El principio

Media Type: Film

Year: 1972

Who wrote / made it : Gonzalo Martínez Ortega

Plot summary: El principio, as the title suggests, examines the lead up to the Revolution in a series of flashbacks from the perspective of David Domínguez Solís (Fernando Balzaretti) a member of a wealthy local family. He has recently returned home from nine years in Paris to a town traumatised by the Revolution with few inhabitants able to provide him with detail on what they have suffered.

The use of a sweeping orchestral score and vivid depictions of violence serve to evince the feeling of trauma caused by war. It is a flawed film, which never really moves the plot beyond a tense oedipal struggle.

Las fuerzas vivas

Media Type: Film

Year: 1975

Who wrote / made it : Luis Alcoriza

Plot summary: Las fuerzas vivas suggests that randomness was integral to the Revolution. It is a satirical film where serious themes are mixed with farce and absurd humour. Shot in colour, it is set in a peripheral village at the onset of the Revolution. The narrative follows the abuses of power, and the bumbling and incompetence on both sides as control shifts from one grouping to another as the Revolution evolves. The men of the town are avaricious and stupid; the women are horny and outspoken. Attention is drawn to how the women are excluded from decisions by the foolish men in power.

The camera takes multiple points of view through which we are to observe the absurdity of the town. Las fuerzas vivas holds the rhetoric of the Revolution up to ridicule. The style and the sexual politics, while professing liberalism, are typical of international films of the time and is now somewhat dated. Sexual liberty is espoused while the love scenes that proceed provide ample opportunity for the objectification of women.

In Las fuerzas vivas, power, both secular and religious, social mores, and violence are all ridiculed. There is an attempt to evoke the chaos of war and, while there are some skirmishes, the town is represented as far removed from the violent conflict. Most of the action takes place in or around the telegraph office, where the inhabitants await delayed delivery of newspapers and news of the changes in centrally controlled power. The changing news influence which group of men in the village has power. These shifts draw attention to the absurdity both of centralised government and of how governance of the town changes hands. It is clear that the news has to travel far and is often days old by the time it reaches the town, therefore, local control is subject to the vagaries of news reporting, poor transport links and the progress of either side. The plot soon becomes farcical. With its broad satire, Las fuerzas vivas falls short of political critique.

Reed, México insurgente/Reed, Insurgent Mexico

Media Type: Film

Year: 1971

Who wrote / made it : Paul Leduc

Plot summary: Reed, México insurgente is based on the book, Insurgent Mexico (1914), by the US journalist John Reed, who was a war correspondent and committed socialist until his early death at the age of 33. His most famous book, Ten Days That Shook the World (1919), is an eyewitness account of events in Petrograd in November 1917 during the Russian Revolution. Set in late 1913 and 1914, Insurgent Mexico is an episodic account of Reed’s experiences during the Mexican Revolution. He describes his journey across the US-Mexican border territory into Mexico; his adventures and experiences accompanying Villa’s army as they prepare for and fight in a decisive battle in Torreon; the funeral of Abraham González, a Villista leader; the notorious case of a British citizen Benton who was killed in the Revolution; his interview with Villa; an account of the short lived presidency of Venustiano Carranza; and the nightlife and his gambling escapades in Mexican casinos. Reed’s is an energetic, subjective account of battle, which revels in the adventure of war. In the text it is evident that he is eager to get to the frontline of attack as witness and comrade to the men. His irrepressible character and spirit of adventure is evident in Insurgent Mexico, as too is his youth. Born in 1887, he was only twenty-seven when he wrote Insurgent Mexico.

In Reed, México insurgente the camera is observational, telling the story of Reed’s coming of age as a revolutionary, not from his point of view but as a participant/observer. The film is structured around the battle of Torreon, the funeral of Abraham González, and Reed’s meetings with Villa and Obregon. Thereby the narrative sticks to the details related to the conflict and attendant politics. Interestingly, Leduc chose to omit Reed’s youthful exuberance and touristic detail evident in many sections of the book, in particular, those set in the borderland casinos, which take away from the immediacy of war.

Reed, México insurgente has been celebrated as a classic and an exemplary film from an experimental period of Mexican film.

