Rosario Castellanos was a major figure in twentieth century Mexican literature. Born in 1925, she became one of the leading members of the so-called ‘1950 Generation’ who became highly influential. Rosario was a socialist feminist and produced volumes of poetry, essays and three semi-autobiographical novels. In 1971 she was appointed as Mexico’s ambassador to Israel on the basis of her importance as a writer and activist. She died tragically as the result of a domestic accident in Tel Aviv in 1974. Some claimed her death was suicide and there have been attempts to place her alongside Sylvia Plath as a feminist writer.
‘Los adioses’ translates literally as ‘The Goodbyes’ but has been given the English title ‘Eternal Feminine’. I’m not sure exactly why, except that it fits film marketing ideas. The film is a partial biopic focusing on two distinct periods in Rosario’s life – her ’emergence’ in the early 1950s and the period around the birth of her son in the late 1950s/early 1960s. The film narrative distorts the time periods slightly and offers two sets of actors playing the younger Rosario (Tessa Ia) in 1950 and an older version (Karina Gidi) roughly ten years later. At a student meeting, the young Rosario is challenged in a student meeting by Ricardo Guerra (Pedro De Tavira). Although he is attracted to her and makes a play for her, he marries someone else and it is not until 1958 that an older Ricardo (the Spanish actor Daniel Giménez Cacho – soon to appear on UK screens in Zama), having divorced his wife, now marries an older Rosario. The director Natalia Beristáin had only directed one complete feature and an episode in a portmanteau film before she took on Los adioses and she takes some brave decisions. The film opens with some ‘out of focus’ footage behind the titles that eventually becomes clear as a close-up of two bodies intertwined. We don’t yet know if this is the younger or older pair of actors but the aesthetic of close-ups and shallow focus has been established. Most of the film is set indoors in various apartments and rooms of the federal university in Mexico. I think the only trip away is back to the southern state of Chiapas where Rosario grew up as a small child. This time she goes back to receive an award – and Ricardo behaves badly.
I was a little surprised that more isn’t made of Rosario’s childhood. Her family originally owned land in Chiapas, the most southerly state with the greatest variety of indigenous peoples. Rosario was sympathetic to the plight of the Mayan people who worked on the land and, perhaps because the state bordered Guatemala she was also interested in Pan-Latin American ideas. Probably this history would have complicated the narrative too much so it is referenced obliquely in only a couple of scenes apart from the return visit. Instead the focus is on Rosario as a woman who is a writer, a teacher and an advocate of women’s rights who struggles in a patriarchal society. Ricardo is a Professor of Philosophy. My understanding from the film is that he was excited and challenged by Rosario’s talents but then became jealous of her success. Eventually he became the kind of husband who in the 1950s forced Rosario to choose her work or her child. The film narrative sees him develop from a lover to the worst kind of man for a woman like Rosario. The final sequence juxtaposes Rosario’s lectures to her students about patriarchy and the real battle that she faces in her home and in the university staffroom.
This trailer with English subs suggests that Los adioses is going to get a release over the border in the US, as it definitely should. There are large Hispanic speaking potential audiences there and there are certainly audiences for both female directors and stories like this about feminists who tried to make a difference. The trailer also usefully presents both the visual aesthetic of close-ups and shallow/deliberately blurred focus and the back and forth editing style. (The film is also going to get a release in France, so when will it come to the UK?)
The 31st Archive Festival presented by the Cineteca di Bologna ran from Saturday June 24th until Sunday July 1st. The Festival has expanded rapidly in recent years. During the day there were screenings in four auditoria – The Salas Mastroianni and Scorsese at the Cineteca and the Arlecchino and Jolly cinemas. And there are smaller salons for supporting events. In the evenings these four screens are added to by the Piazza Maggiore in the city centre and the Piazzetta Pasolini at the Cineteca.
My friend Peter Rist worked out that there were 250 titles in this year’s festival, and only a fifth of these had repeat screenings. Thus even the most dedicated cineaste could see even a fraction of the Festival programme. This year those cineastes exceeded 3,000. So popular titles nearly always involved queues and sometimes a fairly crowded auditorium. My strategy for coping was to focus on 35mm; these composed just under half the programme. I managed 30 35mm prints and then ten digital (titles described were in 35mm unless noted otherwise). Even then one had to make choices between interesting and even fascinating films.
