Archive for Cine Dorado

Talking Turkey with Death

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , on June 25, 2015 by dcairns


Maybe my favourite show at EIFF this year — so far — has been MACARIO, which happens to fit neatly into this fortnight’s edition of The Forgotten. It may be the best-known Roberto Gavaldon film, but let’s face it, there ARE no well-known Roberto Gavaldon films. Based on this evidence, there should be.

And Everything Ends in Z

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on January 23, 2015 by dcairns

All good things… David Melville rounds of his alphabet of the golden age of Mexican melodrama with a Fever Dream Double Feature, and begins a week of guest postings here on Shadowplay. But fear not: his next series will start soon!


The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

And Everything Ends in Z


Eyes speak louder than words – and you know it. ~ Don Macario in Maclovia

It must have been Parker Tyler – or, at least, his fictional alter ego Myra Breckinridge – who wrote that the proper sphere of movies was not Art but Myth. If that is true, then no film-maker was ever more ‘mythic’ than Emilio ‘El Indio’ Fernández. His 1948 film Maclovia is set on a remote island called Janitzio, afloat on an impossibly tranquil lake. Its denizens are native fisher folk, members of “that Indian race that holds all that is good in Mexico.” (It’s the local schoolteacher who says this, but the sentiments are clearly the director’s own.) The world of Maclovia is less idyllic than Edenic, a fantasy realm as arcane and idealised as the valley of Shangri-La.


The film’s subject is “the ancient and eternal love of a man and a woman.” Or, at any rate, Mexico’s leading macho heart-throb Pedro Armendáriz and Mexico’s reigning glamour icon María Félix. The thought of either star playing an impoverished and illiterate peasant should be ludicrous and logically, of course, it is. Yet the casting is oddly right in the hyperbolic context of this film. Although it was doubtless shot on real locations, the setting of Maclovia feels akin to such studio-built dreamscapes as the Himalayan convent in Black Narcissus (1947) or the South Seas isle in The Saga of Anatahan (1953).


Perhaps it’s the nets that do it. The white, billowing nets of the fishermen are draped exotically about the island like the veils in a Dietrich/von Sternberg movie. María is, inevitably, photographed through them at every opportunity – her sculpted face framed exquisitely in a striped shawl, her eyes caked with mascara like those of any self-respecting virgin in a small village. Out on the lake, a hundred nets rise in unison from the fishermen’s canoes – with a choreographed precision that Busby Berkley might envy. Armendáriz (cast as the poorest and most downtrodden of the lot) gazes upwards at the cliff where María hovers, posed like the statue of Christ above Rio de Janeiro. Reaching down to the limpid surface of the lake, he plucks a water-lily in her honour. Later, when she rejects him, he casts it despairingly into the mud.

But why does María (here known as Maclovia) reject the man she loves? Her father, Don Macario, is the leading citizen of the village. He will not hear of his daughter marrying a poor man – one so impoverished that he does not even own his own canoe “A man is not a real man unless he has a canoe and a knife,” the father helpfully intones. No man, it seems, is good enough for Maclovia. In the hands of a subversive and de-mythifying director like Luis Buñuel, her widowed father’s wildly possessive adoration of her might form the basis for a very different film indeed. Fernández, of course, would never countenance anything so unseemly. Perversity does not dwell in Janitzio but invades it from outside – in the form of a lecherous gringo officer whose lust for our heroine tilts Maclovia towards its violent climax.

All this is yet to come, of course. Early on in the film, Don Macario forbids his daughter and her sweetheart to speak to or even look at each other. Desperate for a way to make contact, Armendáriz begs the village schoolmaster to teach him to write. A few months of toil among the five-year-olds and soon he’s penning letters to Maclovia that read like this: “The other day, I saw your shadow pass close by. I felt it grow and take root inside my heart. Suddenly I knew why God attached shadows to our bodies. So I could find some way to look at you.” I guess he’s what they call a star pupil.

