Tag Archives: Maria Felix

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

 

Vértigo (Antonio Momplet, Mexico, 1946)

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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

 

 

Incantesimo tragico/Oliva/ Hechizo Tragico/Tragic Spell (Mario Sequi, Italy/France, 1951)

A film sold under many names and not a real success under any of them. A Gothic melodrama from Italy. María Félix is the beautiful Oliva, from a well-to-do family. Her widowed mother has chosen an aristocrat for her to marry, old, ugly and very rich. But on the annual feast day in which women are allowed to choose who they dance with, thus announcing their intended, she goes for Pietro (Rossano Brazzi), the King of the pickaxe, a well to do tenant farmer, who dreams of finding a way to bring to life the dry and rocky hills around his land.  ‘Will you know how to forgive me,’ she asks him on their wedding day. The film will tell us at the end.

 

When Pietro takes Oliva to his grandmother to get her blessing for their wedding, she judges Oliva, pretty …but too pretty. On the night that Pietro’s father Bastiano (Charles Vanel) returns from the jewellers, where he’s gone to get Oliva her wedding pearls, thunder and lighting waylay him into a deserted castle (see clip above). The thunder opens up the earth and he there finds a disused Roman temple, full of cobwebs, with mice running around, and in a tomb he finds a legendary treasure, ‘Il Tesoro dei Guarcialupi’ . He goes to his mother for advice and she tells him that gold calls to gold, it’s the demon’s opera. One of the jewels has an image of a beautiful woman, it’s a cursed image, and he must go immediately to the Chapel on the Mount and offer all of it to the Virgin so that she may protect him and his family from the curse. But Bastiano is greedy and doesn’t listen.  The rest of the film is precisely about the unfolding of that curse.

Félix once more plays a woman who destroys everything she comes into contact with. Rosanno Brazzi, often so dull, here at least looks soulful and handsome. Charles Vanel is hard, menacing, sober – completely great – as the father who thinks his son is out to assassinate him and kills him first. The film is beautifully shot by Piero Portalupi, immaculately lit, and with some interesting imagery. But it never quite comes to life. The Gothic elements are well imaged (see clips above but also image below) and there’s an interesting dream sequence (see clip immediately above) which also announces the beginning of the curse taking action. But the film creates little tension or suspense. Massimo Serato is Berto, Pietro’s brother and also in love with Olivia, It’s a well-made film but rather lifeless and much less enjoyable than mediocre films from the height of her Mexican period like La Devoradora which are made with less skill but imbued with a pulp, lurid life that makes them great fun to watch.

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José Arroyo

 

 

Les heros sont fatigués/Heroes and Sinners (Yves Ciampi, France/W. Germany, 1955)

 

A young and sexy Yves Montand and the ever beautiful María Félix in Les Héros sont fatigués/ Heroes and Sinners (see below). As you can see from the posters above, the filmmakers hoped the sex would sell the film’s more complicated themes of de-colonisation in Africa, German unification, European conciliation, and what happens to men after the struggles they sacrificed their lives to are ended. A melodrama/adventure film/ political statement that does not quite fully work but that is so fascinating I plan to watch it again. María Felix is introduced being pushed around by her partner, a former collaborator and anti-semite, for sleeping with black men. Curd Jürgens won the best actor prize for his performance at the Venice Film Festival that year for this film. Gert Fröbe is at least as good as a concentration camp survivor.

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Frantz Fanon would publish Black Skins, White Masks in 1952; Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man also came out in ’52; Aimé Césaire Discours sur le colonialism in ’55; Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in ’58. This film is made amidst ideas on race and colonialism that were live in that period, by filmmakers who were actively engaged, who contributed to the development and dissemination of political and aesthetic ideas, from the left, in the public sphere of post-war France.

