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?
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.