A group of men sit in a tight circle, weary, drunk, and bored as only soldiers who have recently faced death can be bored. A loaded gun is tossed into the center of the circle. One of the group will be shot at random. If this sounds like a moment out of Oliver Stone or some other modern master of machismo, guess again. The scene is from Fernando de Fuentes’ 1935 tale of the Mexican revolution, Vamonos con Pancho Villa! And for those who think of the history of Mexican cinema mainly in terms of its famous visitors — Eisenstein in the 1930s, Bunuel in the ’40s and ’50s — the films of de Fuentes are a revelation. A UCLA retrospective of his work serves as a reminder of the rich legacy of Mexico’s indigenous film industry.
When de Fuentes began making films in the early 1930s, Mexico was still emerging from the catastrophic disruptions of the 1910 revolution. A budding silent-film industry had wasted away as Mexican stars like Ramón Navarro and Dolores del Rio headed north for the comparative security of Hollywood. At the same time, the revolution energized Mexican arts and society: De Fuentes’ most personal work is his loose trilogy of tales set during the period, El Prisionero Trece (1933), El Compadre Mendoza (1933) and Vamonos con Pancho Villa! (1935). All three toy with the standard iconography of the revolution — Zapatistas in sombreros and bullet belts, singing corridos or perched en masse on the roofs of trains — then twist into darker meditations on legend versus reality, ideology versus human weakness.
Mendoza, the best of the three, opens comically with a series of scenes in which Mendoza (Alfredo del Diestro), a wealthy rancher, keeps switching portraits of Emiliano Zapata and General Victoriano Huerta on his wall, depending on whether Zapatistas or government troops are approaching. Mendoza meets and marries the charming Lolita (Carmen Guerrero); on the night of the wedding, which is attended by many government officers, Zapatistas raid the ranch, ready to off some bourgeois. Only the intervention of his Zapatista friend General Felipe Nieto (Antonio R. Frausto) saves Mendoza’s life while, outside in the courtyard, a government officer is hanged.
The image of swinging feet heralds a bleaker tone as Mendoza’s balancing act becomes more and more tenuous. Facing financial ruin, he betrays Felipe, and the film ends with a stunningly dark image. De Fuentes is a master of subtle notes, nimbly maintaining a vague ambiance of potential betrayal, as when Mendoza offers drinks to government officers and seems to be steering them toward certain glasses. A deaf-mute housekeeper adds a murky dynamic to several early scenes, ultimately acting as a silent conscience for Mendoza’s ideological indifference.
A disciple of F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu, The Last Laugh) and his moving camera, de Fuentes uses long tracking shots to roam the arches of Mendoza’s hacienda, suggesting the peeling back of layers of public persona, but his visual sense most closely matches that of John Ford. Sharing Ford’s fondness for background commentary, de Fuentes lingers on wedding guests dancing beneath the portrait of Huerta, building tension as we see the Zapatistas approaching. Like Ford, de Fuentes balances boozy sentimentality with sudden moral upheavals.
De Fuentes considered the last film of the trilogy, Vamonos con Pancho Villa!, to be his greatest work. His ambition to make a definitive epic of the revolution is evident from the opening notes of a striking avant-garde soundtrack by Silvestre Revueltas, imitating the raw tonalities of rural banda music to underscore the ambiguities in the story. A group of poor rancheros joins up with Villa’s forces, only to be swept headlong into the unglamorous realities of war. In the end only one survives to walk off into darkness, having lived to expose a streak of cowardice in Villa and his officers. Censored by the fledgling Cárdenas government, which cut the bloody finale, the film flopped. UCLA will present the cut footage following the screening, as an alternate ending.
After the failure of Vamonos, de Fuentes turned to more conservative fare, inaugurating a string of popular comedias rancheras with Alla en el Rancho Grande (1936). Based on the operatic tradition of Spanish zarzuelas, Rancho is a rural melodrama with songs, extolling simple virtues and filled with what quickly became tropes of the genre: folkloric dances, cockfights, horse racing and plenty of lusty singing. De Fuentes’ timing was perfect, his nostalgia for the rural past coinciding with the rise of Franco and the decline of the Spanish film industry, leaving Mexico as the main producer of Spanish-language films. Rancho found a huge audience in Central and South America, and among Latino audiences in the U.S. While de Fuentes’ films never regained their early raw edge, the later films do offer a chance to watch vivid Mexican stars like Lupe Velez and Jorge Negrete in their prime.
In absurd YET WELCOME contrast to de Fuentes’ high-minded films of the 1930s, two horror films from the ’50s — Fernando Mendez’s The Vampire’s Coffin (1957) and Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy (1957), directed by Rafael Portillo and Manuel San Fernando — screen as an oddball aside in a program of shorts and features by new Mexican directors at the American Cinematheque. Both films are filled with a delirious sense of fun often missing from American B pictures. In particular, The Vampire’s Coffin, Mendez’s follow-up to his highly successful El Vampiro (1957), shows him to be a master of atmospheric horror in the style of Jacques Tourneur.
Since the 1970s, Mexican cinema has shaken off the cycle of melodramas and musicals into which the inheritors of de Fuentes settled, and gained a worldwide audience again with films as diverse as Cronos and Like Water for Chocolate. New Mexican filmmakers are reinventing the traditions of their national cinema, or simply casting them aside. El Tigre de Santa Julia (2003) partakes in a long tradition of outlaw films featuring fact-based Mexican nationalist versions of Robin Hood. Director Alejandro Gamboa reimagines this figure as a kind of Mexican Tom Jones — lusty, foolish, awkward and charming. Jose Luis Garcia Agraz’s El Misterio del Trinidad (2003) is a layered story of an estranged father and daughter finding common ground in the treasure-hunting legacy of the deceased grandfather, the sunken ships of the Spanish past serving as metaphor for buried family history.
Eva López-Sánchez’s Francisca (2002) is a solid political thriller set in the early 1970s, during the aftershocks of the 1968 student riots. Bruno, a refugee from the East German secret police, arrives in Mexico City looking to start a new life as a teacher, only to be blackmailed into informing on student radicals. Like de Fuentes’ Mendoza before him, Bruno thinks he can stay above the fray and refuses to take sides until it is too late. When he and his girlfriend are forced to flee to Chiapas, the woman falls in with compañeros fighting the oppressive landowners, while Bruno becomes a runner for plantation payrolls, trying to make enough money to flee and start a new life. Like de Fuentes, López-Sánchez seems to wonder if the complacent years of stability and prosperity in Mexico have come at too high a price.
FERNANDO DE FUENTES: OF REVOLUTION AND RANCHERAS | At the UCLA Film and Television Archive | September 27–October 5
THE THIRD ANNUAL CONTEMPORARY MEXICAN FILMS SERIES | At the Egyptian Theater | October 2–5