The Films of Emilio Fernández Display the Man Behind the Swagger

A Museum of Modern Art series celebrates the actor, auteur, and occasional outlaw who ruled midcentury Mexican cinema


“I am the Mexican cinema,” Emilio Fernández once declared. Though Fernández was no stranger to self-promotion — his peak time in the international spotlight ranged from about 1942, when María Candelaria won the Grand Prix at Cannes, to the mid-Fifties — the emphatic boast had a grain of truth. With his longtime artistic comrade, the great cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, Fernández directed the movies that gave arthouse audiences worldwide their vision of post-colonial Mexico carving out its own future, peopled by the stunning likes of Pedro Armendáriz, María Félix, and Dolores del Río.

Fernández is being honored this month by the Museum of Modern Art in a thirteen-title retrospective — nearly two weeks of screenings that include most of the films that made his name. Known as “El Indio,” in tribute to his Kikapú mother, Fernández also fought alongside his father, a revolutionary general, in the Mexican Rebellion. In an age when “colorful” was almost part of a director’s CV — from the eyepatches of Raoul Walsh and John Ford to the foreign birthplaces of Fritz Lang and Ernst Lubitsch to the itinerant macho-jobs years of William Wellman — Fernández went the extra mile. He pulled a stint in prison for his part in the failed rebellion, then drifted around the States, spending time (as he told it) as a cowboy in a circus, a salmon fisherman, a licensed pilot, a bartender, and, finally, as an extra in Hollywood, in the late Twenties. There, legend has it, Fernández’s friend, Dolores del Río, had him pose for her husband, the famed art director Cecil Beaton, for what became the Academy Award statuette. Though Fernández became stocky in his later years, one look at his naked torso in Janitzio — a 1935 movie in the series, in which he plays a star-crossed lover in a fishing village — offers pretty powerful evidence. He really does look like a walking Oscar.

In 1943, Fernández teamed up with writer Mauricio Magdaleno and the brilliant cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa for one of his early films, Flor Silvestre, starring Dolores del Río and Pedro Armendáriz, who would act again for him repeatedly over the years. His star rose rapidly, as he, Magdaleno, and Figueroa began to establish their ideal of Mexican cinema, as pictorially grand as it was patriotic. By the time of Enamorada, in 1946, “El Indio had become a branch of Mexican foreign policy,” says series curator Dave Kehr, “the cinematic adjunct to the muralists in creating the legend of a glorious, revolutionary Mexico.”

Set in the town of Cholula during the Mexican Revolution (sometime between 1910 and 1920), Enamorada was one of the biggest hits of Fernández’s career and a high-water mark for nearly everyone involved. Structurally, the film is a bit odd, beginning as it does with a long sequence in which General José Juan Reyes (Armendáriz), a Zapatista peasant leader who has just taken the town, calls in its wealthiest businessmen to demand they fork over treasure and property to the revolution. The general has one of them shot simply for being a weasel (an action the movie more or less approves of), and then has a long discussion of politics and Mexico’s destiny with Cholula’s main priest, his old friend Father Rafael Sierra. (Father Rafael is played by Fernando Fernández, the director’s younger brother, a handsome man who resembles El Indio circa Janitzio. He has a small part in John Ford’s 1947 The Fugitive, also in the series, on which Emilio also served as associate producer.)

At this point one wonders where on earth the movie is going, as well as why the title advertises a love story. But then Beatriz (María Félix), whom we met earlier as the daughter of the richest man in town, saunters across Cholula’s square. José Juan catches a glimpse of her legs and whistles, and she slaps him — twice, with an energy Joan Crawford would have applauded. He murmurs to himself that here is the woman he will marry, and, presto, we are no longer in the political-science classroom. We are instead watching a Mexican Taming of the Shrew, complete with full-throttle physical comedy, as the battling duo stomp on each other’s feet, slap faces, and slam doors on their way to inevitable love. Even so, there are moments of quiet — like the slow, majestic tracking shots through the town’s main cathedral, as the general enters during choir practice to beg some advice from the priest. And the most celebrated moment of all comes when the lovesick José Juan brings musicians under Beatriz’s window to serenade her with “La malagueña.” The camera moves in closer, ever closer, until it is focused only on the eyes of María Félix, as they gradually soften, and we realize that Beatriz is falling in love despite herself.

