Arturo Ripstein was born into the movies–the son of a famous producer, he spent a good deal of his childhood poking around film sets. He worked as an assistant to Luis Buñuel, and it was in fact the great Spaniard-in-exile who shaped Ripstein’s iconoclastic take on Mexican society. He made his own directorial debut in 1955 and has since chalked up a total of 21 features, 10 of which are in Anthology’s retro.
Although a few of them might be characterized as dark comedies, none are droll. The director’s excessive and gloomy films always side squarely with the alienated, marginal characters of society–no matter how criminal their actions. These are night stories, taking place in a tenebrous world usually accompanied by music and dancing–a bolero, a Verdi or Puccini aria, a ballad, tango, foxtrot, or a corrido. And these nights are made for love–in wine cellars, in bakeries, on pianos, in bathrooms, saunas, backseats of cars; in a Ripstein movie, it appears, no one ever screws in bed.
A master of claustrophobic atmospheres and oppressive family situations, he’s at his most original when crossing Mexican melodramas with Theater of the Absurd. In Castle of Purity (1972), a weird tale of patriarchal repression and his most Buñuelian film, a rat-poison manufacturer sequesters his wife and children in a tottering house for 18 years to prevent their contact with the sinful outside world. Hell Without Limits, made in 1977 (its uncredited script is by Manuel Puig), is set in a decrepit small-town bordello and succeeds both as an indictment of homophobia and a deconstruction of Mexican machismo. Seen today, its climactic gay-bashing murder scene seems depressingly timely. The deliciously grotesque Realm of Fortune (1985), set in the remote interior of Mexico, recounts the rise and fall of a poor town crier who becomes a whiz at handling cockfights.
Since 1985, Ripstein’s increasingly ambitious and complex films have all been written by Paz Alicia Garciadiego, Mexico’s prime scenarist, who became the director’s wife. One of their most impressive collaborations, The Beginning and the End (1993) is a dense family drama, based on a novel by the Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, transposed by Garciadiego to a Mexico of extreme social inequality.
Ripstein’s most stylish recent work, Queen of the Night (1994), constructed on a series of virtuoso long takes à la Max Ophuls, concerns itself with the last few years in the life of Lucha Reyes, the legendary bisexual chanteuse who committed suicide in 1944. It’s a fascinating film–but unfortunately, the print supplied by the Mexican Consulate is so blotched and murky, it’s practically unwatchable.