Sure enough, Maclovia goes to the schoolmaster in turn, so she can learn to read the letters her lover writes. The couple’s forbidden love and the obstacles that come with it push them, inadvertently, towards literacy and progress. In this way – like so much of Mexico’s left-wing nationalist cinema – Maclovia manages at once to exalt traditional peasant values and to champion those modernising forces that will lead, inevitably, to their dissolution. At the historical moment this movie depicts (Maclovia is set in 1914) it is vital for Mexico to be an agrarian Third World nation – a place where traditional values hold sway – but also to emerge as a 20th century economic powerhouse – just like those big bad colonial powers that used to exploit it. What none of these movies ever make clear is how any country can possibly do both.

Rather than grapple with complexities of this sort, the wily teacher sits Maclovia down and reads the letter aloud. We see her react in a montage of close-ups, each one a fresh angle on María’s exquisite face. It’s not long before her suitor borrows money and buys himself an impressively phallic canoe. The officer, in a jealous rage, pulls out his gun and shoots the canoe full of holes. (Clearly, the competition was not in his favour.) With that, Armendáriz pulls out his giant curved knife (the other must-have item for a “real man”) and stabs the officer – who survives and has him condemned to 24 years in prison. He’s willing to free him, of course, if only Maclovia will be his. But the law of the island says that no native woman must ever defile herself with an outsider. If she does, both she and the offending man must die…


The climax takes place, conveniently enough, on the traditional Night of the Dead – a gruesomely photogenic montage of blazing candles and leering skulls. Once the villagers hear what Maclovia may have got up to with that gringo, the whole place erupts in a fury. Hundreds of crazed peasants carrying torches come storming through the streets, all ready to pelt the sinners with stones. The film, at this point, threatens to turn into some ghastly melange of Suddenly, Last Summer and Triumph of the Will. Not that it ever goes quite that far. The army shows up just in time to quell the riot and guarantee a (wholly unconvincing) happy ending. You may be wondering, also, just how many people live on this island. Previously, we got the impression that Janitzio was a small rural community. Yet the mob that shows up to kill María might easily populate a fair-sized district of Mexico City.

Finally, though, what matters in Maclovia are not the petty minutiae of plot or logic. It’s the sheer mythic splendour of Fernández at his most dizzyingly overripe, a well-nigh operatic whirlpool of the passionate and the absurd. María Félix, strangely enough, gives one of her least flamboyant performances in this film. Far from the rampaging diva mode of Doña Diabla, she has moments here that border dangerously on restraint. Don’t worry, though, it’s not catching. Maclovia is as fervent and florid as any Mexican movie ever made. Typical of its time and its place and its genre…but still a film that cries out to be watched today.

David Melville

Y is for Yucaltepen

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , on January 20, 2015 by dcairns

We are, as William Holden complains in NETWORK, nearer the end than the beginning: David Melville offers the penultimate installment in his alphabet of Mexican melodrama from the golden age. Final episode later this week…


The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

Y is for Yucaltepen

Our crime has a name. Its name is love. ~ Dolores del Río, Deseada


“Yucaltepen…Yucaltepen,” croons a tenor voice over moody and misty shots of the ancient Mayan ruins at Chichen-Itza. Crumbling temples and rambling banana trees, populated by stark and geometric sculpted heads. Endless stairways lead up and up, to a sky thick with clouds. Perhaps the only movie theme song with lyrics in a dead language (well, there is “Ave Satanae” in The Omen) this prelude drifts along for five minutes at least. What’s this? A melodrama with nary an emoting diva in sight? Made in 1951 by genre maestro Roberto Gavaldón, Deseada is defiantly and unrelentingly a mood piece.

Well, perhaps it’s not as different as all that. Dwelling amid those oh-so-photogenic ruins is the gorgeous Dolores del Río. She plays an ineffably glamorous spinster school teacher, who dedicates her life to the edification of young ladies. She and her charges waft about the ruins in trailing, diaphanous white gowns; she enthrals them with Mayan legends of the Sun God’s hopeless love for the Moon Goddess. Can you imagine a steamy latino version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie? If not, do not even contemplate watching this film. One of her pupils is her younger (much younger) sister, who is played by a pudgy-faced starlet named Anabel. Our heroine has spent years caring for her sibling, eschewing all offers of marriage and earning the nickname Deseada. The woman all men desire but no man can have.


