Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride was calm compared to the one I took from the Berkeley Hills to Oakland – and thence to the San Francisco Airport – once I realized that the e-ticket itinerary I’d printed out that afternoon was not for the Sunday night redeye flight I’d requested, but Saturday night – i.e., three hours hence. And I was not yet packed. And had arranged for a ride 24 hours later. And had never done quite such a stupid thing before. At least, not when it comes to travel.
The upside is an extra day at the Festival, which is upside indeed as I spend an hour perusing the 300-page catalogue in my hotel room. Even though I’ve seen many of the big-ticket items from this year’s festival circuit –from just on Saturday, Morelia’s opening day, “The Master” and “Argo" to “Beasts of the Southern Wild”– there are plenty more to choose from. Morelia covers the waterfront – in addition to the usual suspects, and strong Mexican programming that includes competitive sections for short films, documentaries, and screenplays as well as features, it offers rich cinephile surprises.
There’s a tribute to cinematographer Jose Ortiz Ramos, who died in 2009 at the age of 98, after shooting well over 200 movies, including several for Luis Bunuel. I’d love to see the movies Sam Peckinpah shot in Mexico again, or the four-film tribute to Henri-Georges Clouzot, or the rather oddly-programmed shoutout to Universal on its 100th anniversary (three 30s horror flicks and Sirk’s “Magnificent Obsession”?), or, from the UCLA Film and Television Archive, Lubitsch’s “The Love Parade,” or the Criterion Collecton’s offering of “The Night of the Hunter." But that would be great indulgence, when I can catch up on the early films of hot German director Christian Petzold ("Barbara"), or Young Hungarian Cinema, or two films by a Spanish director of the Golden Age, Manuel Mur Oti. I’ve never heard of him.
And so I begin my festival with a Mur Oti double bill—after attending a massive, lavish, and surrealistic lunch arranged for “los invitados,” held in a gorgeous colonial courtyard, where, in addition to course after course of needlessly overwrought cuisine, powerful Italian opera singers stroll between the round tables. Daniela Michel, the tireless Director General, introduces me to Anne Wakefield, who contributed a lucid essay on tributee Gregory Nava in the catalogue. We hang with Rachel Rosen, Programming Director of the San Francisco International Film Festival, who’s serving on the Mexican short film jury, Nick James, editor of “Sight and Sound,” who’s on the Mexican feature film jury, and Gary Meyer, co-director of Telluride, who’s attending Morelia for the first time.
Gary shoots pictures of a young girl singer made up as a skeleton – the streets and squares and parks are still piled with beautiful brightly-colored Day of the Dead floral displays – before we hot-foot it to the central Festival multiplex. We’re joined by Nick and Brit Geoff Andrews, writer of the witty and helpful catalogue essay on Kiorastami.
“Cielo Negro” (1951) is a melodrama about a young shopgirl, Emilia, who loves the wrong guy and is driven towards suicide by a series of misfortunes including being fired, losing her mother, and going blind. I’m groggy, off and on, but I’m wide awake during the amazing final sequence, unexpectedly intensified when Emilia is about to throw herself off a dizzyingly high bridge and somebody in the audience cries out – I assume from tension. Afterwards Nick and Gary tell me that the man was having a seizure, which I was rather blessedly unaware of, being enthralled by an almost unbearably long traveling shot of Emilia running away from the bridge. It reminded me, improbably, of the similar shot of the keening woman in Tsing Ming-liang’s “Vive L’Amour.”
As I stay in the theater to see the next Mur Oti film, I see the man being carried out on a stretcher. Gary reassures me that he seems to be conscious and alert. (I’m reminded of the time a man cried out when John Travolta plunged the hypodermic needle into Uma Thurman;s chest in “Pulp Fiction” on the opening night of the New York Fim Festival – it turned out he was having a heart attack.)
“Orgullo” (“Pride”) is introduced as “the first Western shot in Europe." How about all those German silents based on the work of Karl May? But that’s a mere quibble: “Orgullo” is a real discovery, a monumentally-filmed masterpiece with overtones of “The Furies,” “Forty Guns,” “Duel in the Sun,” “Desert Fury,” and many others. Lovers Laura Mendoza and Enrique de Alzaga are kept apart by the long feud between their families, whose huge ranches are separated by a river essential in watering their livestock. A drought and range war interrupts their reconciliation and marriage. Glorious Spanish vistas and sequences of torturous cattle drives (and no CGI) are the backdrop for sincere and compelling melodrama. I’m completely enthralled.
The article in “Sight and Sound” that inspired Daniela Michel to program his films was published only in February of this year. Reading it revealed why Michel had said that “Orgullo” was the first Western shot in Europe — puzzling to those of us who remembered German cowboy-and-Indian silents based on the work of Karl May. What Mar Diestro-Dipo had written was that “Orgullo” is “the filmin which Mur Oti single-handedly invented the European [italics mine] Western, preceding the success of Sergio Leone by a full ten years.”
I finish the day with a new French film, “A coeur ouvert,” (literally “With Open Heart,” a reference to the characters’ profession of heart surgeon, but to be released, apparently, as “A Monkey on My Shoulder”), with passionate performances by Juliette Binoche and Edgar Ramirez, by actress-director Marion Laine – not to be confused with her earlier film “A Simple Heart,” starring Sandrine Bonnaire. Binoche and Ramirez play a folie à deux couple who wrestle with his alcoholism and her unexpected and undesired pregnancy.
It’s as engagingly overwrought as the previous film couple’s entanglement, and a fitting end to a stressful day that began almost exactly 24 hours earlier with Mr. Toad’s Mad Ride. I walk hotelwards through the light rain – good movie-going weather.