Director Yves Ciampi had made a famous film on the Liberation of Paris, Les compagnons de la gloire — La division Leclerc dans la bataille, headed the Film Technicians Trade Union, and would go on to marry Japanese actress Keiko Kishi. One of the writers, Jacques-Laurent Bost, might be more famous to cinéastes today as the brother of Pierre Bost, the screnwriter François Truffaut singled out for his ire in ‘Une certain tendance du cinéma Francais’. But those more familiar with French culture would know him as the war correspondent hired by Albert Camus to cover the fall of Berlin. He was at the liberation of Dachau and was one of the first people to write about the Holocaust. He was also, along with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, a founding member of Le nouvel observateur, a key member of that particular group of existentialists and the lover of Simone de Beauvoir. Montand was for most of his life a life-long leftist, closely associated with the communist party, and his brother Julien Livi was a member of the Communist party, one of the leading post-war Trade Unionists and Genera Secretary to the ‘Fédération du Commerce, des Services de de la Distribtuion (CGT) de l’alimentation’ from 1956 to 1979. Even María Félix, who seemed to skate elegantly over politics and had seemingly had no qualms about working in Fascist Spain or Peron’s Argentina just a few years earlier, was then involved with Jean Cau, Sartre’s former secretary and a writer who’d published Maria-Nêgre, a novel about the tragic love affair between a black GI and an Italian girl set during the libertion of Naples and published in 48.

 

The filmmakers lean left, most of them with personal experience of racism,  and perhaps because of that the film engages with and dramatises  issues of racial relations in a post-colonial setting with a seriousness and relative depth that is rare in cinema, particularly the cinema of that period. As the title card that precedes the film (above) tells us: ‘This film is set in in one of the black republics of Africa. In these republics, young and independent, a black elite educated abroad has introduced a language and way of life far removed from African morays. In spite of that, these countries have preserved most of their ancestral traditions.’

 

Les heros sont fatigués is ostensibly an adventure story about a former flier now stuck piloting merchandise across Africa, who gets his hands on a shipment of diamonds, and decides that selling them for himself might be his ticket back home. But the colonial structures and relationships of this former British colony keep getting in the way. In the first few minutes of the film, Michel Riviére (Montand) hitches a ride to Free City, the capital, stops off at the house of the only contact he has and this is what we’re shown (see clip below): the camera follows him into the house, what we hear is American blues, one of the young women working is topless,  the young child is naked, there’s a rooster on top of the fridge. It all looks ‘pittoresque,’ othered, overly atmospheric, and arguably racist in  the way it fails to distinguish between black American and African cultures.  But then, listen to the head of the household’s speech. ‘He was nothing more than a thief…We have no need of your kind here. Our country is young and we are free. Can’t you understand?’ Visually and aurally the film gives mixed signals. But there’s no misinterpreting the speech, one that frames the rest of the film just as powerfully as the text before the film’s beginning excerpted above.

 

 

María Félix gets a great introduction — her transgression here is that she has a black lover, Sidney (Gordon Heath), and without hiding it from her partner either. But the scene illustrates why in order to understand the power and force of María Félix’s stardom, one has to see her in her Mexican films. There she’s presented as a force of nature, a beauty both indigenous and rare with a touch of the divine and more than soupçon of devilry. She’s ‘Woman’ in all her many guises and everything happens around her. Here, she’s the illustration of a theme.

As you can see in the clip below, we see her through Montand’s look. He goes to the door, moves towards the window and spies on François (Jean Severin) screaming at Manuella ‘You’re white. You belong to us’. ‘Shut up stupid’. The fight continues in voice-over but the camera follows Montand as he now goes into the bar and asks if they have a room. ‘If she lets herself be touched by her Negro, I’ll shoot her and him with her.’ Then note how everyone’s gaze turns to Montand, François moves to occupy the space between Manuela and Michel. And then in the next shot, she moves in between the two men, foreshadowing what is inevitable, ie, the two stars of the film start a love affair,  as François says, ‘She’s sleeping with black men. Can you imagine? Her!’ And then another character, who we will learn is a Republican ex-combattant from the Spanish Civil War, intervenes and says of François. ‘He’s got a good stomach. In France he ate jews; here it’s Blacks’, thus linking  them together in the film’s thematisation of race. I wanted to draw attention to this because it’s Félix’s introduction; and in many ways it’s very powerful. But the focus is almost entirely on Montand or on the question of miscegenation and racism. She barely gets a word or a look in.