‘A Hundred Years Ago: 50 films of 1917 in 35mm’ offered a series of daily programmes, with both short and feature-length films. One that caught a crowd was Abel Gance’s early masterwork, Mater Dolorosa. One of the finest was Thomas Graals Bästa Film / Thomas Graal’s Best Film ((Sweden). Directed by Mauritz Stiller, this was a delightful comedy centred on a scriptwriter working on his next film. The writer and title character was played by Stiller’s fellow-filmmaker Victor Sjöström. And as was often the case in Swedish films of this period there was a strong and independent minded female lead, Bessie (Karin Molander). We also enjoyed a film directed by Sjöström, Tones Fran Stormyrtorpet / The Girl from the Marsh Croft (Sweden). The film was based on a novel by Selma Lagerlöf, whose writings provided stories for a number of Swedish films in the silent era. The plot was familiar, focusing on class, bigotry and the restraints of religious morality. The put-upon young heroine Helga was played with real power by Greta Almroth, whilst future star Lars Hansen played Gudmund. The film made great use of contrasting spaces and offered that exceptional use of natural locations that grace the silent Swedish films.
Also in the programme was a rare Triangle western directed by Frank Borzage, Until They Get Me ; a Lyda Borelli vehicle directed by Carmine Gallone, Malombra; and a German ghost film directed by Robert Wiene with a young Conrad Veidt and distinctive tinting, Furcht / Fear. Needless to say they all proved popular, generating queues of expectant admirers and full auditoriums.
The programme that I managed to see in its entirety was ‘The Japanese Period Film in the Valley of Darkness’. This was another programme curated by Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström. The titles all came from between 1937 and 1941 when Japan was under the control of a militaristic regime: all were jidai-geki or period films. In their introduction Alexander and Johan explained that the series of films selected all explored,
“how to present the past . . .”
and that all these films in some way
“challenge the samurai values . . .”
which were central to the regime.
The opening title was a film that I have read about often but which I had to wait until now to see, Ninjo Kamifusen / Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937). The film was directed by a promising young filmmaker Yamanaka Sadao, who sadly died in the war against China the following year. The film opens with a Samurai suicide and then follows the effects as they work through a small tenement community. The film has a substantial group of central characters and represents the class divisions underlying conflicts through the use of spatial difference. It also offers one of the great endings on film. There were seven others films in the programme, two of which, Hana Chirinu / Fallen Blossoms (1938) and Sono Zen’ya / The Night Before, are set in the crucial year of 1877 when a samurai rebellion attempted to stopped the modernisation led by the Meiji Restoration. And Kyojinden / The Giant (1938) was an impressive though not completely successful adaptation of Victor Hugo’s great French novel ‘Les Misérables’. All the films were interesting and worth watching. However, the print quality of some of these films, dating back decades, was mixed. Several did not have great definition or contrast: in the case of one film this meant that it was difficult to identify all the characters and their actions. The projection accentuated this because it mainly used the sub-titles as a point of focus, and on 35mm there is a slight difference in the plane.
The Film Foundation’s World Cinema project is now an established event in the Festival. The Foundation has now embarked on a project to restore fifty key films from Africa. So, as a real treat, we were able to see three films by Med Hondo. Born in Mauritania Hondo worked elsewhere in Africa and then in France. He took up acting and founded his own company in 1966. Then, working in television and film, he moved into cinema. Like some other notable filmmakers he has funded his film direction by his work as an actor. Since 1967 he has been able to make eight films. The Foundation has produced a digital restoration of his first, Soleil Ȏ (Mauritania, 1970 – DCP). Shot in black and white the film uses avant-garde techniques but it is better described as an ‘agit-prop’ documentary. Whilst it has a dramatised plot line the film presents the experiences of black people in Paris in this period.
“All the scenes were based on reality. Because racism isn’t invented, especially in film. It’s like a kind of cloak put on you, that you’re forced to live with.” (Med Hondo, 1970 quoted in the Festival Catalogue).
It is powerful document and stands up as relevant forty years on.
The programme also included two of Hondo’s later films in 35mm prints from the Harvard Film Archive. West Indies (France, Algeria, Mauritania, 1979) could be described as a period musical. The film presents
“a giant slave ship that symbolizes the triangular relationship between Africa, Europe and the Caribbean – as it explores the parallels between the forced migration of the Atlantic slave trade and the contemporary migration of Afro-Caribbean subjects to former colonial metropoles.” (Aboubakar Sanogo in the Festival Catalogue).
Sarraounia (Burkino Faso, Mauritania, France, 1986) dramatised the historical record and the successful resistance to a French colonial expedition in the late C19th. The film had a more conventional linear narrative and was shot in colour and Technovision. Using African locations (but Burkino Faso not Niger), African songs, griots and cultural artefacts , the film celebrated both African culture and resistance. It also inverted the stereotypes of mainstream cinema with the psychotic French commander reduced to brutal sectarian violence.