El infierno/El Narco

Media Type: Film

Year: 2010

Who wrote / made it : Luis Estrada

Plot summary: Since the notorious temporary ban that was put on his 1999 film, La ley de Herodes/Herod’s Law, Luis Estrada has become well known in Mexico for making films that mix broad humour, graphic violence and political commentary. El infierno/El Narco follows in this established style.  The English title El Narco (the drug smuggler/dealer) gives an indication of the journey of the protagonist, Benny (Damián Alcázar), from recently repatriated immigrant to assassin and drug dealer. Whereas the Spanish title El infierno, which translates as hell in English, indicates Estrada’s assessment of northern Mexico, which is in a state of war between the army, police and drug gangs. In Estrada’s film, it is a Mexico in which few options are available. As one of the characters El Cochiloco (Joaquín Cosío) states, “si estoy en esto es que no hay otro” [I’m in this business because there are no other choices].

Benny returns home having spent 20 years away and not maintained contact with his family to a tiny frontier town in Northern Mexico, San Miguel Arcángel. His trajectory from wide-eyed innocent, who is so unable to protect himself that he is robbed on the bus journey home twice, to becoming a savage assassin is quite marked. He is shocked by what he finds at home: his brother, a notorious narco, who he had left a naïve boy, is now dead; the town is dominated by fear and death; and he has few options for employment. Forced into borrowing money from a local narco, he becomes one himself, gradually de-sensitizing himself to the torture and murders that he has to carry out.

The film makes frequent reference in dialogue to the Mexican commemorations of the centenary of the Revolution and the bicentenary of independence.  There are two key moments which underscore its significance.  first of these is in a pre-credit sequence where an official sign of the celebrations is shot through by bullets, and the second is in the denouement, which is a powerful sequence where Benny shoots at representatives of the Catholic church, the state, police, army and the lead narco in what must be read as a kind of fantasy projection of extreme destruction for the viewer, and a desperate, suicidal act by a man who has lost all hope.

El infierno/El Narco is archly critical of the status quo through vivid depictions of torture and murders and, although suffused with humour, it is a deeply pessimistic film.

Como agua para chocolate / Like Water for Chocolate

Media Type: Film

Year: 1992

Who wrote / made it : Alfonso Arau

Plot summary: Como agua para chocolate signaled a turning point in Mexican cinema, when the film industry changed dramatically for multiple reasons, covered elsewhere by writers such as Deborah Shaw and Stephen M. Hart.  It broke box office records and brought Mexican cinema to the attention of a wide audience. It creates a representation of Mexico, its food, people, and politics as products for consumption. In it the Revolution is rendered apolitical, that is, simply an event which provides a charming backdrop for Tita’s (Lumi Cavazos) troubled love life.

The film is concerned wth Tita and Pedro’s (Marco Leonardi) desire for each other. They don’t get married because of a family tradition that means that the youngest must stay single and stay behind to mind her mother, Mamá Elena (Regina Torné). Mamá Elena is strict, brutal and imposes her will harshly. In order to see Tita, Pedro marries her sister Rosaura (Yareli Arizmendi), with whom he has two children. Their love is twarted at various turns and, eventually, is consumed.

Although the majority of the film takes place during the Revolution, it largely serves as local colour or as a convenient means of narrative development, as there is no real tension created in the narrative otherwise. One of these moments is when Tita’s sister, Gertrudis (Claudette Maillé), showers outdoors in order to relieve herself of the lustful ardors caused by eating one of Tita’s magical feasts. Rather than cool her, the shower cabin goes on fire and, just as she flees the building, a Revolutionary arrives at the ranch attracted by her scent of roses and arousal. They then leave, making love on the horse as they travel. Gertrudis later returns to the ranch as a general, swaggering and giving orders to her compliant followers. Later, Mamá Elena wards off a band of Revolutionaries with her keen shot and assertive posturing. In general, the Revolution is a distant danger, but, when it comes to the ranch, it is an opportunity for some light comedy and scenes of Revolutionaries carousing. Only Chencha (Pilar Aranda) makes any observations on the Revolution. Although, she is largely recounting rumours she has picked up from the local town. She is a source of much comedy due to her simplicity, servile nature and constant, ungrammatical, chatter. Therefore, her considerations of the Revolution are given little attention by the other characters.