 

The themes of colonisation in its changing forms is shown in different ways. At the very beginning as Michel enters free city, we see a big billboard advertising Coca Cola (see frame grab, below left). Later on when Sidney (Gordon Heath) enters the bar to propose marriage to Manuella and François reaches for the gun, its symbolically shown to us as surrounded by American dollars (see frame grab, below left). One empire has left but another is taking over with a different form of colonisation but just as murderous. One of the characters says ‘there’s only two white women here and they’re both colonised by blacks.’ But that’s missing the point, which is that one master is giving way to another, and that Coca Cola can serve one empire just as military presence did a previous model.

 

Like in Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear — Montand’s first big hit in the movies — much of the narrative here revolves around a bar in which  series of outcasts stuck in a third-world country pass the time and scheme on how to get out. But Les héros sont fatiguées is more overtly political: François Severin (Jean Servais) is the collaborationist judge who helped send Jews to the gas chambers;  Hermann (Gert Fröbe) is a former German politician sent to a concentration camp by the Nazis for his politics, now stuck repairing watches in Africa; there’s also more than a hint that Pépé (Manolo Montez) fought on the losing side of the Spanish Civil War (see the posters around his bed, bottom left); and of course Wolf Gerke (Curd Jürgens) Michel’s equal and opposite, is revealed to be a former Luftwaffe flyer (see the image of the lighter, below right), who fought on the opposite side.

 

 

The film offers a conciliation between Hermann and Wolf, they both dream of German re-unification. And the last image in the film will be that of Wolf and Michel supporting each other as they make their way out of the country and into a new life as partners (see below).

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I was very intrigued by the scene below, as structurally and thematically complex one. In the scenes at the bar Michel and Wolf have a deal going but Michel is hoping to double-cross him by escaping on a boat. Wolf and Hermann, previously poles apart in politics, use Christmas as an occasion in which to offer a toast for peace and for German unification. It’s also where Manuella has to tell Michel that François has sabotaged their escape plans and hopes to find another solution by visiting Sidney, her black lover and a powerful person in the country’s new order. It’s a bit after this that Michel and Wolf will realise their commonality in spite of having fought against each other in the war and bond.

The scene cross-cuts between the bar inside, the populace at large celebrating in their own indigenous customs; and the Europeanised hoi polloi adopting foreign customs in dress and dancing. It’s the last bit, where Manuella goes into the haute-bourgeois black party that intrigues me, partly because it must have been so rare to see in the cinema in 1955. Here the tables are turned. Manuella, who started off life as a Consul’s daughter, is here looked upon as the outsider, slightly trashy, out of place and possibly not knowing her place. It’s where Sidney throws Manuella physically out of the party and Villeterre (Gérard Oury), the fixer who’s arranged to buy Michel’s diamonds at a fixed price, tells Sidney, ‘Come on, come on my friend. Make a gesture. Be jealous, by all means. But don’t be racist.’ How are we meant to look at this scene? Are we meant to be with Sidney and the black bourgeoisie?; are we meant to look down on them?; are we meant to think they’re gotten too big for their britches, have forgotten to be African and badly imitating a culture that doesn’t suit them? I’m not sure. Yves Ciampi is not a good enough director to be both clear and complex in his filming of the scene. But for me this is the scene the film is worth seeing for.

There are other attractions of course, Maria Felix exhibiting a degree of flesh that must have been shocking then. She’s constrained by being limited to only one outfit but she does what she can for her fans by making her hair do the work expected of stars (see below right). Montand is very sexy also. Curd Jürgens and Gert Fröbe are excellent. The score, featuring some of the biggest hits of the era (Edith Piaf et) is a delight. The fim’s aims and its politics are admirable. But it’s well filmed without being exciting (The Wages of Fear is a useful contrast here as well). It’s also a bit muddled in that it loses the action/adventure strand of the film in its attempt to include the politics and the picturesque. And yet, without being great, it’s interested me enough to write 2,000 words on it.

 

José Arroyo

 

La Diosa arrodillada/ The Kneeling Goddess (Roberto Gavaldón, Mexico, 1947)

diosa cartel

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.

 

Desire

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?’

‘Yes’

‘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.

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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)

José Arroyo

 

Note on Gavildón Geek moment

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.

