P is for Pepita Jiménez

David Wingrove returns with another entry in his alphabet of Mexican melodrama —

 CINE DORADO

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

P is for Pepita Jiménez

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

David Melville

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12 Responses to “P is for Pepita Jiménez”

  1. Quite a long way from —

  2. david wingrove Says:

    At least he’s not selling instant coffee or whispering conspiratorially to Herve Villechaize…

    SARA MONTIEL RIP

    BIGAS LUNA RIP

    Double mourning today…perhaps to make up for no mourning yesterday?!

  3. Oh, I heard about Luna on Sunday and Montiel and Annette Funicello yesterday. Thatcher’s passing still made it a pretty good day. It was an instinctive response, one that can’t really be justified. If ThatcherISM were dead, that would be true cause for celebration.

    As I said on Facebook, the breaking news interrupted a story about the Chilean authorities exhuming Pablo Neruda’s coffin to check whether he’d actually been murdered by agents of Thatcher’s pal Pinochet (he of the magic wheelchair). Pretty ironic.

  4. judydean Says:

    This is one to be added to my ‘WOMEN WITH THE HOTS FOR THOSE MEN IN FROCKS’ list, joining The Garden of Allah, The Devils, Leon Morin Pretre and so on.

    Actually, that should be PEOPLE, not WOMEN – think of naughty Dirk Bogarde in The Singer Not the Song.

    Have switched off all radio and TV to avoid the endless eulogising over Thatcher. Only the jokes circulating the blogosphere have illuminated my day.

  5. I’d seen the young Montalban in Border Patrol and Mystery Street and thought he was a charismatic leading man. This makes him seem even more interesting.

    Interesting how the discussion of Thatcher has been a BIT more nuanced than the inane celebrations of Reagan. But for suitably disrespectful stuff you have to go to the internet, it’s true.

  6. David Boxwell Says:

    Monty rocked a sexy frock in Hitchock’s I CONFESS.

    Why does Angie Dickinson’s voice come out of Sarita Montiel’s body in Fuller’s RUN OF THE ARROW? Full-on Monitel adoration in Almodovar’s MALA EDUCACION!

    Wellman’s MY MAN & I (52) makes Ricardo the sexiest thing on a stick. (The I was Shelley Winters).

  7. I must see the Wellman! I’m a sucker for Shelley.

  8. Boy, that is both on the nose and near the knuckle.

  9. david wingrove Says:

    It’s quite touching to watch Dirk trying to feign interest in the lovely Mylene Demongeot. He was a great actor but not that great.

    A pity his love object (John Mills) is so profoundly unsexy! That’s the one real problem with the film.

  10. […] David Wingrove, the 1945 Mexican melodrama Pepita Jiménez is a vehicle crafted to display the striking beauty of its star—not Rosita Díaz, but Ricardo […]

  11. Young Ricardo Montalban was Just PERFECT from the start/ and his long long Career prooves what a Great actor he was and yesss very sext too

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