One magnificent seven begets another: Following the splendid septet of cine negro that MoMA featured in its summer 2015 series “Mexico at Midnight: Film Noir from Mexican Cinema’s Golden Age,” the museum now highlights the work of director Julio Bracho, one of the standouts of that earlier survey, in a seven-film retrospective (a fraction of his output, which totaled nearly 50 titles). This encore of sorts reprises Distinto Amanecer (Another Dawn, 1943) and Crepúsculo (Twilight, 1945), Bracho’s taut, moody thrillers, while also showcasing his finesse in wildly disparate genres such as, to name just two, smoldering page-to-screen transfers of 19th-century epics and delirious Old Testament burlesque, the latter evidenced in La Corte de Faraon (The Pharaoh’s Court, 1944). If one theme unites the films in “Between Twilight and Dawn: Julio Bracho and the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema,” it might be this line from Distinto Amanecer: “We must not let this night take us into its vertigo.” Bracho’s characters are often caught up in disequilibrium, usually of their own making, and no matter the hour.
Born in 1909 in Durango, Bracho was active in far-left and avant-garde theater in the 1930s before making his first movie, a bouncy romp from 1941, ¡Ay, Qué Tiempos, Señor Don Simon! (Those Were the Days, Señor Don Simon!). Set “in those happy years of hoopskirt,” as an opening title card waggishly puts it, Don Simon sends up the rank hypocrisy and affectations of the upper classes during the prerevolutionary era of Porfirio Díaz, the dictator who ruled Mexico from 1884 until 1911. The mutton-chopped eponymous character (Joaquín Pardavé), the wholly unfit president of the League of Decency, lusts after young widow Inés (Mapy Cortés), who has designs of her own on cocksure military officer Miguel (Arturo de Córdova). The zippy energy of this farce, made even more bustling by subplots devoted to a pair of meddling spinster sisters and Don Simon’s mincing nephew, never lags or enervates: Bracho, a maestro of musical numbers, sets the tempo with an opening cancan performance at a dance hall, verve that is doubled at the film’s midpoint as rival gentry factions trill the title song in a chichi café — an extended diss track of the Porfiriato.
After the tremendous box-office success of Don Simon, Bracho made another period piece, Historia de un Gran Amor (Story of a Great Love, 1942), an adaptation of an 1880 novel by the Spanish writer Pedro Antonio de Alarcón. Rather than the effervescence of the previous film, Historia moves, steadily and seductively, with the weighty, long-simmering fury of those with decades-old scores to settle. However somber, Historia is no less invigorating than its rollicking predecessor. “My heart belongs to you just as a stone belongs to the dirt,” Manuel (Jorge Negrete) declares to — or threatens — Soledad (Gloria Marín, whose agile eyebrow-arching equals that of another Gloria north of the border, Grahame), the daughter of the man who destroyed Manuel’s father. Fueled by hate and hubris, the once-penniless Manuel reinvents himself as a nobleman; each time he returns to his southern town after mysterious long absences, his legend grows, as does the deranging passion he and Soledad nurture with their own misery.
Dolor also hangs heavy in the superb noir Distinto Amanecer, set in contemporaneous Mexico City, the metropolis transformed into a network of velvety penumbrae by cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. (The eminent DP, who also collaborated with Bracho on Don Simon and Historia, is best known for his work with Emilio Fernández, another paradigmatic director from Mexican cinema’s época de oro.) Centering on a love triangle, Distinto Amanecer opens with idealistic labor leader Octavio (Pedro Armendáriz) being tailed by one of the hired goons of a corrupt governor; he dodges the henchman by ducking into a movie house. (In a sly meta-moment, Octavio enters the theater during the climactic sing-along of Don Simon.) Seated next to the union organizer is Julieta (Andrea Palma, Bracho’s sister; other screen stars in the director’s family include his cousins Dolores del Río and Ramón Novarro), Octavio’s great love from their university days, who is now married to Ignacio (Alberto Galán), another college chum. The righteous political zeal that the spouses once shared with Octavio has long been extinguished, though Julieta’s reunion with her schoolmate stirs something in the dispirited woman, a taxi dancer at the marvelously named cabaret Tabu. Sinuously advancing from one tense scene to the next — lavatories provide the setting for two episodes of fraught intrigue — Distinto Amanecer lauds Octavio’s unwavering commitment to just causes, though it’s a battle dwarfed by the inexorable political disillusionment of his compatriots, twenty-some years after the Mexican revolution.
Suffused with even more anguish and barely concealed outrage is La Sombra del Caudillo (The Shadow of the Tyrant, 1960), widely considered Bracho’s last great film (he kept making them until 1978, the year he died at age 68). Its action unfolding between 1920 and 1930, the decade immediately after the revolution, the movie tracks the labyrinthine machinations and betrayals committed by opposing warlords in their bid for the presidency. La Sombra del Caudillo would not be screened publicly in Mexico for thirty years, the sick-making vertigo it depicts too much for the nation’s ruling elite.
‘Between Twilight and Dawn: Julio Bracho and the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema’
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