The key figure of Film Forum’s rewarding “Cine Mexico” series isn’t a director or a star—it’s Gabriel Figueroa (1907–1997), a great cinematographer whose career reads like a history of Mexican film. After a Hollywood apprenticeship with Citizen Kane‘s Gregg Toland, the young Figueroa returned home and shot his first feature, Fernando de Fuentes’s Allá en el Rancho Grande (1936). Its huge international success put Mexican films on the map. A few years later, he began a collaboration with director Emilio Fernández that yielded a long list of classics (Flor Silvestre, 1943; María Candelaria, 1943; Enamorada, 1946), all filled with monumental compositions inspired by Mexico’s muralist painters.
Figueroa was the first Latin American director of photography to instill a national personality—a mexicanidad—on a body of work. He and Fernández (their close-knit team included actors Pedro Armendáriz, María Félix, and Dolores del Rio) initiated what would be known as “El Cine de Oro”—the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, which lasted over a decade. Later, Figueroa shifted from the filtered and ornately poetic neo-Eisenstein mode of his work with Fernández (marked by majestic landscapes crowned with luminous clouds) to the sparse and cool imagery of the magnificent seven movies he shot for Luis Buñuel.
Mexican silents are a mystery for most of us. The survey includes two rare and markedly dissimilar pre-audible features, José Manuel Ramos’s Tepeyac (1917), a plodding religious drama, of some historical importance as the first of many films about the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s spiritual patroness, and Gabriel García Moreno’s deliciously absurd Iron Fist (1927), a demented drama on the evils of drug addiction—Reefer Madness on horseback.
In the late 1920s, Mexican cinema languished under the pressure of competition from Hollywood and would have to wait until the advent of sound to make significant advances. Foreigners dominated early sound production. The first noteworthy Mexican filmmaker was Fernando de Fuentes, whose major works, El Compadre Mendoza (1933) and ¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa! (1935) remain unsurpassed treatments of the Mexican Revolution. Pancho Villa, the first great epic of the period, is a big-budget affair—by 1935, de Fuentes had access to serious funding. Mendoza, a bleak, restrained drama, is even more impressive. It deals with personal tragedy and concerns a rich landowner who betrays his closest friend, a Zapatista, in order to save his own skin and preserve his wealth. A nuanced critical analysis of a historical moment, Mendoza stands out as the most resonant Mexican movie of the 1930s.
The Golden Age had run its course by the 1950s. Little of lasting value was produced under the repressive political regimes with the exception of Buñuel’s films. The middling panorama of commercial cinema was enlivened by the cabaretera (brothel cabaret melodrama) films directed by Alberto Gout, whose Aventurera (1950), his sauciest movie, stars Cuban sex symbol rumbera Ninón Sevilla in a campy saga about a nice girl drugged into working as a whore in a brothel run by her future mother-in-law. Three of the four Buñuel pictures in the series—Los Olvidados (1950), The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955), and Nazarín (1959)—are well-known major works. Less often seen, Illusion Travels by Streetcar (1953), is a slight Mexico City comedy about two trolley company employees sentimentally attached to their decrepit vehicle. It does contain one startling moment, evocative of the director’s surrealist roots—a bunch of slaughterhouse workers board the trolley and severed pigs’ heads are carried across town, swaying above the heads of passengers.
In 1963, the country’s first film school, Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos (CUEC), was founded in Mexico City and was soon graduating young directors who turned for the first time to independent production. After a period of stagnation, Mexican cinema was revitalized by a new generation, the first to have learned their craft either at CUEC or the IDHEC in Paris. Four of this group, all influenced to some extent by the French new wave, have produced a considerable body of work: Felipe Cazals, Arturo Ripstein, Paul Leduc, and Jaime Humberto Hermosillo. The first three are well represented at Film Forum, while Hermosillo, the most provocative director of his generation, has not been included—a serious omission for a survey of this scope.
The only film directed by a woman in the program, María Novaro’s Danzón (1991) is pure joy. María Rojo stars as a fortyish Mexico City telephone operator whose one passion is ballroom dancing. When her dance partner disappears, she drops everything and takes her first trip alone, to his hometown, the port city of Veracruz. She doesn’t find him, but she finds herself—through friendship with drag queens and prostitutes and a fling with a hunky young tugboat captain half her age. Novaro’s sad-funny film moves with the elegance of a Minnelli musical. Horse-faced Tito Vasconcelos is a knockout as a drag confidante, and the irresistible Rojo, traipsing the docks of Veracruz in a red dress and red plastic hoop earrings and with a red flower behind her ear, is the indelible image of 1990s Mexican cinema.
Since Danzón was made, a number of new talents have come to the fore—among them, Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón, and Alejandro González Iñárritu. All three have left the hacienda and are currently pursuing careers in Hollywood. But that’s another story.