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.
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:
From the very beginning of La Diosa arrodillada,the viewer is plunged into a heightened world of dreams and desires, a world of feeling which the characters express through diaries, letters. They speak to each other in a heightened tone, with poetic language and presented to the viewer through symbolic use of imagery. The films is, to borrow J. Hoberman’s words, ‘part film noir, part grand opera’.
La Diosa arrodillada opens with Raquel (María Félix) eagerly awaiting her lover Antonio (Arturo de Córdova) at the airport. She smiles with pleasure at his arrival, and before he sees her, thus conveying to us that her feelings for him are real. In the first few lines of dialogue, we know they’ve done this before, that their time together is fleeting and precious, snatched from other commitments and obligations. There’s then a dissolve. We first see a carafe of wine, smoke curling up the frame. We hear her voice, ‘to think I never ask you anything. I’ve never wanted to ask you anything’. The camera pulls back. ‘That’s the proof of our love’, he responds, ‘We must never interrogate the past if we value our love’.
‘But it’s so difficult to be strong when alone’, she says, ‘and we see so little of each other. Let’s never abandon each other. It would be like death.’
‘If so, let’s close our eyes and live that dream’.
Cut to an extraordinary close-up of Félix, as if in orgasm, saying: ‘I’ll keep my eyes closed to prevent my soul from escaping this dream. That is my promise Antonio’.
From the beginning we’re plunged into a world of feeling, dreams, a place where life is to be lived in the intense now without regard to the past and bracketed away from the future and from the society that intrudes on this world of feeling and may shatter it . But these wishes won’t come true; the promises won’t be kept. The world will intrude. They try to do what they think is right but are propelled by a force of desire they can’t control; he especially as despite the film’s title, this is not the story of a kneeling Goddess but of a fallen man.
What drives the narrative engine of The Kneeling Goddess, the motor of all noir, is desire. In this case, Antonio’s for Raquel. The film tells us this most directly. When he returns home to his office and his wife, Antonio looks outside, to a sign urging lovers to ‘Use Desire, the Perfume of Lovers’. The film doesn’t want us to miss this so the score urgently and loudly underlines its significance.
‘What do you understand by desire,’ Antonio asks his butler? ‘what one longs for, what one wants..’. ‘Exactly. But it’s more than that. It’s a force that obliges you. That propels you to obtain what you want, and to keep it if you’ve already obtained it. Isn’t that right?’
‘But that force can grow, take shape, take on a life of its own, become stronger than you, and could end up destroying you. And what’s worse destroy all those closest to you.’
Antonio looks of a picture of his wife, who’s been in ill in a sanatorium in Cincinnati, probably the reason he hooked up with Racquel in the first place. It’s at that moment that Antonio decides to stop seeing Raquel. Raquel, however, has beat him to it, leaving a letter for him, saying she’s got a past, one she doesn’t want to divulge to him, and in spite of her promises, can’t continue seeing him. He never gets that letter because, reminded of how much he loves his wife and how much his wife needs him, he ends up not going to Guadalajara to see her and thus does not receive her brush-off.
But fate won’t let them be. When he returns home, his wife has been completing work on the garden. They’ve put a fountain. And she decides that the only thing missing, is a statue, something like the Venus de Milo. He goes to a gallery and finds the statue he’s looking for, a statue clearly modelled on Raquel, who he finds there, half-dressed after having posed for the sculptorp. It’s called ‘The Kneeling Goddess’, she informs him, ‘but it’s really just a woman on her knees, the way men like to see them be.’
In the clip below, you can see, how Gavaldón shows us the effect of that statue, of Raquel, on Antonio and his marriage. He becomes transfixed. His wife watches the statue take hold of him. There’s thunder, lightning, rain. Like Sirk, Gavaldón is not afraid to externalise feeling. But unlike Sirk, Gavaldón does not ironise, distance, or make strange. The obsession depicted comes from the heart and is meant to be understood as such. When he returns to his study, we hear him tell himself in voice-over:’ there’s nothing worse than fooling yourself. All my struggle has been for nought. I understand it’s stronger than I’. Reason and will recede, and he succumbs to desire and the unconscious.