Indeed, as much as he loved clouds, horizons, and light sparkling on water, Fernández loved the marble symmetry of María Félix’s face, in particular when it’s offset by a shawl — as it is for much of Maclovia, a loose remake of Janitzio, set on the same island. Here Félix is playing the young Indian woman of the title. Maclovia’s stunning beauty is her misfortune, as it causes her father (Miguel Inclán) to declare no man is good enough for her, and also attracts the notice of a loathsome white sergeant who despises the town’s Indians and brags about his own blue eyes. (There is no such thing as a charming or personable villain in these films; most of them all but exude a scent of sulfur.)  Maclovia loves and is loved by José María (Armendáriz), but he has been forbidden even to look at her, resulting in a moment of surpassing loveliness, when she passes in the street, and he can watch only her shadow as it moves across the cobblestones.

Fernández was concerned throughout his career with the dignity of Mexico’s native population and their systemic oppression. Perhaps his most internationally successful film was La Perla, an almost unbearably sad parable about a poor diver (Armendáriz again) who finds an enormous pearl, only to have his every attempt at using it to better his family’s conditions met with tragedy. The movie seems highly conscious of its literary pedigree (it was based on a John Steinbeck novella), with each visual symbol underlined. Despite, or maybe because of, these qualities, it was a major arthouse hit, and won the Golden Lion at Venice. Co-produced with the U.S. studio RKO in 1947, and made simultaneously in English and Spanish, it was for many years one of the only Mexican films that Anglophone American audiences were familiar with.

The following year Fernández shifted gears in a big way with Salón México, a brilliant early example of the cabaretera (cabaret) genre that was just gaining popularity. As energetic and low-down as La Perla was slow and stately, this is essentially a film noir version of Stella Dallas, with the added delight of musical numbers that take place in the nightclub of the title. The dancing is explosively sexy, full of gyrating pelvises that would have given the Hollywood censors a stroke. The heroine, Mercedes (Marga Lopez), works at the club as a taxi dancer. She is also a sex worker on the side, pimped out by the slimy, violent Paco (Rodolfo Acosta). All this is so she can support her younger sister, who is attending a high-class boarding school and has a shot at love and marriage with a handsome war hero. Naturally, the innocent younger sister is a bore; it’s Mercedes whom we love and root for, as Figueroa lights the nightclub through a white haze of smoke, and Fernández frames her tiny figure climbing to her garret apartment, up a flight of stairs that seem as insurmountable as her lot in life.

One feels a bit more confidence in the ultimate fate of Violeta, the heroine of Victimas del pecado (Victims of Sin). Played by the Cuban-born star Ninon Sevilla, Violeta blows everyone else off the screen: It’s hard to imagine life crushing such a force. Her co-worker at a nightclub abandons a baby boy in a trashcan, and Violeta adopts him, devoting all of her overwhelming energies to his welfare. And that’s fortunate, because what this movie has in store for Violeta and her son is pretty terrible, putting them both through the worst of what city life can offer. As an actress, Sevilla’s emotional dial is permanently cranked to 11. There is no setting for tranquility or reflection. Her smile of maternal tenderness has a heat-lamp intensity that threatens to give the baby a fever; her anger could crack a building’s foundation; her despair is like floodwaters engulfing a city. But that’s what this kind of melodrama requires, and when Sevilla takes to the floor to dance, it’s one of the most electrifying sights any musical has to offer. The only problem with her performance of “La cocaleca” is that Sevilla is such an obvious star, it’s hard to believe Violeta doesn’t instantly become one, too.

Victimas del pecado is brilliant, but, alas, over the next few years, changes in the Mexican film industry abruptly began to make Fernández seem old-fashioned. Actor Eli Wallach had a flashier explanation: Fernández had torpedoed his own career by shooting a critic in the balls, a recurring tale with several versions, all equally unnerving and hard to verify. Anyway, Wallach claimed in his autobiography, that was why he met El Indio when the once-celebrated director was working as an uncredited assistant on John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven. Eventually Fernández went back to acting, often playing criminals of one sort or another. Some of them were larcenous, as in El rincón de las vírgenes (Nest of Virgins), where Fernández plays a phony faith-healer. Others were terrifying, as in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, where he plays the crime lord who wants that decapitation.

Toward the end of the Seventies, Fernández killed a man and served several years in prison (again) for murder, after which he was released in a general amnesty. Soon afterward, El Indio arrived on the set to play a brothel bartender in John Huston’s Under the Volcano (not in this series), toting pearl-handled pistols in his belt and nonchalantly telling the novelist Herbert Gold that yes, he’d killed a man, in fact he’d killed two, and “I’m sorry, I’m not repentant,” because, after all, it was self-defense. This kind of anecdote-friendly swashbuckling can eventually overshadow a man’s work — but Fernández’s films show the artist behind the swagger.

‘El Indio: The Films of Emilio Fernández’
The Museum of Modern Art
March 1–13