That will, of course, change dramatically within the next 90 minutes. A train pulls into the dusty local station, carrying a dashing young caballero from Spain (Jorge Mistral) who is betrothed to Deseada’s drippy sister. The young girl flees the station as the train arrives – partly because she has never seen this man in her life, partly because she is not used to wearing shoes. But Deseada is there to greet him and the two plunge, instantly and irrevocably, into the sort of delirious amour fou that movies like this are made of. As she heads for home in her horse-drawn carriage, Deseada gazes into her mirror and sees reflected, not her own face, but that of Mistral as he trots along behind her on his virile black stallion. This may sound far-fetched but is, in fact, strangely appropriate. The swoonily handsome Mistral is the one actor whose bone structure is comparable with hers.

Deseada is one of those movies where every character comes with a symbolic animal attached. Mistral has that rampaging black horse, which breaks out of its stable late at night and goes thundering towards Deseada through a swirl of moonlight and mist. Dolores, meanwhile, keeps a tame fawn with long delicate bones, which looks even more like her than Mistral does. The skinny local witch, who shows up occasionally to cast spells and mumble prophecies of doom, has a mangy black jackal as a sidekick. By way of a chorus, various owls glare and hoot ominously from the branches of trees.


Unique among Mexican melodramas of its time, Deseada seems to exist in the queer quasi-mystical territory of Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle, 1948) and Corridor of Mirrors (Terence Young, 1948), of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Albert Lewin, 1950) and Gone to Earth (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1950). Strange, as most of these movies were flops in their day but won a fervent cult following in decades to come. Yet their influence was clearly felt in Latin America, where audiences found their flamboyance far less shocking than the gringo public may have done. Following a full-blown Freudian dream sequence, where Dolores wanders about the ruins in a swirl of soft-focus dissolves, she wakes up and rises from her hammock. Gavaldón shoots her, exquisitely à la Sternberg, through a gauze of mosquito netting. Towards dawn, she and Mistral meet, silhouetted by a setting moon. Their shadows make passionate love on the steps of a ruined temple.

We know that this can never end well. “The truth is you suffer much when you love much,” Dolores intones, looking as solemn as one has to look when reciting dialogue of this ilk. Not only is Mistral engaged (inexplicably) to that annoying sister. The other man wracked with desire for Dolores is Mistral’s “uncle” (José Baviera) who is, in fact, his long-lost illegitimate father! As the rivalry between the two men builds alarmingly towards an act of (unwitting) parricide, the poor lovelorn Dolores poses ever so gracefully on the rim of a deep and ominous pool. Will this be a tragic but inevitable solution to the whole mess? A wealth of Powell and Pressburger movies (the whirlpool in I Know Where I’m Going, the precipice in Black Narcissus, the balcony high above the train station in The Red Shoes) suggest that it may well be…


Dramatically frail but visually exquisite, Deseada is held together by the gilt-edged star emoting of Dolores del Río. A star since the silent days of Hollywood, Dolores was approaching fifty by the time she played Deseada. Her eerily unlined face is monumental, the stuff of legend, easily a match for any of those sculpted Mayan gods. Yet she has the Garbo-like skill of conveying boundless depths of emotion while doing, apparently, nothing at all. “If Garbo is a woman who has become a goddess,” wrote the Mexican author Carlos Fuentes, “del Río is a goddess who has become a woman.” You might quibble that Dolores is easily old enough to play the young girl’s mother, and the script might have been rewritten that way with no appreciable loss. But that would be churlish – and an affront to star power as we know it. Like the temples and palaces that surround her, Dolores del Río can never be old. She is, quite simply, ageless.

David Melville


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 631 other followers