Archive for Emilio Fernandez

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 –

 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

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

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

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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 ~

CINE DORADO

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

F is for Flor Silvestre

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on December 27, 2011 by dcairns

David Wingrove was reluctant to depart from alphabetical order for his Cine Dorado series — “That’s the only source of cohesion I’ve got!” —  but was persuaded to do so in order that Maria Felix’s last film, LA GENERALA, could land in the Late Show Late Movies Blogathon last week. “I suppose as long as I WRITE them in alphabetical order…” So here, at last, is the delayed letter F, standing for FLOR SILVESTRE… and maybe also for Emilio Fernandez?

CINE DORADO

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

F is for Flor silvestre (Wild Flower) 

Roots that grow together can never grow apart.

Although it’s one of the films that inaugurated the Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama, Flor silvestre (1943) is far from being the most interesting. In her triumphal return home from 15 years in Hollywood, Dolores del Río stars as an insufferably virtuous peasant girl who marries a sickeningly noble and self-sacrificing rich boy (Pedro Armendáriz) on the eve of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. His land-owning father, naturally, is less than impressed. “The stars will fall from heaven before a son of mine marries the daughter of a nobody!” “That’s what I want, father,” says Pedro, his eyes a-twinkle with revolutionary fervour. “To make the stars fall from heaven!”

Dramatically, this is hackneyed stuff. Artistically and ideologically, though, Flor silvestre is a work of vast importance. Like certain films from Germany and Italy around the same time (Rolf Hansen’s Die große Liebe/The Great Love (1942) starring Zarah Leander, or Mario Soldati’s Piccolo mondo antico/Little Old-Fashioned World (1941) starring Alida Valli) it conceives an entire nation, its fears and aspirations, in terms of romantic melodrama. It is impossible, in this film, to separate the destiny of the two lovers from the fate if Mexico as a whole. Their love story is inextricably linked to notions of class equality and social justice.

The director, Emilio Fernández, was clearly angling for this sort of national myth-making. The most resonant images are not the turgid family quarrels and perfunctory scenes of courtship, marriage and childbirth – but, rather, the musical interludes, in which the plot takes a breather and Fernandez stages his vision of Mexican society in near-operatic terms. Early on, at a fiesta, a peasant girl sings a ranchera ballad while the landowners fan themselves under an awning, and the workers bake under a fierce afternoon sun. A few scenes later, a mariachi band plays off-screen as Pedro rides across a stark landscape of clouds and cacti (dazzling photography by Gabriel Figueroa) with Dolores’ peasant grandfather. We see the two men, at first, from a distance; by the end of the song, they are side by side in close-up – and both dead drunk on tequila. When the Revolution turns sour – and thuggish bandidos loot the family hacienda – the camera pans over a chorus of half-naked men, sprawling on the floor and singing a lament to dreams gone wrong.

All of which makes Dolores del Río, one of the very greatest of Mexican stars, seem almost like an extra in her own movie. (She came, ironically enough, from a land-owning family that had been ruined by the Revolution – and entered showbiz only because her once aristocratic parents were now penniless.) Dolores, as ever, is ravishing to behold. Whether lying in bed recovering from a near-fatal buggy crash, or fleeing across the desert from a rapacious bandido (her new-born son cradled in her arms) she looks as if she has her own personal Hollywood beautician stationed just off camera. She does, incredibly, manage to play the heroine’s unwavering goodness without ever once becoming sickly or tedious. But if you’ve seen Dolores in more complex roles – the spoiled rich girl in Bugambilia, the good and evil twins in La otra – it’s as if Vivien Leigh had missed out on Scarlett O’Hara, and got stuck playing Melanie Hamilton instead.

As her love interest, Armendáriz is equally stalwart and uninteresting. Given the lack of any dramatic tension between them, Fernández understandably grows bored with his romantic leads and gets sidetracked into ever more lurid and gratuitous imagery. An angelic chorus croons (incongruously) off screen as Pedro hunts down the varmint who killed his father, then strings the corpse up over the old man’s grave. Kidnapped by the bad man’s brother, Dolores is made to crawl across the floor of a brothel, begging for her life and the life of her child, while a chorus of hookers and bandits jeer and guffaw at her agonies. At the end, when Pedro faces a firing squad, Dolores flings her arms round him and begs to be shot as well. Not once, but three times. Flor silvestre is not dull by any means. Except dramatically, as Fernández seems unable to conceive of a lead character with a single redeeming flaw.

Of course, I’m being unfair. Pedro and Dolores are not characters at all, in the conventional sense, but symbolic archetypes of the Mexican nation – so any drama between them might well be considered unpatriotic. The fascination of Flor silvestre lies less in what it is than in what it began. Emilio Fernandez, with the help of two gorgeous and iconic stars, is giving a nation (and, by extension, the whole of Latin America) a way of seeing itself on film. There will, inevitably, be far more interesting aspects to see. But first of all, we have to start looking. 

David Melville

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