One of the most alluring aspects of the Morelia Film Festival is its diverse programming: not just promoting new Mexican and Michoacan filmmaking, and sampling the best of new worldwide films, those destined for both the arthouse and commercial venues, but creating a new generation of cinephiles, as well as pleasing those already converted, with its rediscoveries of the past. Luckily on day one I stumbled into an astonishing 1952 flamenco documentary by the cineaste audit Edgar Neville, which festival director Daniela Michel told me was due to their relationship with the Filmoteca Espanola, source of her major rediscovery of last year, Manuel Mur Oti.
But the tribute to Neville, as fascinating as he sounds in the catalogue essay (friend of Chaplin, supervisor of Hispanic versions of early American sound films, director of twenty films in Franco’s Spain), only includes one other film, “Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks,” in an unsubtitled print. Another three-film cycle, under a rubric entitled Imaginary Mexico, is Burt Lancaster in Mexico: A Centenary Celebration — he was born in 1913 — organized by Steve Seid of the Pacific Film Archive. It consists of “Vera Cruz” (1954), by Robert Aldrich, in a gorgeous new print which I saw earlier this year at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Berlin, “The Unforgiven” (1960), by John Huston, and “The Professionals” (1966), by Richard Brooks. Criterion, which shows a rediscovery every year, brought the medieval Czech epic “Marketa Lazarova” (1967) by Frantisek Vlacil (which I saw at the San Francisco International Film Festival), which dovetailed nicely with Morelia’s three-film tribute to the Czech New Wave, including Milos Forman’s “Loves of a Blonde” (1965), Vera Chytilova’s “Daisies” (1966), and Jiri Menzel’s “Closely Watched Trains” (1966).
The major retrospective this year (13 films) is devoted to the prolific and diverse star Arturo de Cordova, who made over 100 films in Mexico and America, where he was brought in the 40s in order to turn him in to a “Latin lover,” a tradition dating back to Antonio Moreno and Gilbert Roland and continuing with Fernando Lamas and Ricardo Montalban. I only know him from a few films from that period, notably “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” when he was fourth-billed under Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman, and Akim Tamiroff, and a long-ago viewing of Mitchell Leisen’s “Frenchman’s Creek” opposite Joan Fontaine, and also from Bunuel’s perverse “El,” made long after he’d returned to Mexico and become a huge star there.
For me it’s a chance to not only understand de Cordova as what the French would term “son proper auteur” — his own author — but also to sample the work of such famed Mexican directors as Roberto Gavaldon, who has five films on offer, and Julio Bracho, who has one. Yesterday’s “In the Palm of Your Hand” by Gavaldon was so taut and compelling, so well-shot, such a treat for an aficionado of film noir, that I can’t resist more.
So today I give in and spend almost all day in the past: in the morning, de Cordova’s debut, “Celos,” his first film, from 1936 — he’s so slender and so boyish without his moustache that I don’t recognize him at first, in the role of an assistant to a surgeon who’s maniacally jealous of his young, beautiful wife. I find the darkly handsome butler more sexually compelling, and it’s with a jolt that I realize that he’s played by the young Emilio Fernandez, half-a-dozen years before he became director, famed as “El Indio.”
There’s a break during which I choose lunch in the delightful hospitality area, an series of patios and rooms upstairs in a colonnade tucked behind the Cathedral square, over two programs of short Mexican films and a new film from Michoacan. I sit at a big round table with Todd McCarthy of the Hollywood Reporter, who’s on the Mexican Feature Film Jury (with German director Fred Kelemen and Portuguese actress/director Maria de Medeiros) and his wife, documentary producer Sasha Alpert; Variety critic and Palm Springs International Film Festival programmer Alissa Simon; Hollywood Reporter film critic Boyd van Hoeji; Vogue film writer John Powers and his wife, novelist Sandi Tan; and Michael Guillen, auteur of the film website The Evening Class. In my Perle Mesta mode, I jump up and introduce the group to Nicolas Philibert, here with his genius documentary “La maison de la radio,” David Pablos (“The Life After”), and the courtly and elegant Alejandro Ramirez Magana, President of the Morelia Film Festival, who somehow manages, like Daniela Michel, to be seen everywhere in the Festival at once.
In the afternoon, “Cielito Lindo” (1936), by Gavaldon and Roberto O’Quigley, shot by Gabriel Figueroa and Jack Draper, set during the Mexican Revolution, with de Cordova and his best friend in love with the same girl.
Then “La Zandunga” (1937), by Fernando de Fuentes, which stars Lupe Velez and features a surprise: the first sighting of Quentin Tarantino, in a plaid shirt, accompanied by Daniela Michel (and an entourage including two beefy bodyguards, better-dressed than most of the people in the room, in dark suits, white shirts, and brilliant-colored silk ties, one orange, one blue, who position themselves at each end of the row I’m sitting in, which happens to be directly behind QT, quite by chance). Tarantino is happy and laughing and shoots his finger at people as he’s introduced. He laughs during the movie with sincere appreciation and delight, as opposed to derision. De Cordova plays a sailor, iconically attired in white hat and sailor pants, who’s in love with Lupe Velez, who gets betrothed to another when he disappears on a ship (and from the movie for too long, although when I mention this to Daniela, she responds, reasonably, that “It’s a Lupe Velez movie!”). Eventually he reappears (in dark t-shirt and blue jeans). Tarantino’s overheard critical amerce: “I like him better with a moustache.”
The last de Cordova of the day is the astonishing “La noche de los Mayas” (“The Night of the Mayas”), a real oddity, filmed on location in the Yucatan in the famed Mayan ruins, including Chichen Itza, exquisitely shot by Gabriel Figueroa and directed by Chano Urueta (familiar as the white-bearded patriarch Don Jose in Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch”). De Cordova, moustacheless and with bangs, plays a hunter, Uz, who’s in love with the beautiful Lol, who is seduced by the “white man,” cosmopolitan Mexican Miguel, who’s come to the Yucatan for economic gain. In turn, a strikingly attractive local witch loves Uz, and all hell breaks loose, ending in human sacrifice.
I could continue the dreamlike mood with actual dreams, but instead I stay in the past and slip in to the already-in-progress screening of “The Spirit of ’45,” Ken Loach’s new documentary about the progressive post-war period during which, under a Labor government, Britain nationalized the coal, steel, railroad, gas, water, and health industries, and built public housing to replace both bombed-out cities and slums — a triumphant tale busily undone by Margaret Thatcher during the Eighties. Only the National Health still endures (even the Royal Mail has been partially privatized), and the thin edge of the wedge has been slipped in: British hospitals’ cleaning and maintenance has been outsourced, resulting in a tripling of administrative costs, fewer cleaning staff, and an increase in hospital infections. (I find myself wondering if Minister of Health Aneurin Bevan, from Wales, is related to film producer Tim Bevan, born in New Zealand. Later Google isn’t much help.) I think, ruefully, of Obamacare. I’ve been slammed right back to the present.