides to do the right thing and tells Arturo he must marry her daughter. ‘My daughter is once more my daughter; I can look her in the eye).

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framed by Virgin and child

Arturo, however, doesn’t feel the same way. He pretends he’s ill with fever, and on a rainy night when something needs to be fetched, he lets his intended go via a bridge that he knows is faulty and will collapse, which is what happens. After her daughter’s burial, people start shunning her at church, she begins to lose employees who now don’t want to work for her. She thinks it’s abut gossip regarding her affair with Arturo. When her old Nana tells her there are whisperings all over town, she doesn’t let her speak, saying only ‘You too have come to judge me?’ A priest in Church appears to announce that ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’. But then, as she’s meeting with potential buyers for that rich land she herself can no longer get anyone to work, she finds out the truth, and tells them ‘we have the duty to repair that which needs repairing’ referring not to the un-mended bridge that killed her daughter but to Arturo. He returns just as she’s reading his love letters to her. The villagers have found he’s back, know the truth and are out to lynch him. But, in a great ending, framed at the beginning by an icon of virgin and child (see clip below), she asks him to close the door of the hacienda, takes out a gun and kills him herself. The last line in the movie is ‘The justice of God has been done in this house; now let the justice of men be done’. To have sex with your daughter’s fiancée is bad enough but she draws the line at murder.

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Only God can judge her

Vértigo is another of those María Felix films that seems relatively unskilled but remains riveting. And not only for her presence. Whilst watching it,  I was trying to think of why this film, so choppy and clichéd, a trite melodrama in which one sees the plot coming a mile away, nonetheless retains its power. Sometimes it shows  things so outrageous one bursts out in laughter (the waterfall sequence). Then, one imagines what an audience in the mid 40s trying to make sense of the meaning of one’s life and actions through the film might get out of it, and one sees the film slightly differently.

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Offering God’s Justice in her house before giving herself up to the laws of men.

Cheap as the film is, and short as it is (about 1h10mins) it’s a total morality tale about what is right and wrong, about knowing that and still not adhering to social convention because one’s desires don’t always fit into the socially prescribed box, about understanding and forgiving that; about drawing lines between different kinds of transgressions (desire vs. murder); about the difference between law and justice; about what community can and can’t offer and how variable each of those offerings might be over time. In other words these films deal with issues that continue to matter to people and in which the filmmakers find a  form through which to directly communication with their audience. It’s its own form of achievement.

A very young María Felix plays a mother of a full grown daughter much earlier than her Hollywood counterparts; She’s the mistress of transgression not only in her films but extra-diagetically. In fact Emilio G. Riera, according to Paco Ignacio Taibo in Maria Felix: 47 pasos por el cine, ‘expressed a general sentiment with an amusing phrase: Here melodrama finds a new sub-genre; that dedicated to showing how María Félix’s beauty is in fact a calamity foisted onto the human species’ (Taibo, p.80).

José Arroyo

 

 

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