The screenplay was adapted by Laura Esquivel from the eponymous 1989 novel and directed by her then husband.  It is therefore a faithful rendering of the original as she intended the story to be told.  There is a lot of foreshadowing in the film, visually and through the dialogue, this means that the ending is long anticipated.

Como agua para chocolate merely reinforces the impression of Mexicans as raucous, carousing, volatile and sensuous, with the Revolution as merely an exemplary instance of their unruly natures. It is hard to include in the pantheon of Revolutionary films due to its many weaknesses as a film, yet it’s equally hard to ignore, due to its popularity and significance for the contemporary Mexican industry.

Cuartelazo / Military Coup

Media Type: Film

Year: 1976

Who wrote / made it : Alberto Isaac

Plot summary: “Lo unico que nos enseña la historia es que el hombre no aprende nada de la historia…” [the only thing history teaches us is that man learns nothing from history…] appears before the opening credits and sets the tone of the film. It opens in the Panteon de Coyoacán in 1914 and the disappearance of Belisario Dominguez (Héctor Ortega). The voiceover tells us that it is the story of a turbulent episode in Mexican history. Shot in Black and White, Dominguez is represented as a the voice of the people, in particular the poor and indigenous. As is noted in this post (http://terpconnect.umd.edu/~dwilt/cuartel.htm) it is episodic in nature with a complex structure and overly preoccupied with the faithful reproduction of long speeches. It is a film that gets lost in the detail of its historical accuracy to the detriment of plot and drama. The other principal characters are Sebastián Quiroga (Arturo Beristaín) and the recurrent Revolutionary bad guy, Victoriano Huerta (Bruno Rey). The film ends at the troops entry into Mexico City, for what would be the ‘decena trágica’, or the tragic ten days, which shook the capital. It is a well shot, atmospheric film, that is overladen with speeches, more of an intellectual exploration than a compelling narrative.

Las mujeres de mi general

Media Type: Film

Year: 1950

Who wrote / made it : Ismael Rodríguez

Plot summary: Las mujeres de mi General (Ismael Rodríguez, 1950) has class struggle as a central defining theme, embodying this in two female characters. Emilio García Riera identifies the character Juan Zepeda (Pedro Infante) in Las mujeres de mi General as a substitute for Villa, “su réplica imaginaria” [his fictional double]. Zepeda returns to his hometown with a soldadera Lupe (Lilia Prado), variously described as a “prieta ranchera” [dark ranch girl] and an “india cerrera” [mountain Indian], who is in love with Zepeda. On his return to the town Zepeda reunites with Carlota (Chula Prieto), a social climber married to the wealthiest man in town, who is conveniently absent for most of the narrative. The film shifts between the love triangle and Villa’s struggle to wrestle with governing a town. As he allies himself with the upper classes he becomes sullied by association, and there is trouble among his ranks. The two women represent opposite scales of the class divide and Zepeda’s relationship with both are a playing out of his loyalty towards the true Revolutionary struggle.  Lupe is generally submissive, acquiescent, willing to fight when necessary and makes a fool of herself when trying to dress up and fit in with the upper classes. She conforms to Zepeda’s wish for “una mujer muy macha” [a very macho woman]. She is nurse, warrior, and mother all rolled into one. In contrast, Carlota is corrupt, a seductress, unfaithful, a liar, schemer, lacks maternal instinct, and is a murderess. Curiously, it is Carlota’s feminine traits, access to wealth and the mask of upper class manners and education which make her suspect, not any masculine performativity. Lupe is unrefined and a fighter, an image that is reinforced by the closing scene in which she, with her baby strapped to her back feeds the bullets into the machine gun operated by Zepeda, as they laugh hysterically. This is an oneric image of the ideal Revolutionary Mexican family, which disrupts the notion of an idealised Revolution rather than supports it. Not because of her behaviour, but because the cause at that point seems hopeless. The troop is low on ammunition, the other side outnumber them, and the bodies of dead soldiers surround them.

