There Will Be Gavaldón

I’ve seen only three of the 50 features directed by Mexico’s Roberto Gavaldón, considered by many to be one of the most important of Mexican cinema’s storied “golden age” directors but they are more than enough for me to enthusiastically recommend UCLA’s monthlong centennial tribute (curated by the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Richard Peña). A Chihuahua native who reportedly worked briefly as an extra and a nightclub bouncer in Hollywood in the 1930s, Gavaldón got his start in Mexico that same decade as an actor and assistant director before earning his first solo directing credit on La barraca in 1944. Devoted to Gavaldón’s output from 1946 to 1964, this nine-film survey focuses on the director’s Grimm-style folktales and salacious film noir, while highlighting several of his important collaborations — with the enigmatic Treasure of the Sierra Madre author B. Traven (whose stories were the basis for two Gavaldón films); with legendary TV and film star Ignacio López Tarso; and with the equally legendary cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. A true director of the people, Gavaldón favored honest men pitted against a dishonest society and time, as well as telling stories of small-timers and social outcasts brought into disastrous conflict with the ruling class. In perhaps Gavaldón’s best-known film, the Oscar-nominated Macario (1960), López Tarso stars as a poor woodcutter whose chance meeting with Death endows him with miraculous healing powers, and eventually a king’s fortune, until the Holy Office shows up to brand him a heretic. The following year’s Rosa Blanca — a proto–There Will Be Blood with López Tarso as a plantation owner who refuses to sell his land to an American oil conglomerate — so rankled Mexican censors with its critique of the foreign oil industry that they suppressed it for more than a decade. The 1964 The Golden Cockerel, adapted by Gavaldón, Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez from a Juan Rulfo story, is a game-legged fighting cock that offers a town crier (López Tarso again) a not entirely welcome glimpse of the mythical good life. Like the industrious worker bees of the Hollywood studios during the same era, Gavaldón possessed a strong sense of narrative economy, an instinctive eye for action, composition and camera movement, and a generous affection for ace character actors. To rediscover his work now is to find that it hasn’t aged a day. Unavailable for preview but said to be among Gavaldón’s greatest: Rosauro Castro (1950) and Night Falls (1952), which open the series on a double bill Saturday night. (UCLA Film & Television Archive at the Billy Wilder Theater; Sat., May 2-Fri., June 5.

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