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Morelia Festival Three: Woman Without a Soul, Santa, The Last Cristeros, the President’s Wife

Morelia Festival Three: Woman Without a Soul, Santa, The Last Cristeros, the President's Wife

Meredith Brody continues her enviable Mexican sojourn at the Morelia International Film Festival:

The choice is easy for me for the first film today, even though there are ten competing screenings (however, three are at another Cinépolis multiplex, Las Americas, that I’ve been warned off by Festival vets because it’s far from the Festival center and requires a taxi ride). Still, there’s an eclectic and tempting array that includes The Guard, in the International section, an Irish film by John Michael McDonough starring Brendan Gleeson, unseen by me although released in the US in mid-summer; a program featuring three films by Yolanda Cruz, a young Mexican filmmaker and graduate of UCLA who works on border films; Michael Nyman’s Nyman with a Movie Camera, a shot-by-shot reconstruction of Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera using footage Nyman has shot over two decades; and The Runway, another Irish film, by Ian Power, fortuitously starring Demian Bichir, who was a Mexican day laborer in last night’s A Better Life, but herein incarnating a South American pilot who crash-lands in remote Ireland. (Always nice to see an actor in two different parts, so close together.)

But there’s no contest when I spy La mujer sin alma aka Woman Without a Soul, part of the four-film series French Literature in Mexican Cinema, of which I’ve already seen, in Patzcuaro, Woman of the Port, “inspired by stories by Leo Tolstoy and Guy de Maupassant”. Woman Without a Soul stars Maria Felix, for me an axiom of the cinema right up there with Marlene Dietrich and Isabelle Huppert, in that I’ll go see anything with her in it. And I haven’t been able to see much, and most of that on DVD (note to Pacific Film Archive: a Maria Felix series, please?)

Felix, beautifully dressed even when she’s a poor worker in a textile factory, ruthlessly uses and abuses a series of men in order to lead a life of luxury (when she’s even more lavishly attired). One marvelous wedding costume (she’s marrying for money, not love), with puffballs of white flowers pinned on both sides of her black hair, against ivory skin, the whole framed by cascades of white lace, reminded me of Colette’s description of a courtesan in Gigi: something about white flowers framing “the relentless beauty of her face.” Every time she powders her face, I think “Don’t cover up that beauty mark!” The sets are Art Deco marvels (though certain items of set dressing mysteriously re-appear in more than one locale).

Afterwards I’m whisked off to an elegant lunch in a private upstairs dining room in a new hotel called the Casa Grande (carved out of a centuries-old colonial building, of course, in this elegantly-preserved Unesco World Heritage Site city). We’re offered anything on the many-paged menu, but, mindful of time limitations, I go for a small steak. Anything tastes better, I find, when you’re seated within sight of the charming Volker Schlondorff.

Choosing my next screening is tougher than the steak: I yearn to see Schlondorff’s latest, La mer à l’aube, presented as a sneak preview work-in-progress screening, but it’s labeled as being shown without English subtitles. It’s set in Nazi-occupied France, and most of its listed cast seems to be French, which I can understand, but it’s rumored that there’s quite a bit of German, too, which I can’t. (The cast includes Arielle Dombasle, once the most beautiful woman on film, now increasingly a surgically-wounded caricature of her young self. I last saw Schlondorff in Paris at a screening of a short film shot on the set of Last Year at Marienbad, a screening attended by Bernard Henri-Levy, still married to Dombasle, though widely rumored to be involved with Daphne Guinness. A show celebrating her fashion sense now running at FIT in NY reveals that B H-L likes surgically-altered visages.)

But I go see Santa, Mexico’s first sound film, made in 1931, and directed by Antonio Moreno, better-known as a Hollywood actor of the silent era and beyond (and possessor of a amazing Silverlake estate). It stars Lupita Tovar, the Mexican movie star who married Hollywood agent Paul Kohner (born in what was then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and is now Czechoslovakia) with whom she had two children. Chris Weitz, son of their daughter, actress Susan Kohner (and director of Morelia’s opening-night film, A Better Life), introduces the film. (His grandmother is still alive, at 101).