Med Hondo was present to his introduce his films. He was clearly moved by his reception and by the re-emergence of his cinema. Hondo also was passionate about his films and the radical political content. The writings of Franz Fanon would seem to be central to his standpoint whilst stylistically the films use montage, both visual and aural, to create their effect. But seeing them in the UK (and likely elsewhere) has always been difficult. Soleil Ȏ, Les ‘Bricot Négres’ vos voisons (1974) and Sarraounia have been screened cinematically in the UK. Channel 4 screened the three films shown in Bologna in its ‘Africa Film’ season in the 1980s, but Sarraounia was cropped to Aacademy ratio.
The Foundation also continued its work in restoring Cuban classics. This year we had Lucía (1968). The film directed by Humberto Solás and also scripted by him together with Julio Garcia Espinosa and Nelson Rodriguez, is a fairly epic work with three stories and running 160 minutes (DCP). The three tales present three women of the same name, from 1895, 1933 and in the present.
“Lucia is not a film about women, it’s a film about society. But within society, I chose the most vulnerable character, the one who is more transcendentally affected at any given moment by contradictions and change. ” (Humberto Solás, quoted in the Catalogue).
There were also two films by Tomás Gutiérrez Aléa restored by the Academy Film Archive: Una pelea Cubana contra los demonios / A Cuban Fight Against Demons (1971 – DCP) and Los Sobrevivientes / The Survivors (1970). The programme was rounded off by a selection of ICAIC Noticiero ICAIC Latinoamericano (1960 – 1970): the complete series has been restored and digitised by the French INA and is available on their website. This is clearly a welcome archival source: my main reservation is that it seems that INA have bought and hold possession of the archive, which would be better retained and controlled in Cuba.
There was a programme of films related to the French writer, ‘Colette and Cinema’. This included documentaries about her; films based on her writing; films that she reviewed as a critic; and films that she worked on providing French sub-titles for foreign language films. One of the famous films from her writings is Gigi: but the festival screened the 1949 French version, directed by Jacques Audry. This seems closer to the spirit of Collette’s writing than the Hollywood musical.
“Gigi opened the way to films focused on the subordination of make characters to female ones ….” (Émilie Cauquy in the Catalogue).
A popular treat was Divine (1935), based on her novella and with dialogue by Collette. The film has a rich representation of the French music-hall, but it was the stylish direction of Max Ophuls that made the film stand out. Her critical work was represented by Mater Dolorosa, directed by Abel Gance, another film from 1917. Collette had some reservations about the style and characterisations but
“I applaud a new use of the ‘still life’, the touching use of props, as in the fall of the veil on the floor.” (College quoted in the Catalogue).
The film is a marital melodrama and was relatively successful on release,. The cinematography of Léonce-Henri Burel is reckoned one of the films outstanding qualities.
The regular programme ‘The Time Machine’ focused on the year of 1897, right back in the pioneer days of cinema,. Both the Lumière Brothers and Georges Méliès featured here. The notable Lumière programme was ‘Palestine in 1896’, a ‘land without Zionists’. And there was a programme of film originated on 68mm by American and British Mutoscope Biograph, now presented on 35mm.
Another regular programme ‘The Space Machine’, included both Mexican and Iranian films of the past. The Mexican programme included Dos Monjes / Two Monks from 1934 (DCP). The restoration also involved The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project. Most of the film was flashbacks prior to the monastery setting that opened the film. What stood out in a melodramatic tale was the style, which was at time expressionist and at time surrealist: visually potent. The stand-out film in the programme was Maclovia (1948), the name of the heroine played by Maria Felix and opposite Pedro Armendáriz as José Maria. The film is set on the Island of Janítzio where an indigenous people have their own mores and also suffer the contempt and oppression of the European élite. The film was directed by Emilio ‘El Indio’ Fernández working with the great cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. The latter’s use of the camera and lighting, together with what seemed to be all the fishing nets from around Mexico, was beautiful, especially as we happily had a 35mm print.
I was less struck by the ‘Teheran Noir: The Thrillers of Samuel Khachikian’. Working in the developing days of the Iranian film industry Khachikian was clearly seeking out the conventions of film production and a style appropriate for the Iranian world of the time. The only title I watched was Chahar Rah-E Havades / Crossroad of Events (1955). The story follows a young man tempted into crime by his desire for a young woman. The tale was fairly conventional and the style did not really seem to suit the melodrama.
The Festival offers all sorts of other pleasures. One of these are the evening screenings in the Piazza Maggiore. A large screen offers open air cinema to thousands of people. There is a screening every night, unless the weather intervenes. The opening night saw the presentation of Jean Virgo’s classic L’Atalante (1934) accompanied by A propos de Nice (1930), part of a programme on this French filmmaker. By the end of the week a fellow French filmmaker Agnès Varda introduced her new film Visages Villages (2017). In between there were a number of digital screenings and two on 35mm; the famous Battleship Potemkin / Bronenosec Potëmkin (1925) with a full orchestral accompaniment; and then in a lighter vein The Patsy USA 1928) starring Marion Davies.
