I’ve heard it said that the best way to learn about something is to teach it and, after teaching film studies classes for three and a half years now, I have to concur. Sometimes I feel as though I learn almost as much from my students as they learn from me. A case in point is the subject of Latin American cinema, which I was only marginally familiar with prior to teaching. Because so many of my students are first or second generation immigrants from various Latin American countries, I have made a concerted effort to learn more about movies from Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Cuba in order to better connect with them. (I’d like to give a special shout out to Fernando and Evelyn here for hipping me to Cantinflas.) Similarly, one of the great things about running a film studies blog like this one is that it provides me with a great excuse to constantly be studying different aspects of film history for the sole purpose of writing new blog posts.
My classic Latin American Cinema Primer is split into two posts of thirteen titles apiece. Part one concerns films made from the beginning of the early sound era through 1963. Part two, to be published next week, will span the years 1964 – 1979.
Tango Bar (Reinhardt, Argentina/USA, 1935)
Carlos Gardel is considered one of the greatest tango singers of all time. He was also a movie star and this delightful Spanish language musical, directed in the U.S. by the Hungarian John Reinhardt but written and performed by Argentinians, was the last film he made before he tragically died in a plane crash at age 44. The story has something to do with Gardel’s character, Ricardo, leaving Buenos Aires for Barcelona on a boat after a streak of bad gambling luck. En route, he meets Laura (Rosita Morena), a beautiful woman whom he romances and saves from the clutches of gangsters. But the slender plot of this one hour feature is really just an excuse for the elegant Gardel to sing a bunch of songs including the rousing “Por Una Cabeza,” which both opens and closes the film.
Let’s Go with Pancho Villa (De Fuentes, Mexico, 1936)
Considered by some to be the greatest Mexican movie ever and the one that single-handedly inaugurated the Mexican film industry’s “golden age,” this astonishing wartime drama follows six peasants known as “Los Leones de San Pablo” who join Pancho Villa’s army during the Mexican revolution. Director Fernando de Fuentes takes care to paint each character distinctly, showing the warm camaraderie that exists between each individual and the rest of the bunch, which makes the film genuinely tragic when their numbers start to gradually dwindle. But what really impresses about this film is Fuentes’ jaundiced view of Villa and the revolution itself, which the director sees as complex and messy and marked by a terrible human cost, the exact opposite of the hagiographic approach one might expect.
Dona Barbara (De Fuentes/Delgado, Mexico, 1943)
Written by Venezuelan author Romulo Gallegos (adapting his own novel), this epic melodrama made a screen goddess of lead actress Maria Felix in the title role. Beautifully photographed in high contrast black and white, the story concerns a kind of love triangle between the vicious, eponymous ranch owner Barbara, her illegitimate daughter and the civilized doctor who attracts them both. This movie belongs to the incredible Felix, a force of nature whom I’ve described elsewhere on this blog as combining the fierceness of Joan Crawford with the sexiness of Ava Gardner. She practically burns up the screen when she says “I use men at my convenience. I spit them out when I’m done.”
Maria Candelaria (Fernandez, Mexico, 1944)
Before Luis Bunuel migrated over from Europe, the most important director of Mexico’s golden age was Emilio “El Indio” Fernandez. Maria Candelaria, a melodrama set among the indigenous people of Xochimilco, is one of his masterpieces. A journalist visits a famous, elderly artist in his studio and asks him about the painting of a naked Indian woman. The artist tells the story of the painting’s subject, which is then seen in flashback: the good-hearted title character (Dolores del Rio) is shunned by her fellow villagers because she is the daughter of a prostitute, which dooms her relationship with her fiance Lorenzo (Pedro Armendariz), the honest and hard-working peasant who loves her. This powerful tale of love and intolerance is similar to (and in my opinion infinitely preferable to) Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves from a half century later.
The Pearl (Fernandez, Mexico, 1947)
Emilio Fernandez’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel about Quino, a Mexican diver who discovers a priceless pearl at the bottom of the ocean. Unfortunately, what should be his family’s ticket to a better life inspires jealousy in the surrounding community and Quino soon finds himself a wanted man on the lam. Fernandez and his great regular cinematographer Gabriela Figueroa were heavily influenced by Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico and here they’ve captured comparable images of silvery, spellbinding beauty: low-angle close-ups of the protagonists lend the characters and story a resonant, near-mythological power while longer shots juxtapose them against the beautiful landscapes of rural coastal Mexico. Fernandez is also notable for being the only film director to ever shoot a film critic.
Los Olvidados (Bunuel, Mexico, 1950)
The first masterpiece of Luis Bunuel’s Mexican period is this unforgettable tale of juvenile delinquents living in the slums of Mexico City. The main characters are Jaibo, the leader of a gang, and Pedro, an impressionable boy who wants to do good but becomes enmeshed in gang activity after being repeatedly rejected by his own mother. There are many aspects to this film that are similar to Italian Neorealism, including the documentary-like visuals and incredibly naturalistic child performances, but Bunuel, being true to his roots, continually pushes the material in a more dream-like and surreal direction. An uncompromising film that was way ahead of its time, Los Olivdados feels like it could have been made yesterday.
El Bolero de Raquel (Delgado, Mexico, 1957)
Mario Moreno Cantinflas is known as “Mexico’s Charlie Chaplin” because he was a genius comedian who specialized in playing working class underdogs while also sporting baggy pants and a distinctive mustache. El Bolero de Raquel is a great vehicle for the actor’s comedic chops; here, he plays a shoeshiner who finds himself, much like Chaplin in The Kid, unwittingly playing foster father to a young boy following the death of a close friend. Cantinflas is primarily known for his intricate wordplay (specifically for his tendency to ramble on while essentially saying nothing) but this non-Spanish speaking viewer will most remember El Bolero for a couple sequences of primarily visual humor: one involving the application of suntan lotion and one where our hero ruins the dance routine of a beautiful nightclub performer by attempting to dance with her against her will. Both scenes had me laughing like an animal.
Tizoc (Rodriguez, Mexico, 1957)
Tizoc (Pedro Infante) is a poor Indian laborer who falls in love at first sight with a wealthy Mexican woman named Maria (Maria Felix), initially mistaking her for the virgin Mary. Infante, the most famous Mexican actor ever, is at his best as the simple but noble title character. His mistaken belief that Maria wants to marry him, and his subsequent realization that he is wrong, lead to a series of tragic events in this beautiful Technicolor musical melodrama from Infante’s favorite director Ismael Rodriguez. The most memorable scene features Tizoc singing to Maria that he loves her “more than his eyes,” which causes her to weep. Angry at himself for making her cry, Tizoc hits himself in the mouth with a rock. Released after Infante’s untimely death in a plane crash at the age of 42, this is a great love story.
Black Orpheus (Camus, Brazil/France, 1959)
Prior to the rise of Brazil’s celebrated “Cinema Novo” in the 1960s, the most significant movie produced in Brazil was this contemporary musical adaptation of the Orpheus myth directed by the Frenchman Marcel Camus. Charges of racism and colonialism have occasionally been levied against it (including by some Brazilians who have objected to their culture being portrayed as a non-stop party) but I think that’s an overreaction. For one thing, Camus’ film, which expresses a genuine love and respect for Brazilian culture and music, never claims to be anything approaching a definitive statement about the soul of a people. For another, it’s an adaptation of a play by Brazilian writer Vinicius de Moraes that already views Brazil through the lens of another culture (ancient Greece). The music, widely credited with popularizing bossa nova outside of Brazil, is incredible, the cast of local performers is infectiously energetic, and the Eastmancolor cinematography employs color more purposefully than 99% of all other color films.
The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales (Gonzalez, Mexico, 1960)
Luis Alcoriza wrote the script for Rogelio Gonzalez’s wicked black comedy about Dr. Morales (the great Arturo Cordova), a taxidermist who murders his insufferably pious wife. In a scenario reminiscent of Bunuel and Hitchcock (there is a healthy amount of Catholic-bashing to go along with the humor and uxoricide), Dr. Morales informs family and friends that the Mrs. has gone on vacation even as he puts her skeletonized remains on display in his shop. Alcoriza also wrote the screenplay for many of Bunuel’s best Mexican films and if Gonazalez doesn’t push this to quite the surrealist extreme that Don Luis would have, no matter. This is still an essential comedy from the tail end of the golden age of Mexican cinema.
The Exterminating Angel (Bunuel, Mexico, 1962)
One of the best and most vicious satires of Luis Bunuel’s career is this 1962 comedy built on the irresistible premise of a group of upper class friends getting together for a dinner party and then, for no explicable reason, finding themselves unable to leave. After several days, the facade of not only the aristocracy but civilization itself is stripped away as each of the characters ends up revealing a primitive, essentially bestial core. Is this a satire of an entire class of people or of the tragic absurdity of existence itself? Or is it just a bunch of meaningless nonsense? In the best Surrealist tradition, that’s up to each individual viewer to decide.
The Unscrupulous Ones (Guerra, Brazil, 1962)
Criminally unknown (in the U.S. at least), this 1962 feature from first time writer/director Ruy Guerra is one of the best Brazilian films I’ve seen. Clearly inspired by the French New Wave, Guerra’s story follows a couple of amoral petty criminals from Copacabana who hatch a blackmail plot that involves taking nude photographs of a young female acquaintance. Pretty soon she’s helping them to perpetrate the same scheme on her cousin. This film is startling in so many respects (the use of handheld camera, the nihilism, the critique of machismo, the full frontal nudity and casual drug use), it’s hard to believe that someone could have made this movie anywhere in the world as early as 1962. The big bang of Cinema Novo.
Vidas Secas (dos Santos, Brazil, 1963)
A man, his wife, their two children and a dog lead a nomadic existence, constantly in search of work, food and shelter, in the most barren region of northeastern Brazil. The man of the family eventually hires on at the home of a wealthy cattle farmer, where he ends up being grossly exploited, before inevitably moving on. Fueled by a sense of social outrage and inspired by Italian Neorealism, Nelson Pereira dos Santos wrote and directed this bleak, starkly beautiful black and white film (which might be more appropriately referred to as a “white and black film”) that stands as one of the crown jewels of Brazil’s Cinema Novo.