Tag Archives: Emilio Fernandez

In Conversation with Dolores Tierney on the films of Emilio Fernández and Roberto Gavaldón

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Emilio Fernández and Roberto Gavaldón are two of the great directors of Mexican Cinema´s Golden Age. Dolores Tierney is a Senior Lecturer in Media and Film at Sussex University and an internationally renown film scholar who has written an important book on the work of Fernández, Emilio Fernández: Pictures in the Margins, and who has also written extensively on Gaváldon.

If Fernández´films are already well known, Gavaldón´s work is having an incredible and long over-due revival this year, with retrospectives  in New York´s Lincoln Centre and the San Sebastian Film Festival, His work also featured heavily in the Salon Mexico: The Golden Age of Mexican Cinema retrospective at the BFI earlier in the year and  the Cine Doré in Madrid, whose programme names him ´The King of Mexican Melodrama´, is currently showing a range of his films.

As Dolores writes in Emilio Fernández: Pictures in the Margins (Manchester University Press, 2007):

For seven years, from 1943 until 1950, Emilio Fernández (1904-1986) was regarded as one of the foremost puveyors of Mexicanness,’ as one of the most important filmmakers of the Mexican film industry…, and as one of the most famous filmmakers in the Western world. His distinctive, ‘authentically Mexican´ visual style — developed over an extensive collaboration with photographer Gabriel Figueroa of thirteen years and twenty-two films — was praised for bringing international attention and prestige to the Mexican film industry…At the height of his career in the 1940s he was loved by audiences and critics alike, not only for bringing international attention and artistic glory to the Mexican motion-picture industry but also for defining a school of Mexican films. Indeed, he underscored and in some ways initiated this approach to his work by repeated claiming ´!El cine mexicano so yo¡/ I am Mexican cinema´

 

In his introduction to La fatalidad urbana: El cine de Roberto Gavaldón (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2007), Fernando Mino Gracia writes:

What would Mexican cinema be without the the sure look — distant, reflexive — of Roberto Gavaldón. We would have lost no less that the most rounded, audacious and finished oeuvre, one that explains a fundamental period of Twentieth Century Mexican cinema, that which covers the period of the end of the Second World War to the start of the 70s. Because Gavaldón is the the filmmaker who best diagnosed, over the entirety of his work, the pulse of a society in the process of consolidation. Nothing was the same by the end of the 1950s and Gavaldón was a privileged witness and chronicler. A mirror which re-works with complex subtlety the inequality of that society and which today, for better and worse, gives us sustenance (p. 19, trans my own).

 

The podcast below is a wide-ranging discussion on the films and careers of Fernández and Gavaldón with the hope of drawing attention to these immense works of world cinema and also to Dolores Tierney´s invaluable writing on both of these directors.

In the podcast, Dolores and I discuss the work of each director, their collaborations with leading stars such as Pedro Armendáriz, Dolores Del Rio, María Felix, Arturo de Cordova; Melodrama, Mexican Nationalism and its discourses, how the films, be they noirs or melodramas or even rural sagas, fit into a post-revolution political project whilst also being dialogue transnationally with classical Hollywood cinema.

My hope for the podcast is that Dolores´enthusiasm will lead you to the films and that my own will lead you to Dolores´invaluable work on them.

 

Those of you wishing to pursue further links might enjoy this video essay by Dolores Tierney and Catherine Grant on the ´cabaretera´films of the period.

 

I have also written on several Gavaldón films and you can pursue links here:

La Diosa arrodillada/ The Kneeling Goddess (1947)

La Noche avanza/ Night Falls (1952)

Camelia (1953)

La Escondida (1956)

Macario (1960)

…and on a couple of Fernández films:

Las Islas Marias (1951)

…and you can see the incredible clip from Fernández´Victimas del pecado (1951) here:

José Arroyo

 

Las Islas Marias (Emilio Fernández, Mexico, 1951)

A film that’s excessively melodramatic, choppy and incomplete, with strands of plot that get lost and don’t quite make sense; a film that’s nonetheless arresting to look at, engaging, and ultimately moving in spite of all the clichés. It´s an Emilio Fernández film, photographed by Gabriel Figueroa: melancholy and pure, mired in fatalism but with a path to redemption embedded in the very beauty of the shots, compositions and the people at the centre of it.

The plot is one cliché after another: A widow (Rosauro Revueltas) has struggled to bring up her three children properly and against all odds. But she´s not quite succeeded: Her daughter Alejandra (Esther Luquin) is running around wild with men she shouldn´t; Her eldest  son, Felipe (Pedro Infante), is drowning his sorrows with sad songs and alcohol. Luckily for her, the day before her house gets repossessed, she´s hosting a party for her other son, Ricardo (Jaime Fernández), the good one, perfect in every way, upstanding, honourable. But that night, Alejandra kills a man. Ricardo takes the blame but kills himself to preserve is honour as a military man, and thus Felipe then takes the blame so that his brother can die with his name untarnished.

