Advertisements

Tag Archives: Los Olvidados

A Classic Latin American Cinema Primer, Pt. 1

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.

Advertisements

Top 25 Films of the 1950s

25. Hiroshima Mon Amour (Resnais, France, 1959)

Alain Resnais’ first feature takes an impeccable, highly literary script by Marguerite Duras and turns it into a radical, intensely cinematic movie: two lovers, an unnamed Japanese architect and a French actress, have a lengthy conversation on the subject of memory. The present day scenes are continually peppered with flashbacks to the woman’s harrowing experiences as the persecuted lover of a German soldier during the Second World War. Resnais’ groundbreaking, nonlinear editing style, used to suggest “flashes of memory,” has had an incalculable effect on subsequent filmmakers.

24. The Music Room (Ray, India, 1958)

23. The Earrings of Madame de . . . (Ophuls, France, 1953)

Austrian-born director Max Ophuls made what are arguably the most elegant movies of the classic French cinema; his much beloved tracking shots find a perfect compliment in narrative structures that continually circle back on themselves, like a waltz, before resolving in a typically tragic denouement. Letter from an Unknown Woman, from Ophuls’ brief stint in Hollywood, is my favorite of his films but I think Madame de . . . is the masterpiece of his lengthier French career. The unnamed title character is the wife of a general in the French Army who sells her most expensive pair of earrings to pay off a debt, an act that becomes a catalyst for a chain of events bringing about her ruin. Apart from the aforementioned formal grace, the lead performances (from Daniel Darrieux, Charles Boyer and the very suave and refined-looking Italian director Vittorio de Sica) are sublime.

22. 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.

21. The River (Renoir, France/India, 1951)

river

20. Ordet (Dreyer, Denmark, 1955)

Carl Dreyer’s penultimate film is this transcendentally uplifting drama adapted from a play by Danish pastor Kaj Monk. The slowly, exquisitely paced story takes place in a rural farming community and centers on the Borgen family, which consists of a widower father and his three grown sons. Issues of faith, love (in many forms) and repression are profoundly explored when the wife of the eldest son dies and the middle son, a religious fanatic who believes he is Jesus, claims to have the power to bring her back to life. This is not merely a film about religion; it is a spiritually intense experience unto itself, one that can even be appreciated as such by an old atheist like me.

19. Senso (Visconti, Italy, 1954)

Alida Valli is a wanton countess in 19th century Italy who betrays her country to pursue a destructive affair with a lieutenant of the occupying Austrian army (Farley Granger). Visconti’s elegant mise-en-scene, featuring impeccable period set and costume design rendered in ravishingly beautiful Technicolor, marked an about face from his early Neorealist phase and the beginning of a mature “operatic” style that would continue for the rest of his career.

18. Touch of Evil (Welles, USA, 1958)

17. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks, USA, 1953)

16. The Naked Spur (Mann, USA, 1953)

In the 1950s, multi-genre specialist Anthony Mann crafted his own unique brand of “psychological western,” which is typified by a series of fascinating Jimmy Stewart vehicles. Here, Stewart plays Howard Kemp, a traumatized Civil War veteran-turned-bounty hunter who reluctantly accepts the help of two strangers in tracking down wanted killer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan in his prime). During the lengthy trek back to civilization where Vandergroat will stand trial, the captive shrewdly manipulates his trio of captors, driving wedges of resentment between them . . . This was perhaps the first of several great ’50s films to subtly undermine Stewart’s all American, nice guy persona.

15. Park Row (Fuller, USA, 1952)

Sam Fuller’s highly personal, self-financed love letter to “the fourth estate” is also his greatest achievement: an enormously entertaining look back at the newspaper rivalries of late 19th century New York City starring Gene Evans (The Steel Helmet) as Phineas Mitchell, a reporter who dares to start his own paper. Told in the broad, colorful strokes that became Fuller’s trademark, this cinematic yarn consistently delights in everything from its exquisite period detail to its staggering use of crane shots. The unavailability of Park Row on home video is positively scandalous. Are you listening, Criterion?