On three evenings the Piazzetta Pasolini was the site of screenings projected from a 1930s Carbon-Arc projector,. Therese events are equally popular and the particular palette from carbon arc through 35mm prints is a delight. The opening screening featured Addio Giovinezza! / Goodbye Youth (Italy 1918). The film was directed by Augusto Genina who was the subject of a programme of screening at the Festival. This was, as the title suggests, a bitter-sweet comedy. The young protagonist leaves his small town to attend Turin university. Not an engaging figure though, he exploits both his student friend and a young woman with whom he has a romance.
There were all sorts of other exciting and/or interesting films in the Festival. There was a retrospective of the US independent filmmaker Bill Morrison. I had seen many of the films when he visited the Bradford Film festival, so this was one of the choices I missed. One recurring programme is ‘The Cinephiles Heaven’. This included the fine restoration of Kean ou Désordre et génie / Edmund Kean, Prince Among Lovers (1924) from the Cinémathèque française which I had seen at the 2016 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. I was able to revisit Trouble in Paradise (USA 1932). This is one of the most delightful comedies by Ernst Lubitsch, with Herbert Marshall, Miriam Hopkins and Kay Francis offering beautifully modulated performances. I also watched The Asphalt Jungle (USA 1950, on 4K DCP), John Huston’s fine crime/noir thriller, with an outstanding characterisation by Sterling Hayden.
‘Una Dominica a Bologna’. This was a varied and fascinating selected of ‘Sunday’ titles. I had to forgo seeing Menschen am Sontag / People on Sunday (Germany 1930) another time. But I did recommend to an Italian friend that he must see It Always Rains on Sunday (UK 1947, DCP).
‘Universal Pictures: the Laemmle Junior Years was a follow-up to the first programme in 2016. There were films directed by Lois Weber, Tod Browning, James Whale and Frank Borzage. ‘The Two Faces of Robert Mitchum’ included the classic film noir Out of the Past (1947) and Home from the Hill (1960). ‘In Search of Color: Kinemacolor and Technicolor’ featured films from as early as 1907 right up to the 1950s: there were the classic Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) and Rancho Notorious (1952), plus three of the melodramas directed by Douglas Sirk in the same decade. And there was a programme dedicated to William K. Howard ‘Rediscovering a Master Stylist’. These were films from C20th Fox, including the much written about The Power and the Glory (1933, 4K DCP). The other featured filmmaker was ‘Watchful Dreamer: The Subversive Melancholy of Helmut Käutner’. His first film was an actor in 1932, then he took up scriptwriting and direction in 1939. He worked through the war years and on into the post-war industry up until 1977.
Unter den Brücken / Under the Bridges (1945/49 – one of those films which was released after the end of the war). There was little sense of the conflict going on around the filming. The story was fairly conventional, two friends running a barge were both attracted to a young waif who fell in their way. However, the film was finely constructed and there were excellent sequences by cinematographers Igor Oberberg and M. Wolfgang Webrum of the canals and especially the bridges that cross them. Ludwig !!. – Glanz und Ende Eines Königs / Mad Emperor: Ludwig II looked good but suffered by comparison with the Visconti film. And there was no Romy Schneider and no dog. Das Glas Wasser / A Glass of Water (1960) was set in C18th Britain, the reign of Queen Anne. It was very much in the style of 1960s tongue-in-cheek period comedy: reminiscent in some ways of The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (UK 1965).
This only gives a sense of part of the Festival but you can check out the complete programme of titles.
The final screenings saw rounds of applause for the organisers and volunteers who worked on the Festival. It ran remarkably smoothly given the complexity of the venues and programming. There was also applause for the team of musicians who provided accompaniments for all the films from the Silent Era. The majority added to the films without overpowering them. There was one guitar accompaniment which I found rather over-the-top. And the projection teams did pretty well with the range of formats for screenings.
The weather, 30% some days, and the queues were an inevitable part of a summer festival. Less acceptable were problems with people using electronic gadgets. There were merciful few ring tones in the auditoriums but there were quite a number of members who seemed to need to check their phones/tablets for the time or something similar; or even for texting. The worst culprits were a few recalcitrant’s who used their machines to take pics during the actual films. One person took something like 20 stills or video clips during a two reel film running only 28 minutes. I did report her but I was disappointed that she did not appear in the stocks in the Piazzetta Pasolini rather in the manner of Maud Hansson in 1957. Mariann Lewinsky, a redoubtable programmer presence in the Festival, did ask patrons to desist before the Carbon Arc screenings, but I think this was the only example of warning given during the Festival. I think for the future they organisers need to introduce some notices before screenings to try and prevent this.