 

José Arroyo

Mesalina/ Messaline/ The Affairs of Mesalina (Carmine Gallone, Italy/France/Spain, 1951)

 

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So far I’ve seen María Félix as an actress only stage so she can charge more for her favours, as Lady Lucifer, as goddess on her knees, and as someone who only God can judge and may God forgive her. It’s almost inevitable that she should play Mesalina, who neither asks for nor seeks the forgiveness of any God.

She’s got Emperor Claudius (Memo Benassi) wrapped around her little finger and is already bankrupting Rome with her demands for jewels as the film begins. Claudius is too old and too busy, however. And she’s lonely. So she takes on a series of young, handsome lovers and, when she tires of them, she has them killed. She also has them killed if they gossip too loudly about their trysts with her. In fact, she has no compunction about killing anyone who gets in her way or is the least bit inconvenient.

She’s scared of death, but only when it comes to her own. In what must have been a very daring sequence for its time, Mesalina in blonde wig slinks off at night to a seedy brothel to satisfy her lust with as many men as she likes and, after she’s done, quickly stabs to death the poor prostitute who happened to recognise her. The combination of sex and death is luridly highlighted.

One wonders how they got this through the censors. But then, director Carmine Gallone was expert at doing just that. He’s started off making films in 1914. He was one of the leading directors during Mussolini’s dictatorship (Scipione l’Africano, 1937) and was famous for his epics (Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei, 1926). He was often compared to De Mille, and one can understand why: this has exciting scenes with hordes of men riding two horses standing, fights to death, Christians being thrown to the lions, Nubian slaves whipping dancing girls. It’s all redeemed in a sub-plot with two young lovers (Erno Crisa as Timo; Delia Scala as Cinzia) by highlighting the power of love and the power of faith (she chases after her lover into the arena and prevents him from being eaten by lions by praying to Christ, see below).

All of the religiosity is an alibi for the violence; and the violence and spectacle is all a setting for Mesalina’s wickedness. She’s got power, jewels, and as much sex as she wants. Her weakness is that she wants to be loved. Her choice is Caio Silvio; and as played by the very handsome George Marchal, one can understand why. But it’s a mistake. She had his best friend Valerio (Jean Chevrier) sentenced to death. While he’s heading a plot to depose her; she’s plotting to marry him and kill her husband so that they can rule together.

It’s all very sensationalistic and very entertaining, a tabloid rendering of the wickedness of Rome. Whilst watching it, I thought how can a film look both expensive and cheap. There are enormous sets, thousands of extras, but then all the little details seem wrong, like they haven’t taken proper care. There’s a ballet scene where the two dancers dancing with Cinzia keep going in and out of the frame, like director and dancers just got it wrong and couldn’t be bothered to correct it.

In the scene above Caius is forced to submit to Mesalina’s request to see him. She’s just had the friend he loved sentenced to death, though she made herself seem generous, in allowing him to choose the form, an opportunity to show us a beautiful women opening Valeria’s veins whilst he lounges in a chaisse longue. Caius accuses Mesalina of doing it only because she covets Valerio’s house and gardens. She admits it. She can’t help it if she loves pleasure. She’s doomed not to be loved and it’s her only compensation. But what if he loved her, he asks. Then the Emperor’s days would be numbered, she replies. She looks at the window comments on the beauty of the night, the smoke on the horizon, and the lovely smell of Spring. He tells her it’s from Valerio’s funeral pyre. He’s so enraged, he tries to strangle her. Her last reply is that she will get her torturers to make him scream with love. It’s that kind of film.

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As you can see from the clip. It’s not very imaginatively shot. Also, whilst María Felix is beautifully lit in close-up (see above), there’s a lot less care in medium and long-shot (as you can see from the clip). She looks a bit hard in certain sequences. And certainly the character as written does not arouse empathy, understanding, or identification, like the Mexican films do, even when showing Félix at her most wicked. Mesalina is there to excite and to be judged, by the film and by men.