As you can see in the clip above, the film is unabashedly melodramatic, throwing every cliché in the book at a story which needs all the help it can get: note the music, the angles, the cutting, all throbbing life and feeling at a plot point so cornball only a Dickens or this kind of treatment can bring to life. As  soon as the mother says, ´Our house is in trouble but thank God all my children are around me´´, the police knock on the door, and soon the house will be lost, one son will be dead, the other in prison, the daughter walking the streets and she herself reduced to working in a factory for subsistence living and soon to go blind. When misery descends there´s no escape.

 

If the story is a cliché, what the film wrings out of it isn´t. There are moments where sadness and pain are conveyed plainly in moments of spectacle that take us out of the plot and into pure feeling as here when Pedro Infante is introduced to us as Felipe, plaintively singing his sorrows through the lyric of ‘El cobarde/ The Coward’:

 

As the title of the film indicates, a major attraction is the setting, the penal colony of the Islas Marias. Once the pride of the government, beautiful, ostensibly ‘escape proof’, but infamous for its violence, disease and forced labour. The film depicts the beauty and the harshness of the island, the work, the incarceration in arresting, beautifully composed and balanced images (see a selection below).

 

 

 

Las Islas Marias is where the great Pedro Infante as Felipe goes to redeem himself. The film encases the characters in an ideology very dear to fascists regimes: characters speak of honour, duty, obligations, responsibility, who the head of the family is and what his —  it´s always a he — obligations are. The family runs through the film, prison is at the centre of it and it all ends in church. This is a film that structures all those tropes, so easily rendered reactionary, as prison bars throughout the film. But pierces them with something darker, sadder: a kind of pain that punctures all the certainties, howls through them and risks shattering them…but not quite.

At the heart of the film is this lovely exchange between Felipe and an older and wiser prisoner. There´s talk of a planned escape. Of how Felipe will be coerced into joining it through taunts of courage and manhood. But as the old man says, ´Where we have to escape is not from the Islas Marias but from ourselves. And that is so difficult. …Why does one get desperate? Because of lack of freedom? Liberty is like those herbs from the hills that cure everything and cure nothing. The best thing is not to want to leave where one is, not to want anything. Understand. If you want nothing, you can live in peace´.

To want nothing is a sadness the film understands. But the film doesn´t relegate Felipe to an eternal stare into the abyss. If he was a coward who cried for love at the beginning. he finds the courage to claim another love, pure and simple, like the life he´s willing to accept and has now earned. The film ends with him finding his mother, now a blind beggar, in a church. But he´s got a wife and a baby. The film has previously shown us the sister walking the streets but fails to bring her back into the family, indeed she´s blamed for all the harm she´s caused, if only by structurally absenting her from the final sacred reunion.

The ending is as trite and clichéd as the beginning. But plot is not what one leaves this film with. There is the beauty of the song, and then images darkened into a prison each character inhabits, literally and figuratively such as we can see above on the left, and then the dignity, openness, and beauty of the compositions , ennobled by being shot from below against open sky (such as we can see on the right). Can a film be simultaneously trite and sublime? If it can be Las islas Marias is.

 

José Arroyo

 

A Moment from Victimas del Pecado

A friend just delighted me by mentioning that his favourite film from the 2018 ‘Il Cinema Ritrovato Festival’ was Emilio Fernández’ great Victimas del pecado/ Victims of Sin (Mexico, 1951). If you haven’t yet seen this great transgressive clip, one of the great delirious moments of melodrama in the history of world cinema, simultaneously masochistic and subversive, do. I’ve conveniently provided it for you here, with sub-titles.

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Eavesdropping at the Movies 38 – Coco

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(Mind out for spoilers, we don’t do a good job of warning of them here. After the plot synopsis at the beginning, expect spoilers throughout.)

Pixar’s extraordinarily vivid, rich Coco tells the story of a young Mexican boy who dreams of life as a musician, stranded in the Land of the Dead. Themes of sacrifice for family, liberation and expression through music, remembrance and commemoration of loved ones and more are explored, and a culture that is typically ignored or stereotyped – or walled off if a certain someone has his way – is allowed to explode onto the cinema screen. It’s as warm, funny, and imaginative as anything you’ll see all year, and we adore it.

Film buffs will recognise homages to Busby Berkeley, Mexican musicals, Dolores Del Rio, Maria Felix, Rancheras, Emilio Fernandez, Enamorada, The Wizard of Oz and Frida Kahlo. It’s full of mariachis. When one hears a whisper of what sounds like Chavela Vargas, the spine tingles.

Jose is reminded of his dear abuelita. Mike cries.

Recorded on 23rd January 2018.

 

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or at this link

You can download it from i-tunes here.

We also now have a dedicated website.

 

José Arroyo and  Michael Glass of Writing About Film