Archive for Emilio Fernandez

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


P is for Pepita Jiménez

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , on April 9, 2013 by dcairns

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.

David Melville

N is (almost) for En la palma de tu mano

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , on January 11, 2013 by dcairns


Here’s a LAURA limerick I forgot to mention last week. And here’s a treat — the first Cine Dorado of 2013, brought to you as ever by David Wingrove, writing as David Melville, and illuminating the darkest shadows of the golden age of Mexican melodrama ~


The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

N is (almost) for En la palma de tu mano (In the Palm of Your Hand)

OK, I’m totally cheating here. Firstly, because I don’t have a Mexican melodrama that begins with ‘N’. Secondly, because this one is just too good to miss out. Perhaps the greatest film of Roberto Gavaldón – Mexico’s master of sophisticated urban noirEn la palma de tu mano is a 1951 tale of murder, seduction and double-dealing that easily stands comparison with Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice. It is, in fact, a blacker and more misanthropic film than either of those. Its moral universe is etched in contrasting shades of evil; its lead couple are charismatic psychopaths who fall in love, partly out of naked self-interest and partly (who knows?) because both of them find normal people simply too dull.


Its anti-hero is a fake clairvoyant, one ‘Doctor’ Karin – played by Arturo de Córdova, the leading Mexican actor of the Golden Age. (His signature role, as Luis Buñuel’s El, was still two years in the future, but his performance here rivals – and perhaps surpasses – his work in the later film.) His clientele is drawn largely from the wealthy, bored ladies of Mexico City; the script hints that his services may be as much fleshly as paranormal. Unbeknownst to these ladies, Karin has a pretty blonde wife (Carmen Montejo) who works as a beautician in the high-class salon they all frequent. There she picks up the titbits of gossip that are the basis for her hubby’s ‘psychic’ gifts.

One day, she hears of an elderly millionaire who has died under mysterious circumstances. Having attended on his glamorous and much younger wife (Leticia Palma) she suspects – and quite rightly – a case of foul play. Karin moves in on the widow, intent on blackmail, but gets a whole lot more than he bargained for. She is, to put it plainly, a woman even more irresistibly depraved than he is. The clash of these two exquisitely groomed monsters erupts in a full-blown amour fou – one that proves fatal to them and most, if not all, of the supporting cast.

Of course, bogus psychics and demon shrinks were standard fare in Hollywood noirs at this time. (Tyrone Power in Nightmare Alley, Turhan Bey in The Amazing Mr X and José Ferrer in Whirlpool are the most memorable.) But this film takes the stereotype to new depths of mellifluous evil – then chips away at the surface, revealing the tortured, almost tragic soul underneath. In an opening that anticipates Hitchcock’s Family Plot (yes, this is a thriller Hitch might envy) we see a close-up of a crystal ball filled with swirls of mist. Staring at us out of the fog are de Córdova’s bright, hypnotic eyes. “If something happens in my imagination,” he insists later on, “it’s as if it happened in life.” His is the essential psychosis of movies themselves.


Weakening most of the Hollywood films on the ‘psychic fraud’ theme is the tedious passivity of the female victims. (Whirlpool is a film where Gene Tierney, one of the great stars of the 40s, winds up as a virtual extra in her own movie.) The eerily beautiful Leticia Palma was never one of Mexico’s leading divas, but she matches de Córdova scheme for scheme and threat for threat. She is, perhaps, the most dangerous and alluring black widow in movies – her mourning gowns clinging, voluptuously, to the curves of her flesh. She even smokes a cigarette, elegantly, through the mesh of her black lace veil. Think of Jean Simmons in Angel Face and you may get some idea, although she also bears a resemblance to the young Queen Elizabeth II!

Visually, the film is as lush as you might expect from Gavaldón. While his rural rival, Emilio Fernández, built on a Spartan aesthetic of tree shadows and cacti posing against clouds, Gavaldón revelled in all the delirious décor he could muster up – quite a lot, in a country where refugee Surrealists from Europe were broke and desperate for work in films. Karin’s lair – with its faux-Egyptian pillars, vaulted astronomical ceiling and marble zodiac floor (inlaid with an unending circle of letters that spells ‘ABRACADABRA’) – is a hide-out worthy of a minor James Bond villain. The widow resides in a modest Art Deco palace, a fantasy of Grecian sculpture and swooping white stairs.


And surely no director – no, not even the mighty Douglas Sirk – has ever used a mirror as expressively as Gavaldón does here. When the deadly lovers first meet face to face, Karin pulls out a small Czech revolver (‘very popular with the Nazis’) and invites her to shoot him with it. She points and aims at him, a tortuous game of erotic double bluff, and then – to our momentary shock – pulls the trigger. Shattering, not her seducer, but his image as reflected in a full-length mirror. This one moment equals the entire over-hyped climax of The Lady from Shanghai. The lovers and the twisted passion that unites them seem so vividly alive, even their reflections are more real.

Finally, I hope some readers will agree that no film is complete without at least one billowing white curtain. ‘White curtain movies’ from The Leopard to The Hunger to La Belle et la Bête form an essential part of my personal dream landscape, and any film maker who can’t billow a curtain…well, there’s something seriously wrong. Suffice it to say that En la palma de tu mano boasts the single most gorgeous ‘white curtain moment’ I have seen in any film. I could say what it is. But no, sorry, you’ll just have to watch this one yourself.

David Melville