Sui generis: An Alternative History of Mexican Cinema

Posted in Movies, Retrospective, Theatrical by - February 28, 2019
Sui generis: An Alternative History of Mexican Cinema

It’s easy to understand the passion that programmers have towards the films and stars that they like. This passion can lead to some missteps, showing us films that many audiences have seen before. Some of us ungrateful cinephiles can complain about that. So TIFF, in its classy way, hits its naysayers back with putting its faith in unlikely auteurs (James Gray). They’ve given us films from directors that time might criminally forget (Aki Kaurismaki and Max Ophuls).

They’re also opening a window to the cinematic offerings of a country that we might overlook – Mexico. Sui generis: An Alternative History of Mexican Cinema is a celebration. Academy Award winning director Guillermo del Toro teamed up with TIFF programmer Diana Sanchez. Together, they co-curated an expansive look of Mexican film history. Mainstream Mexican directors have given their perspective on issues with a global impact. But these older films, despite having traces from the outside, look inward.

Sanchez, during a private event, said that Mexico has a rich film history. It’s a canon that includes recording their revolutions into cinematic immortality. In returning to this narrative, Mexican directors probably used the medium better than their American and European counterparts. Films like Juan Bustillo Oro and Fernando de Fuentes’ 1934 film Godfather Mendoza illustrates that. It shows its version of the 1917 revolution through the experience of an ambivalent ranch owner (Alfredo del Diestro). Oro and Fuentes’ sophisticated camera work and del Diestro’s performance expose Mendoza’s psychological states as he changes allegiances.

We can also see this focus on the psychological burden of class strife in Woman of the Port. We know where Arcady Boytier and Raphael J. Sevilla’s film is going. But even with a short running time they fully explore the story of the titular woman, Rosario (Andrea Palma). It also expands on the sailors who she has secret personal connections with. This adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s work is so effective that Mexican and world audiences return to it.

Conflict theory is prevalent in Mexican cinema but some of the movies in this program aren’t always about class boundaries. Director Rogelio A. Gonzales and prolific screenwriter Luis Alcoriza’s The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales examines the dark side of the two most mainstream genders. Adapting Arthur Machen’s The Islington Story, Gonzales’ The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales shows us taxidermist Dr. Pablo Morales (Arturo de Cordova) and his religious wife Gloria (Amparo Rivelles). It’s obvious that del Toro would already like something this macabre. But its angles and shadows complement the story of two people who should have never married each other. And watching those two characters unravel is a cinematic treat.

Del Toro also puts himself in this retrospective, as he has every right to do so. His debut film, Cronos, is also the most popular in this program. This is probably the most international film in the program. There are Spanish characters who are centuries old as well as English speakers who use Mexico as their battle ground. At the center of that battle is antique dealer Jesus Gris (Federico Lippi). The national metaphor might be on the nose but it’s still effective.

One of two time Oscar winning director Alfonso Cuaron’s earlier films are also in this program. That is Solo Con Tu Pareja, which is the director’s most punk film. It’s also the most frank and problematic at depicting the romantic misadventures of its protagonist Tomas (Daniel Jimenez Cacho).

Luis Buñuel’s Mexican films are also in this program. He takes advantage of Mexico, his country of refuge, but does so in a respectful way in Los Olvidados. This film depicts the country’s working class with authenticity. There’s a stronger connective tissue though between his European work and The Exterminating Angel. Here, a butler (Claudio Brook) tries to share a small space with people. Like him, they all can’t bring themselves to leave. A mutli-pronged satire, Buñuel and his actors sell their concept well.

Audiences can feel Buñuel’s legacy through his collaborators like Arturo Ripstein, who will branch out and make his own films. Like other Mexican auteurs, Ripstein shows us the expansiveness of the Mexican experience. Despite his movies dragging on, he treats us to unforgettable images in The Realm of Fortune. Scenes showing gambler Pinzon (Ernesto Gomez Cruz) are great. Specifically, there’s one where he buys an expensive coffin for his mother, showing the locals that his temporary riches.

The program has its share of films that don’t even have entries in film catalog sites. Ones that I hope that braver cinephiles and critics check out and tell their friends or social media followers about. Jaime Huberto Hermosillo’s The Passion of Berenice has some deliberately paced scenes. It delicately portrays the gilded cage that its titular repressed character (Maria Navarro) want to escape. We get the same specificity in Felipe Cazals’ Canoa: A Shameful Memory. There we can feel all of its landscapes and the troubles characters who live there. Dana Rotberg’s Angel of Fire looks bananas. Its color blocks serving as a backdrop for its titular circus fire-eater, Alma (Evangelina Sosa). These films prove that Mexico is a secret that the world should eventually enjoy.

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While Paolo Kagaoan is not taking long walks in shrubbed areas, he occasionally watches movies and write about them. His credentials are as follows: he has a double major in English and Art History. This means that, for example, he will gush at the art direction in the Amityville house and will want to live there, which is a terrible idea because that house has ghosts. Follow him @paolokagaoan on Instagram but not while you're working.
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