The DVD I saw it from has both Italian and Spanish versions. And though I expected the film to be dubbed in Italian, it was disconcerting to see María Felix dubbed in Spanish. One misses her distinctive soft cadences, the lack of which might also add to the impression of hardness in the characterisation. Still, the film was a big success in Italy, increased her international stardom, and paved the way for her filmmaking in France. She remains the main, if not the only, reason to see Messaline/ Mesalina/ The Affairs of Mesalina. 

José Arroyo

La Escondida (Roberto Gavaldón, Mexico, 1956)

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Watching films from Mexico’s Golden Age of Cinema, I’m constantly amazed by the  beauty of the people and the landscape, the siding with the poor against the rich, the stark dramatisation of the levels of injustice with all that natural beauty as a background. La Escondida, also known as The Hidden One in English, is no exception.

Here the story revolves around a rural couple, Gabriela (María Félix) and Felipe (Pedro Armendáriz), madly in love, but oppressed by poverty and the injustices of a society in which the local landowner has complete power over them. She makes a living selling water to passing trains and makes full use of her extraordinary beauty in doing so. The local women resent her for this to the point of stoning her. He’s a revolutionary, waiting for the right moment to take up arms. She’s burning with love for him and wants to get married right away because she’s superstitious something will happen to separate them and fears once they’re separated they’ll lose each other. He and his father finally agree to the marriage –she’ll move in with the family and they’ll somehow manage feeding one extra person —  when he’s sent on a mission. She steals some money from the company shop to go with him. She’s not seen but the shop manager wants sex with her in exchange for his silence as she’s the only one who could have done it. She refuses and is on her way to jail when he sees them and takes the blame. She pleads to reduce his sentence and he ‘only’ gets sent into the army instead. When he returns, as a Lieutenant, he finds first that she’s gone, and later, that she’s become the Governor’s posh mistress who has to be kept hidden  to keep up appearances, thus the film’s title.

The film’s sense of history and its politics are clearly articulated in the opening titles: ‘Opression and tyranny stung the Mexican people. Vassalage was most evident in those large estates, haciendas and villages that still did not figure in the map of reason and human rights. The stoic and submissive peons bit their tongue in silence over the ignominy, accumulating beatings and opprobrium from the privilege caste. Suddenly, the longing for liberty thundered through all parts of the Republic. the clamour for social justice rose as one shout over the hills and valleys until reaching even the most distant sierras where rose legions of the brave, the ignored peasantry whose blood fertilised the plains of the north and watered the exuberant lands of the south. There surged the Caudillos, rough men, obscure and humble, giants of liberty, in whose blood was forged the structure of a new Homeland, of a strong and fertile Mexico, vigorous and progressive. This is a dramatic episode of that turbulent and confused time. The story of a love swept up and battered by the whirlwind of the Revolution.’

There is much to admire: the formal beauty, the framing of landscape, of trains going through it, of the armies and shoot-outs. Figueroa, who worked with Ford in The Fugitive (1947), is here, with Gavaldon, Ford’s equal in making landscape shots expressive of feeling. And the film is a high-budget one with great production values so Gavaldón has the means necessary to achieve the effects he desires to express.  I also love the film’s narrative economy, one often characteristic of a genre which is mainly discussed in terms of excess. See in the extracts below how the train goes in one direction to take Felipe to serve his sentence, and the same train tracks simply move in the opposite direction to almost instantaneously return him to his village.

 

In the same clip, now above, I love the moment where she’s holding his hand, crying. He asks her, ‘what if I don’t return?’ and she says, ‘I’ll kill myself if you want to. I can throw myself right here on the tracks so you no longer have to worry about me’.’Wait for me,’ he responds, as the speed of the train overtakes her, and she falls to the floor sobbing. The beauty of the composition, the landscape, the rhythm of the movement of the train is a setting for feeling; like the background rhythm in a song  that is  a setting for the high notes and gives them meaning.

In a beautifully written piece on Gavaldón for Senses of Cinema, David Melville-Wingrove writes: ‘ it is natural that most of Gavaldón’s films have absurdly melodramatic plots, extravagant and larger-than-life star performances, feverish and hyperbolic mise-en-scène and thunderous and over-the-top musical scores. We should remember that film melodrama – much like bel canto opera or classical ballet – is a stylised, not a realistic, art form. Watching La escondida/The Hidden One (1956), some will complain that María Félix at 40 looks far too old and too glamorous to play an 18-year-old peasant. That is as absurd as carping that Margot Fonteyn in Swan Lake does not look like an actual swan’.

