David Wingrove returns with another entry in his alphabet of Mexican melodrama –
The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama
P is for Pepita Jiménez
In the years during and after the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), Mexico’s film industry saw an influx of writers, actors and technicians from what had once been a distant ‘motherland’. Some of them, notably Luis Buñuel, became small industries in their own right. Most were happy to take whatever work was available and fit in with the prevailing trends. In between these two extremes, a bizarre mini-genre arose – that of the ‘Spanish’ Mexican film. A story that took place in the Old World, but was opportunistically shot and financed in the New.
Based on a novel by the 19th-century Spanish author Juan Valera, Pepita Jiménez (1945) was an odd change of pace for Emilio Fernández – that most fervently ‘Mexican’ of film makers. In place of his usual tale of macho revolutionaries and fiery señoritas (played by Pedro Armendáriz, on the one hand, and Dolores del Río or María Félix, on the other) this film describes the steamy yet stifled passions in a provincial Andalusian town. What we see is a storybook Spain as remote and idealised as the ‘Hollywood England’ of Rebecca (1940) or Mrs Miniver (1942). A world of fans and flamenco – where fountains bubble in moonlit courtyards, and icons of Christ and the Virgin seem to dominate every room.
Pepita herself is a demure yet passionate young lady who’s left a virgin on her wedding night – when her elderly husband drops dead from excitement. (We cannot, honestly, lament his passing, as he has the worst table manners this side of Charles Laughton as King Henry VIII. At the wedding feast, he dumps a roast chicken on a plate and karate chops it in two with his bare hand!) Rosita Díaz, in the title role, was nominated for an Ariel as Best Actress. Personally, though, I couldn’t summon up great enthusiasm. Her bleached hair and hard gimlet eyes reminded me uncomfortably of Eva Perón.
All is not lost, though. Pepita Jiménez still has a dusky beauty, with large and languid eyes, whose emotional and romantic travails power the film along. In a fascinating twist, the star in question is not María Félix or Dolores del Río, but a very young (and pre-Hollywood) Ricardo Montalbán! He plays a handsome and achingly horny young priest who’s been let out of the seminary for a short break before taking his final vows. He comes home to the town to visit his widowed father (Fortunio Bonanova) who fancies himself as Pepita’s new husband.
Drafted in to lead the prayers for the dead husband’s soul (Gluttony, after all, is one of the Seven Deadly Sins) Ricardo locks eyes with Pepita as candles flame on the altar. Aroused by sexual desire for the first time, she drops her rosary on the floor. Both of them stoop to pick it up, and their hands touch. The love story that follows is crammed full of such moments – simple yet breathlessly erotic, made even more so by the fact that (as Montalbán is technically a priest and censorship from the Catholic Church was still strong) we never actually see the lovers kiss. A consummate work of what we now call ‘abstinence porn’, Pepita Jiménez might well be the Twilight of its day.
Just as their forbidden passion breaks the law of the Catholic Church, the reversal of sex roles between the lovers flouts the rules of Mexican cinema. Pepita, in their trysts, is invariably the aggressor. Ricardo holds out, looking anguished and exquisite, and flashing his eyes as adorably as María Félix in her prime. His desire for Pepita lures him to doff his cassock and learn the skills of a ‘real man’ – shooting, sword fighting and, most memorably of all, horseback-riding. He clings on for dear life, as a wild black stallion plunges and rears between his legs, a scene that blends the best of D H Lawrence with the worst of Sigmund Freud.
As the combined id of the lovers rampages out of control, Fernández stages the third-most wondrously lurid Carnival scene in the annals of 40s cinema. (It was bettered only by Veit Harlan’s Opfergang (1944) and Basil Dearden’s Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948).) Fireworks burst in the sky, as revellers in demon masks leap over a roaring bonfire. Husky yet brutal men sweep maidens (literally) off their feet and whisk them off to a Fate Worse (but, one hopes, more enjoyable) Than Death. This, of course, is the night when Pepita and the priest announce their love to his father and resolve to fell the town together.
No sooner have they left the house than Ricardo is crossing swords with a lecherous nobleman, who has had his eye on Pepita throughout the film. The duel takes place with both men stripped to the waist. (Was this customary at the time? Or did Fernández feel a certain segment of his audience had simply not had enough eye candy in the 80 minutes that lead up to it?) Having only just learned to sword-fight at all, Ricardo naturally slays his foe. He then falls, half-naked, into his father’s waiting arms – a sort of weirdly homoerotic Pietà – as Pepita drops to her knees to kiss his near-lifeless arm.
As the whole town looks on, father grants permission for Pepita to marry his son. So the film does end happily, assuming he ever wakes up from that swoon. Given that few actors swoon as charmingly as Ricardo Montalbán, I cannot say which ending I prefer. If you believe the Tchaikovsky ballet, the Sleeping Beauty loses much of her fascination when she wakes up.