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.