 

 

The film contains a pictorial hommage to Sergei Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico! I loved the framing of the love story amidst revolution but Gavaldón’s style of filmmaking is the opposite of the Russian director’s. Here the focus is not on structures or the intellectual montages designed to express movements in history but on the effects of these revolutionary events on the things poor people value in life: love, family, food. As you can see above one of the film’s title’s was La Passionaria, after the famed Spanish revolutionary of the Spanish Civil War. But Gabriela is nothing like her. In fact, part of the film’s success is in how it makes us understand why Gabriela wants something better for herself. The women in town are jealous, the men are after her, both brutalise her in different ways; she’s waited a long time to marry and has tried everything to be with him. We understand why she wants the good things in life and what she’s done to get them. But we also understand her love for Felipe.

It’s what melodrama does, it makes us side with the powerless and downtrodden by almost musically constructing a world of feeling in which the injustices of the world are made plain and people’s transgressions made understandable. And not just through music, although Cuco Sánchez’s songs are great — but through the deployment of mise-en-scéne. In this sense the film works though it’s far from Gavaldón’s best — I haven’t seen many but I already like Camelia more.

Screen Shot 2018-08-08 at 11.18.15.pngThere are a few reservations things worth noting. Arméndariz an Félix are one of the great partnerships in screen history (as are Arméndariz and Dolores del Río) but they aged at different speeds. Here he’s filled out, looks old and a bit haggard. She looks thinner than her younger self and her face looks different, just as beautiful and not the least bit older. She’s filmed with such care there are moments that are moments in which she exemplifies everything Hollywood divas are accused of. See the picture above, she’s just been brutalised, her dress half torn off, her body wounded….but look at her. Lastly, I bought the video on the ‘Naimara’ edition, the only one available, and it made me regret not simply seeing the film on You Tube. The Eastmancolour has faded in this print, and some scenes are so dark, they’re almost in the  blurrovision often characteristic of films on youtube. I wish there were a better print of this available.

La Escondida is not a great film. But it is a good one by one of the great directors of melodrama with some of the greatest stars in film history in fine form; its worth seeing for that, even in blurrovision.

 

José Arroyo

 

 

Some not un-camp María Félix moment from Renoir’s French Can-Can

Screen Shot 2018-08-03 at 17.33.33.pngFrench Can-Can is one of the glories of cinema. I love so much about it: Gabin’s dancing at the beginning and the way he sways to the music and offers a little twirl of his leg at the end; the vibrancy of the colour; the way so many scenes seem like either a Toulouse-Lautrec poster or a French post-impressionist paintings come to life; the ‘La complainte de la butte’ song; Edith Piaf’s cameo; the way  Montmartre seems constantly under construction like a metaphor for modernism encased in the Can-Can of the Belle Epoque; the way the baker boy cries after making love with Ninni; its wise and understanding heart; its generous attitude to sex; and oh so much more. But I’m now in the midst of a María Félix obsession so I just want to focus here on the way Renoir makes such excellent use of her beauty, her height, and her imperiousness. I was initially distraught at her first appearance. Surely, Renoir is too open and intelligent to diminish La Doña to some mere hot tamale belly dancer? He is. He dresses her beautifully, gives her a larger than life character to play, and gives her enough passion, jealousy, and moments of temperament to bring humour and play into the film’s themes and tone. IN the film she starts at La Belle Abesse, ends up as an Empress, and constantly makes a fool of herself over a man without once losing her dignity. She’s quite something to see. Here are some of her best, and not un-camp moments, in the film.

 

 

 

Camelia (Roberto Gavaldón, Mexico, 1953)

A melodrama; a combination of Camille (George Cukor, 1936) and Dark Victory (Edmund Goulding, 1939), with the beautiful Jorge Mistral and the even more beautiful María Felix. He’s the bullfighter so besotted he dedicates a bull to her only to be so blinded by her beauty, he loses concentration and gets gored. She send him a check to pay his expenses but he won’t accept it. Thus their love story begins.