Café Colón

Media Type: Film

Year: 1958

Who wrote / made it : Benito Alzaraki

Plot summary: Released in 1958, Café Colón tells the story of Monica (María Félix), a nightclub singer working in the eponymous café in México City under siege. Again, she is a woman who “[n]unca jamás nadie puede dominarte”, when General Sebastián Robles (Pedro Armendáriz), a Zapatista, comes into her bar and disrupts her middle class aspirations. She has been taught how to dress, talk and act by the pianist and conductor in the bar in order to improve her opportunities and climb the social ladder. However, her attraction to this macho man is making her re-consider her ambitions. Briefly, Robles is seduced by the high society in which Monica mixes and asks another for advice on how to behave and speak in order to impress her. Gradually, Monica realizes that the Revolution is more important than her aspirations and learns to shoot alongside the other soldaderas in battle. There are other twists to the story which involve stolen jewellery. In the end all is resolved, Robles and Monica marry and they remain faithful to the ideals of the Revolution. This film allies macho culture with the people and, specifically,the figure of the Zapatista Robles. In contrast, a more refined and effete masculinity is associated with the middle and ruling classes.

Las coronelas

Media Type: Film

Year: 1953

Who wrote / made it : Rafael Baledon

Plot summary: Cross-dressing is a source of absurd fun in Las Coronelas (Rafael Baledon, 1959). The film tells the story of twin daughters whose father’s life is saved through them being promised as soldiers to the ridiculous General Nicolas Rosas (Andrés Soler) for the great cause of the Revolution. When the promise is made the father, Silberio, doesn’t know that the children are female nor that his wife is expecting twins. When they are born, aware of the capricious cruelty of the General, Silberio decides to keep up the lie. The only other people in the village who know the truth are the midwife and the priest. The General leaves for many years and returns when the girls are in their late teens and expressing their desire to be ‘normal’ girls, get married and have children. With Rosas’ return they must assume their male identities to match the male names they were given, Saturnino (Emma Roldán) and Nicolas (Martha Roth Pizzo).  They fall in love with some of their fellow soldiers and much of the humour is gleaned from the return of this attraction and the males’ inability to reconcile this with their macho selves.  The Revolution can be read as a superficial backdrop to a lightweight narrative.  However, the playing out of the tensions between the sexes and showing up macho performance as just that, makes for a more complex film than is apparent at first.

La Valentina

Media Type: Film

Year: 1965

Who wrote / made it : Rogelio A. González

Plot summary: La Valentina (Rogelio A. González, 1965) stars María Félix as the eponymous heroine. By the mid-sixties, the subject of the Revolution has become tired. Instead of being the great heroine of the battlefield, La Valentina becomes a typical ‘raptada’ [stolen woman]. She is taken from her home by Genovevo Cruz García (Eulalio González ‘Piporro’) on behalf of an Orozquista General. The story takes a typical trajectory of a ‘rapto’ [kidnap]. García and La Valentina soon come into conflict, she is not a passive victim.  They physically and verbally fight, she tries to escape, there are several slapstick episodes and the two fall in love, or more precisely, have sex in a cave, within earshot of her father (José Elías Moreno) who is relieved that she is not ‘salada’ [fruity]. It is a film which becomes about a father’s concern that his daughter will lose her virginity, with the Revolution as a picturesque backdrop and a convenient plot device. Her only real engagement with the Revolutionary struggle is as an arms dealer, therefore, any resemblance to the historical La Valentina is in name alone. La Valentina’s father’s fears are based on the unfortunate events surrounding her marriage. This is told in the opening sequence in the film. It shows her wedding and the subsequent death of her husband who is shot before consummating the marriage. Then, when La Valentina is raptada and retains her virginity her father becomes suspicious. The implication is that rather than lose face at having his daughter’s innocence despoiled, he feels that the family’s honour might be lost at her possibly being a lesbian. Delighted that this doesn’t arise the issue is resolved. Her father’s suspicions at her sexual orientation are also seen to be based on her feisty character, which could be read as ‘masculine’ behaviour. The message in the film is that here is another woman who needs to be controlled by a powerful man.  Yet, this is María Félix renowned  for being powerful in all of her roles, which counteracts this conservative message.