So we now await for 2018. Apart from Battleship Potemkin we only had four pre-revolution features from Russia and a short Danish animation in the 1917 ‘Film and Politics’ section. I hope we will get a revisiting of Soviet films as we pass the Centenary year of the Great October Revolution.
Famously Sergei Eisenstein worked on an unfinished film in Mexico in 1931 and early 1932. The visit to this country came at the end of a tour that took in Europe and the USA, including Hollywood. Europe was productive, Eisenstein was involved in making a short avant-garde film at a conference of progressive filmmakers. Hollywood was [predictably] unproductive though Eisenstein did work on some unfinished screenplays. In Mexico he found an empathetic environment and, for a time, was supported by the US socialist Upton Sinclair in producing a film. The film was to be ¡Que viva México!, which remains one of those lost but tantalising projects in film history.
Now Peter Greenaway has written and directed a film about Eisenstein’s sojourn in Mexico. It is typical Greenaway fare, with his usual stylistic flair but also his idiosyncratic treatment of a subject. I saw Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015) at the Leeds International Film Festival. This screening was the low point of the Festival if not the entire year.
The characterisation of Eisenstein offered in the film clearly possesses some of his known traits, in particular his sexual orientation. There is an incredibly long sex scene. But there is little attention to his intellectual and artistic prowess. And whilst there are number of sequences where we see Eisenstein, with his colleagues Eduard Tissé and Grigori Alexandrov, filming, Greenaway’s treatment shows little real interest in this lost but much discussed film.
In addition Greenaway includes sequences from the seminal films that Eisenstein had already made in the Soviet Union. However, these appear to be from not great quality video and [even worse] they have been reframed in to the 2.39:1 anamorphic frame. There are other recent perpetrators of this practice, but few of them have actually inflicted the very wide letterbox on archive footage.
Greenaway does show more interest in the erotic drawings that Eisenstein produced during his stay. A whole truckload of these were confiscated by the US customs on his return journey. Some of them could be seen in the recent exhibition in London, Unexpected Eisenstein.
Greenaway’s film is now receiving a limited general release. It is recommended only for masochists and anti-Bolshevik types. What would have been more illuminating would be the event held in April at the Regent Cinema Eisenstein in Mexico. This event, jointly organised by A Nos Amours and Kino Klassica, included screenings of several films developed from the some 200,000 plus footage shot by Eisenstein and his colleagues. There was Marie Seton’s Time in the Sun (1939), Alexandrov’s ¡Que viva México! (1979), and a film I have yet to see. Mexican Fantasy (1998). There were also talks and discussions during the event.
My fantasy wish is that the Metropolitans get the Greenaway film and that we deprived northerners get the three-film event.
This unusual film was introduced by its writer-director Alejandra Sánchez who joined ¡Viva! programmer Rachel Hayward for a Q&A after the screening. Ms Sanchez is a documentary filmmaker who has here moved into ‘documentary drama’. In 2006 she made a documentary about the violent attacks on women in the city of Juárez near the US border. She made contact with a woman whose daughter had been killed in Juárez in one of these attacks and who was now looking after her two small grandchildren. Ten years after her daughter’s death this woman was herself attacked and shot several times outside her house. Somehow she survived the shooting (which Alejandra Sanchez argued was prompted by her work as an activist in the campaign about violence directed towards women). The director then decided to dramatise the story of the two children, one of whom witnessed the shooting. She wrote a script and then decided to cast the real teenagers to play themselves. As well as this element, she also used photographs and ‘home movie footage’ of the children and their mother as part of her film.
In the film the two children, Jade and Kaleb, now teenagers, are visited in the hospital where their grandmother is in a coma by a journalist, Martha, who has been summoned by the family’s lawyer, David. Martha (Nora Huerto) is asked to take the teenagers on a trip, away from possible danger, with the hope that they will be able to meet up with their grandmother in Mexico City when she has recovered and go with her to a safe house in Canada.
Seguir viviendo thus turns into a road movie. The brother and sister are understandably traumatised by this second attack. Kaleb never speaks (a device suggested by the director) but his sister eventually comes round. Later it is revealed that Martha has lost her small son in a car accident and one stop on the road trip is at the bar owned by her former lover, the dead boy’s father. There isn’t a great deal of plot but the road trip includes some of the familiar generic moments, including a drive down the coast and various overnight stays in motels and at least one village house. The film has an ‘open’ ending with a song and an animated sequence – which I certainly wasn’t expecting. During the Q&A Alejandra told us that she chose the ending against advice because she preferred it to the more realistic end point of the airport where the teenagers would board a plane to take them to the safe house.
