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Classical cinema’s Mexican revolution

By Leigh Hilford

Dr. Charles Ramírez Berg is Joe M. Dealey, Sr. Professor in Media Studies in the Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book The Classical Mexican Cinema: The Poetics of the Exceptional Golden Age Films was named the Grand Prize winner of the 2016 University Co-Op Robert W. Hamilton Book Awards and an Outstanding Academic Title by the American Library Association. It traces the history and evolution of Mexican cinematic aesthetic from the mid-1930s to the late 1950s and traces key influences in the development of the unique “Cine de Oro” aesthetic.

Still from “Distinto Amanecer” (1943)
Still from “Distinto Amanecer” (1943)

We will be showing three films from this time period in our forthcoming film series “Classical Mexican Cinema”: Distinto Amanecer (dir. Julio Bracho) on November 2 at 7 p.m., María Candelaria (dir. Emilio Fernández) on November 9 at 7 p.m., and Enamorada (dir. Emilio Fernández) on November 16 at 7 p.m. The films complement the Ransom Center’s current exhibition Mexico Modern: Art, Commerce, and Cultural Exchange, 1920–1945.Dr. Berg will introduce each of the films, but ahead of the screenings, we asked him some questions to provide a deeper view of his research and its connections to the films.


LH: How do you think Emilio Fernández’s portrayal of revolutionaries, indigenous peoples, and Mexican society maps on to the reality of what he experienced growing up in Mexico and participating in the Mexican Revolution?

CRB: Fernández grew up during the Revolution, and like so many of that generation, it was the defining historical event of his lifetime. It structured how he saw the world and was reflected in his films.

It’s no surprise, then, that Fernández’s cinematic goal was another rebellion of sorts—an artistic revolution. He was highly critical of Mexican movies at the time, dismissing most of them as nothing more than “Hollywood in Spanish.” Seeking a way to create a distinctive Mexican cinema, Fernández partnered with the cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa who had the same nationalistic and cinematic ambitions. They in turn were part of a larger artistic movement that included painters such as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco, all of whom shared the same aesthetic objective—to produce authentic Mexican art. All of them succeeded in their quest of expressing mexicanidad (Mexicanness) by filling their canvases, murals, and in the case of Fernández and Figueroa, movie screens with the Mexican experience.

Fernández was a Kikapú indio, and one important feature of his brand of authentic Mexican cinema was a positive portrayal of indigenous Mexicans. A film like María Candelaria—which won the Golden Palm Award at the first Cannes Film Festival in 1946 and put Mexican cinema on the international moviemaking map—is an attempt to portray the indigenous people in a non-stereotypical fashion. At the time of its release it was fairly progressive in that it featured an indigenous female protagonist and told a tale of the oppression and exploitation of indios in Mexican society.

Seen today, however, more than 70 years after it was made, some of its progressive luster may have worn off. We might see it as at best conflicted and at worst falling into the very stereotyping it was trying to avoid. But we need to temper our “hindsight-is-20/20” view and consider it as one progressive step taken nearly three-quarters of a century ago by a filmmaker who proudly acknowledged his indigenous roots and was genuinely trying to depict indios non-stereotypically. If anything, it reveals how complicated reversing movie stereotyping can be.


An example of skies in Gabriel Figueroa’s cinematography
An example of skies in Gabriel Figueroa’s cinematography

LH: Gabriel Figueroa is the cinematographer for Distinto Amanecer, María Candelaria, and Enamorada. What methods does he employ to capture the different tones of these films and for each director?

CRB: Figueroa worked in different ways with different directors, as cinematographers often do. He had the most latitude working with Fernández, who gave Figueroa free rein. According to Figueroa, when working with Fernández, the director would describe the scene, then allowed Figueroa to shoot it the best way he saw fit. In the Fernández films like María Candelaria and Enamorada, then, Figueroa was a true artistic collaborator, and together they succeeded in creating a cinematic version of Mexico.

We know little about his working relationship with Julio Bracho, the director of Distinto Amanecer. However, since Figueroa didn’t mention Bracho as one of the directors who gave him a free hand, we can assume that Bracho was actively involved in the shots that Figueroa took. Still, Distinto Amanecer is such a visually dark and moody film—which Figueroa was masterful at realizing—that he must have had a lot to do with the shadowy, film noir look of that film.

An example of skies in Gabriel Figueroa’s cinematography
An example of skies in Gabriel Figueroa’s cinematography

As for the elements that helped define the Fernández-Figueroa style, there were several techniques he used, and I would single out these as among the most important.