It’s a well-shot melodrama, with echoes of Woman of the Port, seen a couple of nights earlier in Patzcuaro: the seduction scene, with the vile seducer lowering his virginal prey to the ground, is shot in an eerily similar manner, his head looming over and obliterating hers. The ruined young woman moves to Mexico City and becomes a prostitute, in a bordello whose depiction of daily life reminded me of the overheated but diverting 2011 film L’Appollonide: Souvenirs de la maison clos, aka House of Tolerance, which I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival last month.

Tovar is loved by both a disturbed (and disturbing) blind man who plays the piano in the brothel, and a dashing young bullfighter. Some especially striking scenes are shot in the stylish streets of 1930s Mexico City.

I’d like to slide right into Schlondorff’s Young Törless, 1966, based on a Robert Musil novel, about which I’ve heard the word “masterpiece” bandied about, but there’s that pesky no-English-subtitle symbol again. (Yes, I know I’m in Mexico, but in order to attract an international audience, Morelia strives to present films – as well as its catalogue and website – that can be understood by both Spanish and English-speaking audiences.) So I decide to try the first entry in the new Mexican feature film category, Los últimos cristeros, aka The Last Cristeros, about a ragtag band of soldiers who continue the fight against religious persecution in the last days of the Mexican revolution.

Because Margarita Zavala, the wife of Mexico’s president Felipe Calderon, is attending this screening, several of us, including Telluride’s Tom Luddy and Mexican film producer Ximena Hirirart Schyffter, are prevented by staffers from exiting the complex and placed in seats in the first row of the second section of the theater. Zavala enters, an attractive woman in her early 40s with a smooth auburn pageboy, casually dressed in black slacks, a blue blouse, and a long pink scarf, with Morelia Film Festival president Alejandro Ramirez. I’m excited because we have such a good view of her shaking the hands of the people who’ve been seated directly across the aisle from us, in the last row of the front section of the theater. Like Queen Elizabeth, she seems to have something charming to say to everyone.

I’m even more excited when Ramirez turns around and introduces her to my seatmate Mr. Luddy: “He’s the head of the Telluride Film Festival, one of the best film festivals in the world.” “Like Morelia,” Zavala says, smilingly, shaking his hand, and I find myself rising, unbidden, and saying “He always says Morelia is his favorite film festival,” as she shakes my hand, too, unexpectedly. Next Ramirez introduces her to Ximena, and Zavala leans in and kisses her on both cheeks.

Our little band is quite stunned, at least we girls are. Ximena says “I didn’t stand up,” and I say “Of course you did or she couldn’t have kissed you,” but she means she didn’t stand up fast enough.

Etiquette be damned, we’re here to see a movie, which is introduced by its young first-time-feature director Matias Meyer, who brings onstage his cast of mostly non-professional actors, dressed like the campesinos they are in blue jeans and cowboy hats. The film is slow, stately, and rather minimalist: the shabby, tired, hungry men hide out in the hills, not always aware of what’s going on in the struggle, occasionally engaging with well-dressed soldiers in brief bursts of violence, more often stolidly posed against inhospitable landscapes.

Later we learn that the outside of the complex was ringed with military well-equipped with guns during the President’s wife’s visit.

But I stay inside to see my fourth and last movie of the day, Maurice Pialat’s L’enfance nue, aka Naked Childhood his first feature, made in 1968, and produced, among others, by Claude Berri and François Truffaut. It bears comparison with his 1959 The 400 Blows, concerning as it does a young foster child rebelling against his surroundings.

This time I can use the word “masterpiece” freely. I exit into the night blessing the eclectically-programmed, cinephilic Morelia festival for extracting this film from the vaults and exposing it to a new audience. I’ve wanted to see it since I saw my first Pialat film, We Won’t Grow Old Together. What will tomorrow bring? I’m eager to find out.

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