Why was the children’s mother murdered in the first place? Why are women being attacked in Cuidad Juárez? These are the questions that several people in the audience wanted answers for. Alejandra was not able to answer such questions directly (it may have been simply a translation problem). She said that the attacks and killings had been going on for more than 20 years and that you really had to live in Mexico to appreciate what this meant. I took her statements to imply that the children’s mother was killed almost as part of the overall violence of the city rather than for something that she did and that the grandmother was attacked because she was an activist campaigning for better police and judicial action against the killers. This discussion did, of course, raise the spectre of violence associated with Mexico’s drug gangs, especially in the areas near the US border. A Guatemalan filmmaker in the audience said that this violence should be discussed and audiences needed to be educated about it and why it has happened – otherwise the representation of Central American societies remains simply barbaric for outsiders. This is something people feel strongly about and indeed it does need discussion. Both Rachel Hayward and Andy Willis asked questions which tried to focus on how Alejandra felt in dealing with such highly emotional (and possibly personally dangerous) filmmaking. There are a couple of scenes where the characters think they might be being followed and Alejandra admitted that the paranoia was ‘real’ for herself and the teenagers and her crew.
This an emotional and at times very moving film and Alejandra Sanchez is a brave filmmaker who deserves support. The film is technically well-made but it is quite short (81 mins) for a feature and I did feel that the final section lacked something. I fear that the film will mainly be seen at specialist film festivals but I hope it does find a wider audience and that it encourages other filmmakers to be equally brave and authorities to initiate action against the violence and towards support for the victims.
When I first began to write about this film I thought it would be straightforward to describe it as a mainstream ‘feelgood film’ – a romantic drama with comedy and a universal narrative. However, when I started to read a few of the other commentaries on the film and to reflect on what we learned about Mexican cinema during the ¡Viva! Weekender, I realised that there was more to it than that. The Mexican audience is growing but in the main Mexicans still watch Hollywood films over their own domestic releases. I tend not to watch Hollywood mainstream comedies, so a film like Paraíso perhaps seems less unfamiliar to me than it might to the Mexican audience. I’m referring to the concept of a very large woman as the central character of the film. Her weight is an important element of the narrative but, apart from one short sequence, the film does not ask us to laugh at her because of her weight. Instead, the weight issue is just part of who she is and how she deals with the real issue of maintaining her relationship with the man she loves and feeling good about what she does with her life. (I have seen one Hollywood film recently, Spy, in which the talented Melissa McCarthy is a large woman who triumphantly rules the narrative but that is unusual in contemporary Hollywood, I think.)
In Paraíso, Carmen and Alfredo are a loving couple, happily together in their ‘dormitory town’ in the outer suburban area of Mexico City. When Alfredo gets a promotion in his banking career they must move into the city. From day one, Carmen doesn’t really like big city life. Part of her problem is that she now has time on her hands after being an integral part of her family’s tax and legal advice business. The crunch comes when at their first bank function when Carmen overhears two of the well-dressed and ‘toned’ bank employees describing her and Alfredo as overweight country bumpkins. Carmen stumbles into a weight-watchers operation and the couple start diets. The outcome is fairly predictable – one of them loses most of their excess weight and the other doesn’t. It’s a recipe for marital disaster.
Carmen is an intelligent and seemingly confident young woman. The comedy is gentle and mostly comes from the quirks of social interaction rather than staged pratfalls or comic dialogue. One of the few ‘mistakes’ is a brief montage of Carmen trying to adopt yoga stances with predictable results. The film feels like a romantic comedy partly because the narrative resolution is to some extent dependent on a rather formulaic cookery competition that is handled very sketchily, as if even the writer didn’t really think it made much sense. Most of the time, however, the writing benefits from careful social observation. It’s perhaps not surprising that the script is by two women, Julieta Arévalo having written the original story that is adapted by the director Mariana Chenillo. Carmen is played by Daniela Rincón and she doesn’t appear to have other credits on IMDB. If she is indeed a new screen talent this is an impressive first screen performance. Alfredo is played by the more experienced Andrés Almeida. His is quite a difficult role underplaying Alfredo who behaves sensitively towards Carmen and things go wrong that aren’t his fault. Overall this is a story about two people in love who have to go through a difficult period in order to appreciate how good they are together. I hope that it gets widely seen on DVD in Mexico and that seeing it will encourage more Mexican filmmakers to look for local stories. I realise now that it’s a film that relates to the session on ‘Latin American Cities‘ (and the alienation they can generate) delivered in the first ¡Viva! Weekender earlier this year. I’m also reminded of another film from a few years ago, Real Women Have Curves (US 2002) a Hispanic-American film which similarly struggled for a cinema release (but which eventually made $5 million). That film’s lead, America Ferrera, went on to achieve fame as ‘Ugly Betty’. I hope Daniela Rincón goes on to achieve something similar.
