By Indiewire | Indiewire July 2, 2004 at 2:00AM
Discovery and Expression From South of the Border; Film Forum's Cine Mexico Series
by Howard Feinstein
I never cease to wonder why so many French flicks, not all of them dazzling, are released here, while pics from south of the border -- save for rare exceptions like "Amores Perros" and "Y Tu Mama Tambien" -- rarely make it to arthouse screens. A welcome antidote is the three-week, 26-film survey of Mexican cinema entitled Cine Mexico that Film Forum hosts today through July 22. The series ranges from silents to works of the early '90s, including films by Alfonso Cuaron ("Love in the Time of Hysteria," 1991) and Arturo Ripstein ("The Beginning and the End," 1993).
Expressionism is a current running throughout. The great cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, who usually shot in black and white, was a master of the genre. His films often take place among the poor. One of the finest is "Macario," Roberto Galvadon's 1959 story, taking place during Day of the Dead festivities, about a peasant's sudden acquisition of wealth and power. Figueroa shoots bizarre dream sequences of moving skeletons as well as apparitions in double exposure. The title character is a woodcutter who can barely feed his family. In an enchanted forest he inadvertently makes a pact with the Angel of Death, who gives him limitless magical water that cures illness. A wealthy landowner sets Macario up in business. The simple, newly rich man abuses the special gift he has received.
In 1950 Figueroa shot the classic "Los Olvidados" for Spanish expat Luis Bunuel. In addition to expressionism, the movie is marked by Bunuel's beloved surrealism, which we see once again in dream segments, not to mention the master's trademark feel for sexual undercurrents. The film is set in a squalid slum in Mexico City, where prison escapee Jaibo is the cruel ringleader of a band of children so amoral that they steal from, and pick on, the blind and paraplegics. In fact, no one in the neighborhood has any conscience at all. The forces of morality are represented by men at the social services who are so over-the-top that Bunuel may be making fun of them.
An expressionist film not shot by Figueroa is the 1936 "Vamonos con Pancho Villa," directed by the talented Fernando de Fuentes. Set in 1914, it follows the fortunes of six peasants from a small town who, because of military abuse and government land appropriation, band together and join legendary rebel leader Pancho Villa. Some die in battle, lensed with such extraordinary images as bodies draped over machine guns and cactus. Villa proves to be nearly as tough with his own forces as with the army. Suffice it to say that a smallpox epidemic serves as a catalyst for disillusionment.
Yet another is Felipe Cazals 1976 "Canoa," based on a horrifying true story. In 1968, five friends from Puebla venture to the nearby small town of San Miguel Canoa, where the government and a corrupt priest have whipped up an illiterate indigenous population into an anti-Communist frenzy. Although the young men planned to go mountain climbing, the villagers mistakenly think that they are radical students who plan to place a red flag in their church. What follows is an unthinkable mob scene at which the villagers shoot and hack the boys; only one survives. The fascinating film is slightly undermined by the boys' overacting and a weak framing device.
Not everything is so somber. Several movies in the series are built around song and dance. The campiest is "Aventurera," an outrageously plotted and performed movie from 1950 directed by Alberto Gout. Elena, played by the unstoppable Cuban actress Ninon Sevilla, is a proper middle-class girl in Chihuahua whose life turns upside down after her mother runs off and her father commits suicide. She heads out with a sleazy man who promises her a job in Juarez, only to help drug her upstairs in a nightclub (a spacious Deco set), where she becomes an indentured singer/dancer and hooker. (The Arabian nights and samba numbers are kitsch classics.) She flees to Mexico City, where, assuming a new identity, she becomes engaged to a young aristocrat from Guadalajara. Her past catches up with her, and she finally confesses, "Mario, my life has only been the road to perversion."
The title of Maria Novaro's "Danzon" (1991) refers to a graceful dance that looks like a blend of cha-cha and tango. One of Mexico's finest actresses, Maria Rojo, plays Julia, a shy switchboard operator in Mexico City who goes to a huge club every night to perform the danzon with her regular partner. His disappearance prompts her to embark on a vain search in Veracruz. Her movements around that city are accompanied by a soundtrack of splendid Latin music. She befriends "Susy," a drag performer who redoes her hair and makeup. Newly confident, she flirts and has a fling with a handsome tugboat driver. The awakened Julia heads back to the capital and the club, where her fortunes change. Discovery, in this film as in the entire series, is the name of the game.