She triumphs nightly on stage in ‘Our Lady of the Camelias’ but in truth is ‘the most expensive woman in Mexico,’ selling her lifestyle to the highest bidder. ‘ ‘I’m bad, egotistical vain. I enjoy making fun of men and I’ve had so many lovers I can’t remember their faces. I love you but I’m very ambitious. You’ll suffer very much because I can’t deny myself anything. Flee from me! If you can’t, I only ask that you don’t reproach me anything or ask me any questions’. She continues accepting fabulous suites of jewels from endless admirers whilst saving her heart for Jorge Mistral’s gorgeous bullfighter. The maid thinks he doesn’t appreciate this enough: ‘You have the most sought after woman in Mexico and still complain. Those of you who receive love for free are vey curious. You think because you have lovely faces you get all the rights and none of the responsibilities.’

Love is the only thing that can shipwreck such a life, and so it comes to pass. She gives up everything for him. He’s still driven mad with jealousy over her past. They decide to marry but, the night before the wedding, his brother appears. It turns out, he’s one of her previous lovers, and spent three years in jail as a result of a robbery he committed so he could buy her favours. She’s forced to leave her true love almost at the moment of culmination, just as everything she dreamed of her life as a young girl is about to come true. But no matter, she’s got a rare form of cancer and will die soon, the moment she becomes blind, just like Bette Davis in Dark Victory. She does, but onstage, and not before each avows their love for the other and seal it with a kiss.

 

Screen Shot 2018-08-01 at 11.48.10.pngThe film is essential viewing for anyone interested in melodrama. Each phrase is like a little lesson in life, spoken in hushed tones, like in a dream. If the phrasing has a poetic intensity, so do Gabriel Figueroa’s beautiful images, with the scenes in the country, the could-have-been section of the film just before everything turns to dust, being particularly lovely.

The first third of the film alternates what’s happening onstage in ‘Our Lady of the Camelias ‘with what happens in the world of the film; the film bookends and rhymes the beginning and the scene before the end in a bullfight arena; there are three glorious love songs, each giving voice to what the characters feel; there’s a scene in a train station where Felix, dressed in mink, renounces everything she’s lived by to be united with the man she loves; and there’s even  a scene in Church where God’s representative forgives all the sinning, a necessary pre-amble to the glorious death-bed scene, which here happens both onstage and off. Just like much of the film. It’s directed with an intense, quasi-musical tone sustained throughout so that the film seems to take place purely in a world of feeling. A must-see.

 

José Arroyo

Sonatas (J.A. Bardem, Spain/Mexico, 1959)

This is an execrable copy of Juan Antonio Bardem’s Sonatas. The DVD is from the ‘Clásicos Imprescindibles del Cine Español/ Essential Classics of Spanish Cinema’ collection so you’d think they would have taken greater care. The colour is terrible, as if transferred from a highly deteriorated print; the sound is dubbed, badly, and this is before we even get to whatever one of the great directors of Spanish cinema was ever able to achieve with this material.

On the evidence, it’s not much: the dialogue is highly stylised as possibly befits an adaptation of Valle Inclán, but there’s a failure in finding a tone commensurate with such a style; and that failure in turn results in the betrayal of the actors, who perform sometimes in a style one usually associates with provincial touring companies: arch, mannered, often speaking in a declamatory style accompanied by a Delsartean deployment of gestures; and sometimes in a more ‘realist’ psychological style more typical of the cinema. Bardem’s parents, who toured in such companies, both appear here in small roles and both fare better than Aurora Bautista (Concha) or Carlos Casaravilla (Conde de Brandeso). Even Fernando Rey succumbs to the grand arch style intermittently during the course of the film, so one has to assume that the actors were directed to perform in such a way. But it is not a success and some scenes now appear laughable (see below).

