I’ve reviewed documentaries of every type seen so far during Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, but this one breaks the mould a little bit by incorporating fictional restaged elements. It’s all very cannily done by a seasoned documentarian, but it’s a beautiful film that deserves a wider audience.
This film starts out with the feel of a documentary about a chef in NYC but then slips between various time periods in the childhood and early-20s of the same man growing up in small town Mexico. The struggles he has with same-sex attraction and holding down a relationship under the judgemental eyes of his family and those in the community around him have a certain familiarity, but are handled very beautifully here. Part of that is from the way the film surprisingly blends fictional narrative and documentary, becoming evident later in the film, and which deepens the richness of the 80s and 90s-set sections. It all makes sense as a move on the part of a long-time documentary filmmaker, and it certainly makes me intrigued to see more of what she produces, as this film has a very polished, gracious and beautifully shot sense of atmospherics with a slight touch of Malick at times.
Director Heidi Ewing; Writers Ewing and Alan Page Arriaga; Cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramírez; Starring Armando Espitia, Christian Vázquez; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Petone, Monday 8 November 2021.
I must have first watched this 25 years ago, and for all its short length (a mere 45 minutes, apparently intended as just one segment of the then-popular portmanteau film format), I still vividly recall Satan giving a hefty kick to a small lamb as it bleatingly disappeared to the upper-right of the frame. Well, that’s still there and it’s still funny, but around it is a coruscatingly bitter attack on religious pomposity, as our titular figure stands like his dad Simeon Stylites on a pillar in the desert. He sets himself up as some kind of holier-than-thou religious martyr but really he seems pretty pleased to be revered and accepts those who confirm him in this belief. Meanwhile, for all his high-minded ideals, he finds himself pretty easily tempted by the Devil (who appears as a woman, of course). Buñuel was hardly averse to pricking at the hypocrisy of religious figures, but the medium-length running time means it never outstays its welcome.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel; Writers Buñuel and Julio Alejandro; Cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa; Starring Claudio Brook, Silvia Pinal; Length 45 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 11 September 2021 (and earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, July 1998).
It’s difficult to imagine from the plot summary how this is going to play out, given the set-up is fairly thin: a bourgeois group of high society socialities go for a slap-up dinner after the opera and find themselves unable to leave the home they’re in. But Buñuel, of course, knows what he’s doing, and mixes jabs at the aristocrats, at complacent bourgeois values, and at the church itself (the ending is bitterly directed and something he developed further in Simon of the Desert and Viridiana, amongst other works). It’s a psychological horror of sorts, at least in the way its structured: there’s an invisible force seeming to prevent them from leaving, but this seems to be a deeply-ingrained sense of decorum. At the end it feels like they are able to leave when the correct formula of words is uttered: the entrapment is very much a social one, as everyone is constrained by their own sense of what’s allowed, what’s considered polite, and it’s that in the end which is their tragedy, the pathetic sadness of this entire class of people. It’s all beautifully acted and staged, and ends up — in a low-key way — being perhaps Buñuel’s strongest film.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Luis Buñuel; Cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa; Starring Silvia Pinal, Enrique Rambal; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at the National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 18 August 1999 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 1999, and most recently on YouTube streaming at home, Wellington, Sunday 12 September 2021).
As a debut feature film, this certainly suggests some of the talent that Alfonso Cuarón (and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) would go on to show, with its rich imagery and canny editing. It feels like there’s a clear debt owed here to Almodóvar, not just in the look of the piece, but also the fact that it’s a darkly comic sex farce, the kind of thing the Spanish director had rather attained a reputation for by this time. The central character, Tomás Tomás (Daniel Gimémez Cacho), is a playboy with a string of girlfriends, and is almost introduced shimmying along an outdoor balcony between two of them, whom he has in separate apartments, one that of his doctor friend and neighbour Mateo Mateos (Luis de Icaza). And already you are probably getting an idea of the comedic use of names, too. Naturally a lot of this stuff is played for broad comedy, and it does get rather too broad at times (all the classic tropes, mostly involving him naked in the wrong place at the wrong time). It then gets a bit darker and closer to the wire when Tomás’s misdiagnosis of AIDS is brought into the plot, but to be fair I found the stereotyping of Japanese businessmen with their constantly flashing cameras to be the detail which has aged most badly. Still, there’s a lot of energy in the film and a stylishness which commends it.