I knew this film was going to work from the first few minutes of the opening scene. Four men in their late 70s or older are sat round a table in a café-bar playing dominoes and squabbling. Suddenly one orders 5 shots of tequila. Consternation amongst the other three since none of them drink any more. The drinker explains that they are all for him and that he is ‘out’ – he has colon cancer and he hasn’t got long. He then makes the other three promise that they will deliver his most prized possession to its final resting place when he is gone. This object is a paper napkin on which are written the lyrics to a new song by the famous singer José Alfredo Jiménez. The lyrics are dedicated to the dying man and signed by the singer. This is indeed a historical document that is dated and in the handwriting of the star. The three survivors are charged with taking this sacred object to the museum in Dolores Hidalgo where the singer is buried – a trip of over 250 kilometres from Mexico City. That doesn’t sound very far, but these are old men with very little money.
The ‘three amigos’ are great performers, each very different, and I knew I would enjoy their company. The film was briefly introduced by Yossy Zagha Kababie, co-writer and producer (and brother of the director) who featured in a Q&A after the screening. He confirmed that all four of the old men are experienced performers from TV, theatre and film – some primarily working in comedy sketches or telenovelas but others as character actors. One of them, José Carlos Ruiz (Emiliano) has appeared in Hollywood films including Peckinpah’s Major Dundee (1965). Luis Bayardo (Augustin) reminded me at times of Stan Laurel with a quizzical expression and a general air of innocence.
The plot develops a road movie with a clever script that finds numerous ways of delaying the trio on their journey so that it takes several days for just one of them to reach Dolores Hidalgo and deliver the napkin. (UK readers will possibly remember a similar trip in Last Orders, UK 2001, a Fred Schepisi film based on a Graham Swift novel.) Each of the three men who start the trip has a family issue to deal with. One is a widower being forced into a nursing home by his daughter-in-law, one has a wife with dementia and one is constantly finding the ghost of his dead wife popping up and criticising him. These are universal problems for men of a certain age but the appearance of the ghost also refers us to the ways in which the film tries to connect with Mexican culture and the nostalgia for the trio in thinking about the Mexico of their youth. One of the men ‘sees’ a white horse on a couple of occasions – a reference (Yossy told us) to one of the 1,000 songs written by Jiminéz. The men also meet a ‘witch’ and survive a dangerous premonition that involves another ghost. As one of the audience questions highlighted, the role of women in the film is quite interesting in this film about four men – the women have quite small parts but they are often characters with real ‘agency’ – assertive, organised and ‘active’. Yossy agreed that the script had tried hard to achieve this.
This is a genuinely funny film with laughs aplenty but also a social commentary and a moving drama. It’s a major achievement. In answering questions during a lively Q&A conducted by Andy Willis, Yossy Zagha Kababie made many revealing statements. He explained that there is a big growth in film production in Mexico, but small films (this cost just US$1.5 million) find it difficult to get screened in Mexico despite the box office boom in admissions (Mexico now rates as the fifth biggest film market in cinema admissions). Most cinemas screen American films and the 100,000 admissions for this film is a sign of success in a difficult market. He argued that as a producer with his brother they aimed to make films about Mexican culture that weren’t about drugs gangs. Comedy is popular in Mexico but mainly ‘simple’ comedy and not the character stuff as in this film. Comedy is also a harder sell to international film festival programmers. So, it’s difficult but worthwhile work that the filmmakers enjoy. The focus on music and the town of Dolores Hidalgo – one of Mexico’s official ‘Magic Towns’ with a historical role in the struggle for Independence – is part of this ‘reclaiming of Mexican culture’. I think any festival would benefit from including this film and I just wish a distribution deal was possible in Europe – it seems that a Mexican comedy like this doesn’t even travel to other Spanish language markets elsewhere in Latin America, but the Hispanic market in the US may be a taker of both DVD and TV rights? If you stumble across this film, take the plunge and you’ll have a great time.
I puzzled over this film for some time but then discovered that its script was based on a 1999 play by Marie NDyiae, the French writer with a Senegalese father. I came across her as the co-writer of White Material (France-Cameroon 2009) directed by Claire Denis. This revelation didn’t explain everything but it did confirm the European ingredients in the narrative mix and the politics of race and class. During the screening I couldn’t help thinking about Luis Buñuel and some of his Mexican as well as his Spanish films. Although the overall narrative is not Buñuelian there are certainly recognisable elements including the disruption of an upper middle-class formal dinner and the whole concept of relationships between ‘masters’ and ‘servants’. That said there is also a distinct Latin American interest in ‘the maid’. I remember a Bolivian film Zona Sur (South District, Bolivia 2009) and La Nana (The Maid, Chile 2009).