The film is an adaptation of Valle Inclán’s Autumn and Summer Sonatas, which El Mundo ranked as amongst the greatest of 20th century Spanish novels. Bardem has said that he was inspired by Visconti’s Senso, and the gap between aspiration and achievement is a sad one to witness. As can be seen from the battle sequences, this was an expensive production. The great Gabriel Figueroa was the dop in the Mexican sequences and Cecilio Paniagua was the dop in the sequences set in Galicia, in the north-west of Spain. The film has a cast most directors or producers of the time would have killed for: did anyone in the history of cinema give better close-up  than María Felix (see a selection below, after an extract of the marvellous but clearly chopped up star entrance Bardem prepares for her)? There’s Paco Rabal, the greatest leading man of the era, with his deep and sonorous voice; there’s also Fernando Rey, a great actor who would go onto international success with his work for Buñuel (Viridiana, amongst many others) and Friedkin (The French Connection); and there’s also Aurora Bautista, whom Bardem himself describes as the ‘only real star Spain had at that time’ (note the difference in billing between what I assume are the Mexican and Spanish posters for the film at the very top).

So what does Bardem do with this dream cast, great crew, excellent budget? As indicated above, the story’s hard to follow, the tone is inconsistent; the battle sequences create neither suspense nor excitement: inserting close-ups of babies crying is no substitute for care with editing and point-of-view. The film was highly censored upon its release but that can only explain some of its problems.

Sonatas was a Mexican co-production with the Spanish production house Uninci, which Rabal, Rey and and Bardem all had shares in. Bardem writes about how their main goal during the making of the film was to convince Luis Buñuel to return to Spain to make movies with them, which he would do with Viridiana, in which both Rabal and Rey would got roles they’re still associated with today. Bardem also writes in his memoirs, Y todavía sigue. Memorias de un hombre de cine (Ediciones B, Barcelona, 2002), that, ‘As I told a journalist then, I was satisfied with having the protagonist of my Sonatas ride on a horse, shotgun in hand, screaming ‘Long Live Liberty’. Well, pip, fucking pip, hurrah. He achieved his goals. But where does that leave the audience?

Bardem writes of how they screened it at the Venice film festival and were surprised at how the film didn’t make an impression. He blames the lack of interest in Spanish literature and culture in the rest of Europe then. To which one can say perhaps.  But one wouldn’t expect the mainstream Spanish cinemagoer to be intimately knowledgeable of the works of Valle Inclán either. Moreover In Valle Inclán’s novels, the focus on the Autumn one is on a melancholy love of the past; the Summer one on erotic love and desire. The film however bounces between something to do with Carlist wars, the Church, and struggles for liberation in the Spanish section; and something to do with Mexican revolution in the Mexican section; admittedly both  as the setting for those depictions of love, but periodically losing focus. One can detect how, wherever he can, and to the confusion of the viewer, the fight for freedom, the critique of totalitarianism and the depiction of questions of conscience, all are privileged at the expense of dramatisations of love.

Bardem blames himself for the miscasting of Aurora Bautista. And as you can see above, in the very first clip, she is indeed terrible. But, and in spite of the film being ostensibly highly censored before its release, Bardem must shoulder a much greater share of the blame than he’s willing to acknowledge. Some of the shots are beautiful (see two instances of wide-shot compositions below). Actually, almost all of the shots are beautiful; almost all shot on location; and the film is worth seeing for that: the compositions are striking and original (see some examples of his characteristic two shots and a very striking close-up above), there is a marvellously intelligent use of the camera throughout with liberal use of long-takes and in depth, and a very poetic use of space. But the lighting doesn’t match from shot to shot, the shots don’t join up into scenes, and the scenes don’t connect into a shape that has rhythm, drama and logic.

On his watch, Bardem, the child of generations of performers, allowed actors, through no fault of their own, to make complete asses of themselves, a terrible betrayal. Only the divine Felix — who clearly had a sense of what worked best for her and performs the whole thing in a silent film star diva style — and to a lesser extent Rabal, escape unscathed.

And yet….some of the compositions, mise-en-scène and the design of shots is so skilled that one still wishes a better copy of this very flawed film was generally available.

The film won the 1959 Prize of the National Syndicate of Spectacle for Best Cinematography in Spain for Cecilio Paniagua and the 1959 Venice Film Festival surprisingly nominated it for Golden Lion, at which one can only scratch one’s head and wonder ‘why’?

José Arroyo

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