Tag Archives: Roberto Gavaldon

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

DSC05205.jpeg

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

 

La Noche avanza/ Night Falls (Roberto Gavaldón, Mexico, 1952)

la noche avanza poster

A great Mexican noir from director Roberto Gavaldón. Pedro Armendáriz, earlier in his career the pretty and poetic peasant of Emilio Fernández’ Flor Silvestre (1943) and  María Candelaria (1944)the enraptured revolutionary of Enamorada (1946), so often the embodiment of the best of Mexican masculinity, here represents the worst. His Marcos Arizmendi, jai alai champ and national celebrity, is arrogant, selfish, conceited, eager to raise his fists and happy to give a good kicking to any old stray dog that gets in his way: ‘A man who doesn’t triumph doesn’t deserve to live,’ he says.

He’s got three women on the go: Lucrecia (Eva Martino) is his main squeeze, and as the song she sings in the nightclub tells us (see below), she’s so crazy for him, she accepts his cheating on her with other women because, as he tells her, having a fifth of a first rate man is worth than getting the whole of a fifth rate one. He’s also reconnecting with a former flame, Sara (Anita Blanch). He squeezed her out all her personal fortune years go in Manila. But now her husband’s dead, and as soon as she tells him she’s inherited, his interest in reviving their old affair increases exponentially. He’s also been screwing around with Rebeca (Rebeca Villareal), a timid, underage, girl from a respectable family who he’s gotten pregnant.

 

It’s how Marcos attempts to run away from his responsibilities towards Rebeca that seals his doom. Marcos is already familiar with betting. Gavaldón depicts that world, not unlike the American boxing films of the period, as one intimately connected with the underworld. But so far, Marcos’ movements through the night have been in nightclubs, hotels, bars, places for drinking, smokin, sex; he’s been around criminality but not connected to it. His trying to trick his pregnant and underage girlfriend out of marriage changes everything. A gangster uses the threat of making this public to blackmail him into throwing the game. Rebeca’s brother double-crosses both by telling him he doesn’t need to, thus setting the gangsters on his trail, plunging him further into a world of fedoras, guns, moonlight reflections on dark canals were bodies get thrown.

Gavaldón and cinematographer Jack Draper film all of this beautifully. We often see people through bars, nets, even the nightclub seems encased in a spider’s web (see below). The film’s locations are archetypally noir, nightclubs, betting in arenas, hotels (see below, second row); and so is the imagery (see third and fourth row).

La noche avanza is all hatred, jealousy, cheating, double crossings, uncontrolled passions. It’s all darkness and pessimism leavened only by black humour. What’s interesting about this film is that Arméndariz is the homme fatale and that he hasn’t committed any actual crime. His failings are all moral ones. Women are crazy about him. But it’s his own love for himself that will seal his doom; and Armendáriz’s depiction of a toxic masculinity unleashed with glee is a delight. When the dog he kicked at the beginning gets his revenge at the end, the comeuppance is rendered even more enjoyable by the cynic’s snook through which it’s represented.

The script is credited to Luis Spota. But José Revueltas, for many years a communist revolutionary and political activist, worked on the adaptation, which might account for the film’s unusual critique of the middle and upper classes in the film and of those who, like Marcos, attempt to move through their ranks.

The film also offers an opportunity to see Mexico City as it was at night in the 1950, an urban view, a rare one, of Mexico’s capital, and the sight of many landmarks will bring pleasure to those who know the city.

Screen Shot 2018-08-15 at 10.06.31.png
The entrance to Mexico’s Central Airport as it was in 1950.

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.

Screen Shot 2018-08-10 at 09.28.05.png

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

 

Macario (Roberto Gavaldón, Mexico, 1960)

macario-spanish-movie-poster

The first Mexican film to be nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, and a truly great movie. Macario (Ignacio López Tarso) is a good, honest, hardworking peasant who lives for his family. He works all day but has so many children that they literally take the food from his plate. Director Roberto Gavaldón is great at showing what hunger feels like, the life of people who live on less than subsistence wages, the melodrama that conveys the truth and pain of the small things in life: .

Screen Shot 2018-08-13 at 14.51.19.png

Macario fears God, is haunted by the dead, and dreams of food. One day he vows that unless he can have something entirely to himself he won’t eat at all . His wife (Pina Pellicer), fearing that he’ll die, steals a turkey, cooks it for him and asks him to eat it out in the fields where the children won’t get to it first and he won’t be interrupted so that he can finally enjoy one thing all to himself. When he sits down to eat his turkey, he’s taunted by the devil, who offers him all kinds of things if he’d share his food with him. But Macario is a good man and refuses. Then God appears and also asks for some of his food. But Macario, figuring that God can have anything he wants, refuses him also. Finally death appears. Macario figuring he’s got no option and that at least he’ll live for as long as it takes death to eat his half of the turkey, agrees to share it.

Screen Shot 2018-08-13 at 14.50.24.png

As a reward, death offers him a vial of water that can bring some people back from the dead. Macario is to be alone with those he wants to cure, death will then appear. If he’s at the foot of the bed, Macario can offer them his water and cure them. If Death’s at the head, nothing can be done for them and they’re goners. Macario’s urged to be careful with this magic water as he will receive no more and when it’s gone Death will be merciless.

Screen Shot 2018-08-13 at 14.43.05.pngMacario is delighted to have escaped death, and with newfound powers. But has he? The rest of the film is a morality tale, a fable about life and death, a commentary on the meanings of Mexico’s day of the dead, the cruelties of Church and government, the petty avarices of little people made big with money.

It’s a beautiful film, rich in symbolism, poetic but directly accessible. It’s got striking, expressionist imagery that is easily understandable in ways that go right to one’s head and heart.  It’s a direct influence on the equally great Coco, one of the many reasons to see it.

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

La Escondida (Roberto Gavaldón, Mexico, 1956)

la-escondida-mexican-movie-poster-md

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

 

 

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