G is for La Generala

David Melville, as part of both Cine Dorado, his ongoing alphabet of Mexican melodrama, and The Late FIlms Blogathon, presents this profile of Maria Felix’s last delirious cinematic outing. This has necessitated a slight departure from alphabetical order — the letter “F” will now follow the letter “G” as soon as the Blogathon is finished. Please adjust your dictionaries accordingly.

D Cairns

CINE DORADO

(in collaboration with the Late Films Blogathon)

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

G is for La General

It’s one of my long-held ambitions to devote a cycle of films to the absurd vanity projects of ageing stars. Once a screen goddess has lost everything but her fame and her ego, she can easily make Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard look like a model of taste and restraint. Alas, such movies tend to vanish rather quickly – crushed by an avalanche of critical opprobrium and public indifference. It is possible (just about) to catch Mae West as a much-married movie star (complete with disco numbers) in Sextette (1978) or Lauren Bacall as a Broadway diva menaced by a psycho killer in The Fan (1981). But what of Merle Oberon as a rich widow cruising for toyboys in Interval (1973) or Hedy Lamarr as Helen of Troy, Genevieve of Brabant and the Empress Josephine in The Love of Three Queens (1954)? To the despair of film buffs of a certain ilk, these legendary fiascos lie buried in an unmarked tomb, somewhere in the Elephants’ Graveyard of Camp.

So it may or may not be good news that María Félix – Mexico’s greatest star and perhaps the walking, breathing embodiment of the word ‘diva’ – has left her last and most disastrous vehicle behind her on DVDfor the world to marvel at. (To add a note of poignancy, it’s the ‘B’ side to one of her bona fide classics from the 40s, La diosa arrodillada/The Kneeling Goddess.) Made in 1971 when its star was pushing sixty, La Generala was largely financed by her fifth husband, a French millionaire. It’s an epic of the Mexican Revolution, a genre that was already shop-worn when María’s career was at its peak in the late 40s. In a desperate bid to shock this material back to life, director Juan Ibáñez drowns it in a trendy stew of cod-Surrealism and graphic gore. It’s like a cheesy telenovela directed at odd moments by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Sam Peckinpah. Only not as good.

As the film opens, the Revolution is officially drawing to a close. A pair of progressive landowners – Mariana and her too-beloved brother Manuel – are prepared to divide their land among their adoring peasants. They even light a bonfire with portraits of their aristocratic forebears, as a ritual of class penance. Then a nasty troop of federales ride in, bent on restoring the status quo. Manuel defies them so they gun him down, along with all the other men of the village, as they are bathing naked in a lake to celebrate the fiesta of San Juan. Mariana watches the massacre in horror – accompanied by her sidekick, a mute hunchback dwarf. (Mexico, in this movie, seems to be populated largely by cripples, lunatics and other Fellini-style grotesques. We also get a shaven-headed madwoman with round pebble glasses, who drags her cat around on a lead. Towards the end of La Generala, she skins it alive and dangles its corpse gleefully in front of the camera.)

Sworn to revenge, Mariana flees to Mexico City. There she seduces and castrates the wicked colonel who ordered her brother’s death. As foolish and over-the-top as this may sound, María Félix with a sickle in her hand – a manic gleam in her lustrous dark eyes – is truly an alarming sight. She cashes in her inheritance, buys some guns and forms her own band of guerrillas. They rampage about the country burning haciendas, shooting the owners and generally spreading chaos. In a token gesture towards decency, Mariana steps in to stop her soldiers raping the captive women. “Remember that we are men,” growls one would-be rapist. To this she answers: “All the more reason not to behave like beasts!”

María Félix works hard to convey our heroine’s revolutionary fervour and lust for revenge. Her face, alas – while it still looks exquisite – has been frozen to an eerie stillness by decades of plastic surgery. Her every close-up is shot (by ace veteran Gabriel Figueroa) through thick layers of gauze. The effect is not so much a feminist rip-off of The Wild Bunch as a spooky Mexican prequel to The Stepford Wives. Unable to act (even by her own generous definition of that term) María falls back on her imperious flashing eyes and her sexy, throaty growl of a voice. Her one good moment happens early on, when she knocks over a blind beggar on her way into church. “What’s wrong with you?” she snarls. “Can’t you look where you’re going?”

Like everything else in La Generala, this fateful outing to church seems to end in a massacre. Soldiers storm in during Mass and gun down a revolutionary on the altar. The congregation flees, only to perish under a hail of army bullets. (María survives, incredibly, because the blind man steps in and takes the bullet for her!) The film’s gratuitous gore spirals here to the edge of parody. We see repeated shots of a horse collapsing, in death-agonies, on top of a bloodstained guitar. One man falls dead with his head in a birdcage; a hungry canary hops over and pecks out his eyes. María, understandably bemused by the mayhem around her, takes refuge in a bizarre dream sequence that can only be described as the film’s highlight.

The scene is a blasted desert landscape littered with corpses. María wanders through it in a kaftan, her face painted ghostly white. Her eyes are thick with kohl, her hair a riot of black curls. A gold snake twines, seductive and sinister, about her forehead. She moves as if lost in a trance, like some queer Aztec goddess come down to earth. Spotting her brother lying dead at the foot of a cross, she kneels and cradles his corpse in her arms – perhaps to revive him, perhaps to dine off his blood? Horses neigh and whinny, galloping away to the horizon. A chorus of shrivelled old women, their faces chalk white, dance slowly round in a circle. Rising from the side of her dead brother, María seizes a flaming torch and walks slowly down towards a lake. On its banks, oblivious to her presence, the old women writhe and wail. She touches her torch to the water, which bursts in a sea of flame…

Suddenly, in this one scene, a film that struggles otherwise to rise to the level of mediocrity explodes with a Surrealist poetry that the late Ken Russell might envy. Not ever having seen another film by Juan Ibáñez, I cannot say if it is typical of his work. María Félix, although she is washed up as an actress, is still potent and hypnotic as an icon. The dream of La Generala places her in a strange and hallucinatory shadow world, a subconscious realm haunted by archetypes and myths. It is the world she most rightly inhabits, to which she will always belong.

David Melville

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6 Responses to “G is for La Generala”

  1. David Boxwell Says:

    This was broadcast on Turner Classic Movies here in the US a few months ago, and it is muy fabuloso! The film’s budget largely went towards large vats of vaseline (for the lens) and what they used to call “falls” for Maria to pin to the back of her head. (The male nudity is a bonus).

  2. So there should be a recording with subtitles out there somewhere in TV-land? That’s good to know…

  3. david wingrove Says:

    Perhaps it was even shown in the right ratio on TCM? My DVD copy, alas, is pan-and-scanned.

  4. This is very timely. I have an appointment with the hairdresser tomorrow, and a screengrab from La Generala will show them EXACTLY what I have in mind.

  5. It’s a good look and due for a comeback!

  6. david wingrove Says:

    Judy – just don’t take to wandering round with a sickle, or your nearest and dearest may get a bit worried!

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