‘Hilda’ is the name of a young woman recruited (reluctantly) as the maid/nanny for the Le Marchands, a very wealthy Mexico City family. Hilda is married to Francisco who was previously the gardener for the same family. Senora Le Marchand has a hold over Francisco to whom she has lent money to buy a house. He is now in the process of paying back these loans – which gives the Senora leverage to coerce his wife into the maid’s job. Senora Le Marchand (Susanna) is a woman in her 60s and the nanny role refers to her grandson. Her son has returned from America with his wife and child. Meanwhile Senor Le Marchand is in cahoots with the local police chief and is attempting to acquire an American business partner in order to expand his manufacturing business. He ignores and humiliates his wife (he gives her a new passport in which she is described as a housewife and a high school graduate). In fact she was at university in 1968 and she joined the radical students. Later she became a charity organiser. Now she is feeling nostalgic for those days and increasingly alienated from her husband. When she is asked for an interview about her 1968 activities by current students she becomes obsessed with her memories. She has always tried to be ‘fair’ to her servants and to include them ‘in the family’. But this time she becomes obsessed with Hilda – the maid works hard and is very efficient but displays no emotion until Susanna forces her to become enthusiastic and ‘passionate’. But Susanna gradually becomes ever more obsessive and we realise that she is out of control . . .
The film’s writer and director, Andres Clariond has explained that the film is a response to the great inequalities of Mexican society based on wealth, social class and ethnicity. Many of the Mexican films that make it into international distribution use the same themes to some extent. Y tu mamá también, for example makes some of the same points and La Zona emphasises the increasing alienation caused by the rise of gated communities and the security guard culture. Indeed the setting for the action rarely steps outside the Le Marchand house in which Hilda is virtually a prisoner. The film is presented in CinemaScope and I did wonder if we were heading for a full-blown family melodrama. That doesn’t really develop and instead we get more of a psychological study of Susanna, a woman who is representative of those ‘children of Marx and Coca-Cola’ (as Godard once put it) who have reached their 60s and begun to wonder what exactly they’ve achieved. By contrast we never learn that much about Hilda. Veteran actor Verónica Langer as Susanna and Adrianna Paz as Hilda do well with the script they have been given but my impression was that there was something missing – perhaps this is because of the opening out of a play? I felt that the climactic section of the narrative developed too quickly and at only 89 minutes I wondered if something had been left out. There is a sub-plot about the son of the Le Marchand family as well as the impact of his father’s attempt to join up with American business. These narrative threads add to the overall structure but don’t completely mesh with the Susanna-Hilda story. Even so, the film worked for me, offering a mix of political satire, social commentary and psychological study.
If you haven’t yet made it to Manchester’s new palace of the arts at HOME, this coming weekend offers an excellent introduction to its cinema programme with the second ‘weekender’ of the well-established ¡Viva! Spanish and Latin American Film Festival now in its 21st edition. This year, with the move from Cornerhouse to HOME, ¡Viva! is appearing as three separate ‘weekenders’ and this one focuses on New Mexican Cinema.
Starting on Thursday June 18 there will be six films, four of them playing twice, plus various other events. On Thursday at 18.15 before the first film En el último trago, HOME’s new Director of Film Jason Wood will draw on one of his own areas of interest in a ‘One Hour Introduction to Mexican Cinema and the Tradition of the Road Movie’. Three of the weekend’s films are road movies and the first will be introduced by its director Jack Zagha Kababie – who will also be the focus of a Q&A after the second screening on Saturday. On Sunday there will also be a Q&A with Alejandra Sánchez, writer-director of Seguir viviendo, another road movie. Paraíso (2013) directed by Mariana Chenillo is described as a “delightful comedy drama” about moving to the big city. As well as two public screenings this film will also be screened for an Adult Study Morning on Saturday 20 June (10.30). Ana Valbuena will present the film and lead discussion in Spanish for adult language learners.
Only one of the films, Güeros (2014) (showing on Monday), has a UK distributor so this weekend is a chance to see Mexican films that are unlikely to appear anywhere else. Cornerhouse/HOME performs a valuable service for cinephiles and Hispanophiles alike in bringing Spanish and Latin American Cinema to Manchester. The films in this weekender all look as if they engage with contemporary Mexican society in different and exciting ways. I hope to be there on Saturday and Sunday and I’ll be reporting back. It’s going to be good!
Further details about the weekender can be found here or click on the image above. Reports from previous ¡Viva! Festivals are archived via this tag. HOME has five comfortable auditoria with big screens. Projection is top notch and admission prices compare favourably with multiplexes. Come and enjoy yourself.