Tag Archives: Mexico

Tacos on Netflix

I was too tired to sleep and too tired to do anything yesterday so I watched ´Tacos’ on Netflix, wonderful, and made more so by the appearance of Lady Tacos de Canasta, my new heroine, who explained the role of the Mutje, two-spirit people in her culture, rather like the Berdache in North America, whilst making her tacos ´de canasta´and then selling them on her bike in full drag, looking, as she says, ´tan guapa/ so pretty´y ´con esa vocerrona aguerdientosa /loud and deep whisky voice´. All these types of shows are inevitably Ministry of Tourism, but I think this one is also more than that. For one thing, I love the relish with which the various people speak of the tacos, and also I love that voice-over, epic, grandiloquent, noble but about poor people´s pleasures…….and as you can see from the Lady Tacos de Canasta episode, very inclusive. Lady Tacos de Canasta appears in the third episode (see clip above). She´s fabulous and her story is very poetically told. Actually I like the way the whole series connects the taco to working people, and regions and nations, poetically. I don´t know if the series got better or if I simply got used to the rhythms of the language and expressions. But ti´s a show that will have you salivating, offer a social geography of food, and mixes it all up with a bit of poetry. I recommend.

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

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 123 – Roma

Much to Mike’s disdain – he throws tantrums about Netflix films – we settled in with a KFC to discuss Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a semi-autobiographical film about the live-in housekeeper to an upper middle class Mexican family. Carefully composed and inflected with a neorealist aesthetic, it’s been making countless year-end lists and is being touted as potentially Netflix’s first Best Picture nominee at the Academy Awards, so Mike wasn’t allowed to say no.

The film is remarkable for depicting modern-day indigenous Mexicans, people to whose existence many outside the Americas might not have ever given any thought. Yalitza Aparicio, Roma’s star, is a non-professional actor of Mixtec and Triqui origin, and simply her appearance is interesting, let alone the film’s use of Mixtec language (Mike gets this name wrong at first but don’t hold it against him) and its development of the indigenous population as lower class workers. We consider the use of black-and-white imagery – José questioning what it brings to the film – and the ways in which the sound design and long panning shots attempt to place the viewer within the film’s environments. Mike explains a prejudice he holds against “personal” films, and José considers Roma‘s place alongside Cuarón’s previous work, and the melodrama of the birth scene.

Mediático, a film and media blog focused on Latin American, Latinx and Iberian media, took an immediate and deep interest in Roma and marshalled eight academics to each write a short essay on the film, and we refer to some of the points raised throughout the podcast. The dossier is well worth reading, will enrich your experience of the film, and can be found here: http://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/mediatico/2018/12/24/introduction-to-the-special-dossier-on-roma-alfonso-cuaron/

(The links to the essays are on the right hand side of the webpage.)

In addition, the dossier refers on several occasions to Richard Brody’s review of the film in The New Yorker, in which he is critical of the lack of a voice given to the main character and finds the film asks more questions of the world it depicts than it answers. We refer to this, too, and you can read it here: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-front-row/theres-a-voice-missing-in-alfonso-cuarons-roma

As for us? We find areas of interest, things to both agree and disagree with, in all the articles we read. José was deeply riveted by Roma despite a reservation or two and continues to see Cuarón as a great director. Mike was less interested, admitting that had he been watching the film alone, he would likely have turned it off before the halfway point; an issue with watching things at home that isn’t as pressing at the cinema (he wouldn’t have walked out of a screening). But that’s a tantrum for another day.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About 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