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.