  • First, he often used low angle shots to capture his Mexican protagonists, giving them power and prominence in the frame.
  • Second, he coupled those low-angle shots with a low horizon line, resulting in compositions that accentuated the sky above. He realized, following Mexican landscape artists like Dr. Atl, that the sky was a distinctive characteristic of Mexico’s topography. Photographing the sky, however, is difficult because the clouds typically wash out and appear as undifferentiated, milky white blobs. Figueroa devised a combination of filters that gave shape, volume, and texture to the clouds. His photographic breakthrough became famous among directors of photography and was known as “Figueroa’s skies.” For years, cinematographers from around the world would contact him to ask for the formula for achieving that distinctive look.
  • Third, in exterior shots Figueroa typically foregrounded native flora, such as the maguey plant and the cactus that are ubiquitous in Mexico. Usually he placed these plants in a bottom corner of the frame, just as he had seen Orozco do in some of his works. This technique added a great deal of depth to his compositions while at the same time unmistakably identified the locale as Mexico.


Still from “Distinto Amanecer” (1943)
Still from “Distinto Amanecer” (1943)

LH: Distinto Amanecer is a film of the cabaretera genre, characterized by melodrama, noir, and music, among other elements. In a time when Mexican cinema was striking out and attempting to create its own voice, what place do these more entertaining components have? 

CRB: The directors of the Classical Mexican Cinema were searching for an authentic cinematic aesthetic alright, but they also realized they were making movies, and knew they had a duty to entertain their audience. And melodrama, noir, and music are certainly entertaining.

Distinto Amanecer is a great illustration of this. It is an example of the cabaretera genre, films that usually told the story of a woman who is seduced, abandoned, then ostracized by society. In order to survive, she ultimately resorts to prostitution. Cabaretera films were inherently critical of Mexican patriarchy, but they cleverly disguised their condemnation of machismo and its heartbreaking effects on Mexican women beneath tried-and-true elements of cinematic spectacle: musical numbers, sex, and melodrama.

Director Julio Bracho goes one better and adds another, unexpected element. Distinto Amanecer is also a political thriller, as taut and suspenseful as the best of Alfred Hitchcock. The thriller aspect not only adds a measure of tension unusual for the cabaretera genre, but it also gives Distinto Amanecer’s criticism of Mexico’s macho establishment an added bite. Its story of an unhappy woman trapped in a no-win situation is combined with—and this was very rare for Mexican films of the time—a candid look at government corruption in post-revolutionary 1940s Mexico.


An example of skies in Gabriel Figueroa’s cinematography
An example of skies in Gabriel Figueroa’s cinematography

LH: Enamorada is based on “The Taming of the Shrew,” and its final scene is inspired by Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco. Do you think these influences need to be reconciled with Fernández’s desire to break with Hollywood’s model or does he reinvent them that reflects the aesthetic he sought to create?  

CRB: You’re right, Fernández was a notorious scene stealer—particularly scenes from Hollywood movies. Which is interesting—to say the least—for someone who is disavowing North American moviemaking and striving to create a Mexican cinema that would free itself from the influence of Hollywood.

In fact, there are many more examples of Fernández borrowing from Hollywood during his career, even in Enamorada. Beyond the ending, which as you say is a reworking of the finale of von Sternberg’s Morocco, Enamorada’s entire plot is loosely based on one of the most popular Hollywood studio films of the 1930s, MGM’s San Francisco (1936). That film centered on three main characters: a gambler (Clark Gable), a singer (Jeanette MacDonald), and a priest (Spencer Tracy, who was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar), who happens to be the gambler’s best friend. In Enamorada, Fernández and his screenwriters transformed those characters into a tough-minded Revolutionary general (Pedro Armendáriz); Beatriz (María Félix), the strong-willed, upper class woman he falls for; and the general’s old friend, the local priest (Fernando Fernández, the director’s brother), who mediates between the two.

I would argue that Fernández didn’t just “Mexicanize” such borrowings. Rather, he reworked the characters and situations and placed them firmly within a Mexican context, restructuring the conflicts and resolutions so that they referred to Mexican issues, not North American ones.

For example, in San Francisco the climax comes when the earthquake of 1906 destroys the city and upends the characters’ lives. In Enamorada, the uncontrollable upending force is the Mexican Revolution. That revolt brings about the climactic and romantic resolution, forcing both the general and Beatriz to re-examine their beliefs and attitudes. The general will have to rethink his reflexive machismo. To win Beatriz’s heart, he’ll need to realize that there is strength in admitting that he mistreated her, and he’ll have to beg her forgiveness. Likewise, the Revolution causes Beatriz to reevaluate her view of the Mexican class structure, and results in her stepping down from her privileged bourgeois perch. Deciding to follow the general into battle, Beatriz joins the many other soldaderas who are doing the same thing.

Enamorada, then, is not simply San Francisco + Morocco in Spanish, but a markedly Mexican romantic comedy-drama that delivers a critique of machismo and the class system in Mexico, and provides a meditation on the Revolution’s ideals.


Josh Heaps

Fantastic interview!

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