14. All That Heaven Allows (Sirk, USA, 1956)

Douglas Sirk was to the melodrama what Alfred Hitchcock was to the thriller – its most famous and accomplished practitioner. All That Heaven Allows is his most beautifully realized creation, the story of an upper-class, middle-aged widow (Jane Wyman) who provokes scandal when she embarks on a romance with her much younger, working class gardener (Rock Hudson). Celebrated in some quarters as a subversive Marxist critique of middle America, derided in others as camp, I think All That Heaven Allows was rightly appreciated by 1950s audiences for what it is – a masterful tearjerker and damning indictment of hypocrisy rolled up into one entertaining and colorful package.

13. Floating Clouds (Naruse, Japan, 1955)

Mikio Naruse has long been considered one of Japan’s greatest directors by Japanese critics. Yet in spite of a prolific body of work (his career began in the silent era and stretched all the way to the late 1960s) he’s never been as well known in the west as his contemporaries. Floating Clouds is my favorite of the Naruse films I’ve seen, a heartbreaking story of a doomed love affair. Yukiko (Hideko Takamine), an employee of Japan’s forest service, meets and falls in love with a co-worker, Kengo (Masayuki Mori), while stationed in French Indochina during WWII. After the war, they meet up again in Japan where an obsessed Yukiko attempts to resume the affair in the face of some very bastard-like behavior from her indifferent former lover. Naruse’s trademark ability to extend sympathy to all of his characters – in a scenario where people can’t resist making terrible decisions – left me with a feeling of sadness I’ve never quite shaken.

12. Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly, USA, 1952)

The most beloved Hollywood musical of all-time, in large part because it offers an affectionate and humorous look back at the process of filmmaking during the dramatic period when silent pictures gave way to the talkies. Co-directed and choreographed by star Gene Kelly, who brought a more masculine and aggressively athletic style of dance to the movie musical – in contrast to the Fred Astaire-style gracefulness that had previously dominated the genre.

11. Anatomy of a Murder (Preminger, USA, 1959)

An electrifying courtroom drama in which a country lawyer (Jimmy Stewart again) agrees to defend a G.I. (Ben Gazzara) accused of killing the man who raped his wife (Lee Remick). Director Otto Preminger was always one to push the envelope and you can almost feel the old studio system crumbling around him when listening to this film’s daring use of language and looking at its authentic and evocative Michigan locations. Also features a snazzy Duke Ellington score.

10. Bigger Than Life (Ray, USA, 1956)

James Mason is a schoolteacher and family man who begins suffering from a bizarre strain of megalomania after becoming addicted to the prescription “wonder drug” cortisone. Director Nicholas Ray’s unparalleled mastery of ‘Scope framing (check out what he does with the staircase in Mason’s home) and Technicolor (those yellow cabs!), combined with mise-en-scene that reconfigures American post-war prosperity as something nightmarish and oppressive, is perfectly suited to the melodramatic storyline. “God was wrong!”

9. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, Japan, 1954)

Akira Kurosawa’s best film and arguably the greatest action movie ever made. A village of poor farmers learn they are about to be raided by bandits on account of their soon-to-arrive barley crop. They hire seven samurai to help them defend the village from attack, with nothing to offer in return but food and board. The first half of this massively influential three and a half hour chambara extravaganza is devoted to setting up the conflict and introducing the seven samurai as distinct and memorable personalities (with Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune deserving special honors for carving out indelible archetypal characters). Then, when the epic, rain and mud-soaked battle finally does arrive, it is impossible not to care deeply about the human cost of the outcome. Seven Samurai is to the samurai picture what The Searchers is to the western: the best film of its kind.

8. The Band Wagon (Minnelli, USA, 1953)

My own personal favorite musical is this Vincente Minnelli gem. Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) is an over the hill hoofer whose latest show, a theatrical musical comedy, is hijacked by Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), a pretentious director intent on turning it into a modern day version of Faust. Exacerbating the situation is that Hunter can’t stand Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse – never lovelier), the ballet dancer hired by Cordova to star opposite him. Sparks fly between Astaire and Charisse both off the dance floor and on, especially during such classic production numbers as “Dancing in the Dark,” “That’s Entertainment” and the film noir influenced “Girl Hunt.”

