Mexican Treasures 

A film series reveals the pride and the passion of Mexican cinema.

Arthouse audiences who were dazzled recently by Y Tu Mamá También, Amores Perros, Nicotina, and other examples of the adventurous new wave of Mexican film might be excused for thinking that all this energy sprang out of nowhere, like a cactus flower suddenly blooming in the desert. Sin embargo, fellow gringos, the Mexican film industry has a long and demonstrably glorious lineage. And the Pacific Film Archive is ready to show it to us.

"Cine Mexico," a traveling series of 25 feature films -- put together by the Instituto Mexicana de Cinematographia along with several other government entities including the Filmoteca de la UNAM -- that screens at the PFA for a full month beginning this Friday, is something like a greatest hits package of Mexican cinematic history. And what a history. From the original Zapatista revolution all the way to the punk-rock Mexico City of Maryse Sistach's Violet Perfume: Nobody Hears You, Mexico's movies have reflected that country's unique social ferment -- especially its class struggle -- in a forthright, often empathetic way. More often than not, the stories are informed by Hispanic and Roman Catholic concepts of love, faith, redemption, pity, guilt, and suffering. Especially suffering.

The cruel workings of fate, in classical Hollywood usually depicted through a chilly, wrathful European moralistic filter, blossom in full and luxuriant Native American form in Mexican movies -- omnipresent, all-embracing, and inescapable. In Mexican films, men and women are seemingly punished for no reason at all except that they dare to exist. We can glimpse fate at work in Alfonso Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También, released in 2001, just as clearly as in Alberto Gout's Aventurera, a melodramatic rumbera from 1949 detailing the downfall of a decent young woman (the beautiful Ninón Sevilla) who, contrary to her demure nature, is first seduced, then transformed into a predatory nightclub dancer. In the friction between indigenous indio stoicism in the face of fate and the Christian promise of forgiveness of sins, poetry is born, in this case film poetry.

The wily Spanish Surrealist Luis Buñuel -- whose rebellion against the church was possible only because he was raised in it -- created some of his most scathing indictments of authority while working in Mexico. From a list of amazing films from Buñuel's Mexican period -- Los Olvidados, Ensayo de un Crimen, El, etc. -- this series has chosen Nazarín, the story (by way of novelist Benito Pérez Galdós) of a parish priest who takes an activist's vow of poverty to go and live among thieves, whores, and similar outsiders, and in doing so becomes all the more saintly. The pathetic kids of Gerardo Tort's 2001 production Streeters (De la calle), living under Mexico City sidewalks and huffing glue nonstop, could use a courageous father figure like Nazarín, but he's unavailable.

The 25 films in "Cine Mexico" share a vivid love of life, but also a stubborn strain of skepticism about the power structure and the world in general. Unlike in the sanitized, post-Production Code Hollywood worldview, things seldom turn out all right, even in comedies. In Cantinflas' That's the Point (Ahí está el detalle), the archetypal scuffling poor man spends most of his time trying to outsmart respectable folks but mostly succeeds in getting us to laugh at his futility. Jive-talking Cantinflas (real name Mario Moreno) was the king of Mexican screen comedy from the '40s into the '60s, but the hipster's choice for clown prince was certainly Tin Tán (Germán Valdés), like Cantinflas a quick-thinking street-corner opportunist, but a little edgier, a bit randier. In Tender Little Pumpkins (Calabacitas Tiernas), Tin Tán interacts with a cast of va-va-voom female artistes in the story of a nobody who somehow convinces a somebody to let him produce a nightclub revue. Along the way, the zoot-suited hustler lays on the snappy patter, heavy on the double entendre (the title comes from a line of dialogue when our guy gets an eyeful of a buxom showgirl). It was Tin Tán and Cantinflas' insolence that audiences admired. For a few centavos, they could join in when smartmouths stuck it to the merchant class, if only in the movies. That's the Point plays a twin bill with Tender Little Pumpkins Friday night (7:00 and 9:15 respectively) to open the retrospective at the PFA.

Every single film in "Cine Mexico" is recommended, but the work of Emilio Fernández deserves special mention. The prolific actor, writer, and director, born Emilio Romo and nicknamed "El Indio" because of his Indian mother as well as his mestizo looks, is probably best known to US movie-holics as the corrupt General Mapache in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, but to aficionados he was perhaps the greatest director of the golden age of Mexican film, from the '40s into the '70s. In common with most of the filmmakers selected for the series, Fernández clearly sympathizes with the downtrodden. Three of El Indio's finest dramas are on the schedule: Wildflower (Flor silvestre), starring longtime collaborator Pedro Armendáriz and Dolores del Río as class-barrier-defying lovers during the revolution; A Woman in Love, with Armendáriz and María Félix as a revolutionary general and a peasant woman respectively; and a rumbera from 1950, Victims of Sin (Victimas del pecado), again featuring Ninón Sevilla as a sinner-by-necessity. All three Fernández films were shot by the magnificent cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, who captured the eeriness as well as the beauty of Mexico like no one else.

From 1984 comes Paul Leduc's Frida: Naturaleza Viva, the choicest of the many biopics of painter and 20th-century countercultural heroine Frida Kahlo. Actor Ofelia Medina strongly resembles the iconic Kahlo, but it is director Leduc's feel for the dreamlike intensity of the artist's life that really makes the portrait come to life. The pain of Kahlo's existence is overwhelming, but it's a luxurious pain, ripe with longing. In one scene of director María Novaro's Danzón (1991), a boat passes by bearing the legend "See me and die" -- an apt declaration of the viewpoint of Julia, the female protagonist played by Maria Rojo. Julia is in love with being in love, and this working-class ultra-romantic, Rita Hayworth reborn as a telephone operator, follows her heart from Mexico City to Veracruz in search of it. Novaro's sensuous, populist romance is credited with rekindling the danzón craze for ballroom dancing.

Filmmaker Nicolás Echevarria comes to terms with Mexico's marauding European heritage -- the Spanish conquistadores -- in his 1990 historical drama Cabeza de Vaca by letting the conqueror do the suffering. Ostensibly a straight account of the ordeal of 16th-century soldier and explorer Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, who lost his way trying establish a land route between Florida and Coahuila, Mexico, Echevarria's adventure story meanders into Aguirre, the Wrath of God territory once or twice, as actor Juan Diego falls into every ditch in Texas, moos at the sky, and gets bitten by angry critters. By the time the pic ends, we feel as if we've traveled every step of the way with him.

Also in the retrospective are such overlooked items as Iron Fist, Gabriel García Moreno's pre-Surrealist (1927) silent shocker, built around a young man taking his first shot of morphine, with hysterical images to match. Leduc's Reed: Insurgent Mexico (1971) fictionalizes yanqui journalist John Reed's chronicles of the Mexican Revolution. Director Arturo Ripstein is represented by two films -- the 1978 melodrama Hell Has No Limits and The Beginning and the End, a 1993 adaptation of novelist Naguib Mahfouz' saga of an unhappy, cash-strapped family. Canoa, a docudrama about the lynching of five university students in a small town during Mexico's 1968 social unrest, is being shown free on December 2. Despite their common social consciousness, the films collected for this series are as stylistically varied as the Mexican landscape. See them all.

For more information, including a complete schedule, call 510-642-0808 or visit BAMPFA.Berkeley.edu

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