Thus begins Antonio’s decline. Once he was a happily married man, a rich industrialist with his own chemical company. Soon he’ll be chasing through the tropics following a cabaret singer selling more than songs in cheap dives. His wife is surrounded by friends, chandeliers, formal paintings of herself, she plays classical music. Raquel in contrast is shown naked in marble, showing off her body in Panama’s Paradise singing popular song and embracing unknown sailors. The film is not afraid of over-emphasis and the contrasting ways in which each woman in Antonio’s life is symbolised is consistently and continually underlined.
Time is a persistent theme in the film. At the beginning, Raquel wants to deny the past and the future and live in a continual present. They have little time. Later on, Antonio’s wife dies. In an extraordinary scene, Gavaldón shows us the married couple, the wedding cake celebrating their anniversary in the foreground, the statue that threatens the marriage behind them in the background. In seconds, Antonio will put poison in a drink. His wife will see him put that poison in one of two drinks. Is the poison for her or for himself? We don’t know but in the next shot an obit shows us the wife’s already a goner.
Raquel believes he may have done it out of love for her. This rather thrills her. It might be what made him go to Panama, to get drunk watching her sing of the treachery and uselessness of love and marriage and allowing herself, like Gilda, to be felt up by the men in the audience. When she asks him why he’s followed her to Panama, he, drunk on the floor with alcohol, and drunk in the head with desire for her, cups her breasts and then moves his hand up her throat and tries to strangle her. Time as feeling in the film stands still; time as narrative gallops along at an insatiable pace.
The question of time is uttered constantly in stylised language and shown to us through a symbol that encapsulates so many of the film’s themes. A lighter (see below), that is also a watch, and that has a secret compartment which can carry poison. Thus, a desire that sparks, that will burn, with an intensity that can only ever be delimited before it is extinguished, and that carries a poison through which one can kill oneself and possibly others. All encased in time. It’s brilliant.
Like in a musical, the songs in the Panama Paradise sequence are used to comment on the story. The first part of the number, starts with Raquel partner’s singing to us: ‘I just screwed up, I got married, and fell into the woman’s trap’. She in turn begins her song by saying how women have to act submissive and be smart to catch a man. ‘I confess I don’t know what love is’ ‘You have a heart of crystal,’ sings her partner.
Then the tone changes and Raquel goes onto perform her solo which begins in the talk-singing style later made famous by Rex Harrison and which begins the clip above. ‘I’ve known love. It’s very beautiful. Burt for me it was fleeting and traitorous. It made dishonest what was once glorious. My law is pleasure…for money,’ and then she begins the song proper. Love was her cross and her religion but love’s revenge was marriage, after which their love became only pretend, a farce they’re now condemned to keep on repeating.
The last bit of the number, a duet once more, sings of the glories of not getting married and that to be happy one must never listen to one’s heart and forget about love. Something that Antonio, in the audience, and having drunk his way to unconsciousness due to his feelings for her, is beginning to learn. But as the song ends, a coochie dancer appears, shakes her bum, and lets the audience in the scene and the audience watching the film know love’s got little to do with anything: that it’s all about the sex.
David Melville notes the comparison to Von Sternberg in this sequence: ‘This whole nightclub episode builds to a fetishist frenzy that’s worthy of Josef von Sternberg. María’s sleazy manager and co-star (Fortunio Bonanova) scrawls a message in lipstick on her dressing room mirror (Morocco). It’s New Year’s Eve, and the air shimmers with balloons and paper streamers (Dishonored). He wears a white tuxedo (Blonde Venus) and she sports a white silk gown decorated with fringe (The Devil Is a Woman). María Félix, to be fair, is far more Maria Montez than Marlene Dietrich – but she throws herself into the melodramatic absurdities with a gusto that many a more gifted actress might envy’.