7. Some Like It Hot (Wilder, USA, 1959)

Billy Wilder’s crude, gender-bending comedy about a couple of down on their luck Chicago musicians (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) who disguise themselves as women to get a job in an all-female band headed to Florida. En route, they both develop the hots for singer Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe at her sultriest) but of course can’t reveal their true identities. Like a lot of classic Hollywood comedies, this hilarious romp works as well as it does because you can feel director and co-writer Billy Wilder trying his damndest to smuggle risque material past the censors. It’s no coincidence that his career went south when, just a few years later, there was nothing left to fight against.

6. A Man Escaped (Bresson, France, 1956)

Robert Bresson’s minimalist drama, based on the memoir of a real life French resistance fighter’s escape from a Gestapo prison, unforgettably conveys one man’s relentless desire to regain his freedom. Eschewing the easy thrills so common to the Hollywood treatment of this type of subject matter, Bresson instead zeroes in on the specific process of how Lieutenant Fontaine acquires, creates and utilizes the tools that enable his escape plan to work. The stringent use of close-ups of hands at work, accompanied by a use of heightened sound effects and an extensive employment of first person voice-over narration, draws the viewer into Fontaine’s world to an almost unbearable intense degree. This is on my short list of near-perfect movies.

5. Ugetsu (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1953)

Kenji Mizoguchi’s best-loved film is this unique ghost story/war movie/melodrama hybrid. In feudal wartime Japan, two men (a potter and a farmer) move from their home village to a city, hoping to become war profiteers, but tragically opt to leave their wives behind; as the men become wildly successful, one of the wives is murdered and the other is forced into a life of prostitution. The homecoming finale, which sees the protagonists as “sadder and wiser men,” is shattering. Mizoguchi’s ravishingly photographed fable of greed and ambition uses light, shadow and fog (not to mention those legendary crane shots) to perfectly complement his view of the world as a place of impossible moral choices.

4. Vertigo (Hitchcock, USA, 1958)

Alfred Hitchcock’s highly personal and deeply disturbing study of obsession, which unfolds like a dark and troubling dream. Jimmy Stewart is Scottie Ferguson, a retired cop with a fear of heights who agrees to work a job as a private eye at the request of an old friend. This involves tailing the friend’s wife (Kim Novak), with whom Ferguson falls hopelessly and dangerously in love. Hitchcock leads both Ferguson and the viewer into a downward spiral of despair, eventually ripping the lid off a Pandora’s box of sexual perversity containing voyeurism, fetishism and – as Hitchcock was happy to note – necrophilia. A career high point for all involved including Hitchcock, Stewart and composer Bernard Herrmann.

3. Journey to Italy (Rossellini, Italy, 1954)

My favorite Italian movie ever is this deceptively simple melodrama about a bored married couple (George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman) who travel to Naples following a death in the family. As they wander the city separately (she visits museums and the ruins of Pompeii, he flirts with the prospect of adultery), they take emotional stock of their lives for the first time in years, leading to one of the most spiritually uplifting finales in cinema. A film in which nothing and everything happens, this is the birth of cinematic modernism without which such diverse films as Antonioni’s L’avventura, Godard’s Contempt and Kiarostami’s Certified Copy would not be possible.

2. Tokyo Story (Ozu, Japan, 1953)

Yasujiro Ozu’s supreme masterpiece tells the story of an elderly Japanese couple who travel from their rural hometown to visit their grown children in the title city, only to find that their children don’t have much time to spend with them and even treat them as a nuisance. Rather than condemn any of his characters the way you would expect a Hollywood melodrama to do, Ozu’s patient, observant, non-judgemental eye sees the disintegration of the family as the sad but natural order of the universe. The heart of the film is Ozu’s favorite actress Setsuko Hara as Noriko, the elderly couple’s daughter-in-law, whose smiling countenance seems to radiate an almost overwhelming warmth and humanity. When one embittered character tells her that life is disappointing, Noriko’s resigned, smiling response is “Yes, I’m afraid it is.” Sublime.

1. The Searchers (Ford, USA, 1956)

Quite simply one of the greatest movie ever made, John Ford’s deeply felt western combines adventure, tragedy, comedy and romance in the story of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne in his best and most complex performance), a Civil War veteran who embarks on an obsessive, years-long quest to find his niece after she is kidnapped by Comanche Indians. Only what is he really searching for? His humanity? The Moby Dick of the cinema.


%d bloggers like this: