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This week: Mexican cinema, and lots of it

Was there really a Mexican cinema before Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo Del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Carlos Reygadas? Should you ask a Mexican?

Warner Home Video's 23-DVD Pedro Infante collection is largely a tribute to the many mediocrities that this phenomenally popular singer-actor made during the 1940s and '50s. It does, however, include one feature by the great Emilio "El Indio" Fernández, the master of heroic angles and crude cutting—namely his 1950 prison flick, Las Islas Marías. Taking a murder rap for his sister, the noble Infante is sent to waste away on Mexico's prison island, from which only an angel can help him escape. (Infante's long-suffering mother is played by Rosaura Revueltas, the actress who, three years later, starred in the independent blacklistee production Salt of the Earth and was arrested and deported to Mexico as punishment.)

Also to be found in the Infante collection is Ismael Rodríguez's 1947 Nosotros los Pobres, in which the hero is again unjustly imprisoned. Historically significant for its sentimental, fake-neorealist evocation of Mexico's urban underclass, this is the very movie that Luis Buñuel swore to subvert with his neo-surrealist Los Olvidados. Buñuel's 1950 masterpiece is due for release on DVD; in the meantime, several of his more obscure Mexican features have become newly available. The 1952 A Woman Without Love, the first of his three melodramas that Facets Video is preparing to release, is an indifferently made adaptation of a Guy de Maupassant story. Two brothers, both doctors and deadly sibling rivals, discover that once upon a time, their mom had a secret love. The ensuing panic allows Buñuel ample opportunity to mock the Latin myth of the saintly mother.

Somewhat whimsically, Lionsgate has paired Buñuel's first Mexican feature, the 1946 action-musical Gran Casino (starring Pedro Infante's great rival, Jorge Negrete), with one of his last, La Joven (1961), released in the U.S. as The Young One and re-released with the more exploitative title White Trash. A Mexican-U.S. co-production, made from a script by blacklisted writer Hugo Butler, it's set on an imaginary Georgia Sea island where, seeking refuge from a lynch mob, a jazz musician enters into a battle of wills with the local game warden (Zachary Scott). Buñuel has poker-faced fun with the setup: Scott is cured of his racism once he recognizes his true love for the island's only other resident, a barefoot 12-year-old girl.

More obvious craziness may be found in the Abko Anchor Bay boxed set of Alejandro Jodorowsky's Mexican features. El Topo and The Holy Mountain have been circulating in cinemas for the past year, but better filmmaking than either is their precursor, the 1968 Fando y Lis. Freely adapted from a play by Jodorowsky's fellow "Panicist" Fernando Arrabal, Fando y Lis was the only one of Jodorowsky's early films to be shown in his adopted land. Not only was it then banned, but it resulted in the termination of the Acapulco Film Festival, which had the cojones to show it.

 
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