Raquel only begins to be sure of his love once she suspects he may have killed for her. This paves the way for getting married and the return to Mexico,. As you can see in the fantastic sequence above, the film turns quasi-Gothic, like a combination of Rebecca and Suspicion. She wears black, wonders around the house at night, finds his bedroom locked to her. She sees that the portrait of Antonio’s dead wife dominates the living room, that her reminder is everywhere in the house. He in turn spies her contemplating his dead wife’s painting, which he then becomes obsessed with. This is dark, murky, territory, where the darker feelings that edge and constantly pull on desire — guilt, disgust, fear, jealousy — are symbolically visualised.
The picture of Raquel that drives Antonio so wild with desire, The Kneeling Goddess, is meant to be of Diana, the Goddess of the Hunt. And María Félix is often adorned with feathers, beautiful, but a bird of prey (see examples above).
Raquel is also often associated with animals. The Giraffe print in the Schiaparelli-esque dress on the left, the mermaid or siren look in the picture on the second from the left, the spider web dress in the second from the right, and of course in fur on the right.
As Moviediva argues, ‘La diosa tackles one of Gavaldon’s recurring themes, death, in this case the death of a man’s spirit, as he is corrupted by his love for a femme fatale. He loves the use of mirrors, used to demonstrate duality, and here, also the decay of the hero’s morality. Because there was no Production Code in Mexico, this film is surprisingly sexy for a 1940s film’. Indeed as you can see in the images above, whereas the wife was always associated with high culture, refinement and respectability, Raquel is constantly associated with sex, a Circe who will drive men to ridicule and ruin. As J. Hoberman writes, The Kneeling Goddess ‘is the most outré of melodramas, it’s a movie of flagrant symbols, blatant coincidences and astounding scenes …(and María Félix is) a femme fatale to rival any from 1940s Hollywood, Félix embodies a moral ambiguity beyond good and evil.’
Paco Ignacio Taibo has written that when the film came out in Mexico it was denounced as an ‘insult to the morality of the country’, an attack on Christian morality, There were demonstrations. Taibo is particularly harsh on the film’s wardrobe, which as you can see from my comments above, I heartily disagree with; and also with the film’s dialogue: ‘I’ve had to fight very hard to win your heart’; ‘I’ve tried to fight a fire with a sea of dynamite’; ‘You either give yourself to me or destroy me’.
I see the dialogue as one of the film’s strengths. It is like opera, it is meant to ‘sing’ a realm of feeling. External realism has very little place in film’s of this type. Like in many film noirs, melodramatic passion is what’s on visual display; how desire can drive a man to his doom, desire for whom, and how. As we can see in the final sequence, where Raquel runs to the jail to inform her husband that he’s been declared innocent, that the night is gone forever, all whilst images show her and then him and then them, imprisoned by their past, their desires, their actions: the dream they wanted to hold onto by closing their eyes turned into a nightmare, his fears regarding his desires, being proved all too true. And then the film, rather than ending on him ends on her, in the mansion that is now hers, looking at the statue that she posed for, and pondering that power of that which it represents. What is the significance of her look as the camera follows her gaze and tracks into a closer look at the stature? It’s a great sequence in a truly great movie (see below)
Watching La Otra recently I noticed that Roberto Gavildón re-uses his sets. Compare Dolores Del Rio on the staircase in La Otra (1946) in the image on the left below to Arturo de Córdoba looking on at María Felix in La Diosa arollidada (1947) on the image on the right below. A minor geek moment that I’d nonetheless like to record.
Another comparison I’d like to note here, and something I’d like to write more on when I have more time, is the endings of both films, which I’ve extracted below. Two women lose what they wanted, both are incarcerated by past actions, Dolores Del Rio literally and María Félix metaphorically. Both endings take place in a jail and Gavaldón makes full use of expressionist shadows, of angles that emphasise a lack of future, the result of a shadowy and criminal past; note too the music, the rythms of the shots, the highly stylised dialogue and the consistent use of symbols and metaphors. A more considered response will follow if time permits. But in the meantime, have a look for yourself. The first, in slight blurrovision, is from La otra; the second is a much higher quality clip of the great ending of La Diosa arrodillada, filmed the year after.