- The primary extra is two short films, one each by Alfonso and his brother Carlos. Alfonso’s is his 1983 student short film Cuarteto para el fin del tiempo (Quartet for the End of Time, 1983), a grainy black-and-white film that only hints at his later work really (the palette and the domestic setting recall Roma, but the expressive fluidity and richness of that film is clearly not yet established in his work). It’s about a depressed guy, a musician, padding around his apartment and coming apart at the seams, and that’s the feeling it conveys over its 23 minute or so running time. His brother Carlos’s short is one made after their success with Y tu mamá también a decade later, called Noche de bodas (Wedding Night, 2002) and also a sex comedy, though at a miniature level. It’s the classic short in many ways: a simple witty idea executed swiftly. It has the look of a glossy advert, but then the pivot comes and it’s cute, and that’s pretty much it.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alfonso Cuarón; Writers Carlos Cuarón and Alfonso Cuarón; Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki; Starring Daniel Giménez Cacho, Claudia Ramírez, Luis de Icaza; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 4 August 2020.
Continuing with my reviews of Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020 films, is this Mexican piece about government cover-ups of extrajudicial murders. It’s a fairly confrontational topic but handled well, focusing on the women — often mothers or partners of the disappeared — who drive this process.
A patient, insistent documentary about continuing governmental cover-ups of extrajudicial murders and ‘disappearances’, following the efforts of a group of women who appear to follow the discovery of various mass graves, and volunteer to work with forensic investigators to try and identify the dead, hoping (but yet not hoping) that their own missing relatives and children will be discovered among them. The official line appears to be that these missing people are due to the operation of drug cartels and organised crime, but clearly that’s not always the case, and lies about how the bodies are found and how many there are in these mass graves, along with statements claiming these graves were for people unclaimed by their family, are shown plainly to be false due to the patient work of the (largely) women who only want to find out the fate of their dead relatives. The cameras cannot go into these sites, but we see the women suiting up in protective gear, and speaking eloquently, including in confrontation with local politicians, about the nature of the work, the decomposing bodies (still relatively recent, as the grave we see being exhumed is from around 2013), the painstaking methods of identification. We see the sheets they fill out, noting all the details of clothing and condition of the bodies, identifying marks, before these are whisked away, often to be lost again in bureaucracy. It’s a very specific story of a group of people, while also seeming to be about a pattern of human rights abuses taking place across Latin America and the world, one that requires we bear witness and continue not to allow this to happen.
Director Carolina Corral Paredes; Writers Pedro G. García, Paredes, J. Daniel Zúñiga S., Magali Rocha Donnadieu; Cinematographer Zúñiga; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Sunday 21 June 2020.
Plenty of documentaries, especially recently, have explored all kinds of facets of lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer identities, in various areas of life. Documentaries can often bring wider recognition to people and causes which aren’t very familiar to a mainstream audience. One recent film that shines a light on a Latin American performer is Chavela, which screened at the 2017 Sheffield Doc/Fest.
There are documentaries that break moulds and innovate the form, and then there are ones which may take a venerable approach (talking head interviews, archival footage, historical research) but do so in the service of presenting a fascinating and little told story. This is surely one of the latter, and for someone not brought up in the hispanophone world I was entirely unaware of Chavela Vargas, a Costa Rica-born Mexican singer who achieved great fame in both Mexico and Spain for her heartfelt and passionate singing, not to mention her outspoken lesbian identity at a time when (and in a place where) that was much frowned upon. It’s wonderful to both hear from those who knew her, loved her or worked with her, and to see the footage of her performing in the final act of her career which ran from the early-90s to her death in 2012, as she took to the stage again in her seventies and kept performing, unable ever to fully retire.
Directors Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi; Cinematographers Natalia Cuevas, Gund and Paula Gutiérrez Orio; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Thursday 26 July 2018.
For most of the past week, my blog has been focusing on the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, with a roster of mighty melodramas, but in the modern era directors like Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu have found box office success (both in Mexico and in the United States, where many of them work now) in a variety of genres, though often still tending towards the dark and thorny. None has gained quite as much fervid festival acclaim (not to mention exasperated brickbats) than Carlos Reygadas, who unlike his contemporaries has remained in Mexico to make his films, rich with religious symbolism, copious sex and an austerely formal camera style. He made his name with Japón (2001, which is on the Criterion Collection now), and followed with the divisive Battle in Heaven (2005, below), with its Bressonian approach to non-actors combined with rather more florid content than Bresson would ever have countenanced. 2007’s Silent Light is to my mind his finest picture in terms of reconciling his themes and formal style, dealing with a Mennonite community, but Post Tenebras Lux (2012) has many admirers. His most recent film (Our Time) is also his longest, and is reviewed below.
Continue reading “Two Films by Carlos Reygadas: Battle in Heaven (2005) and Our Time (2018)”
I wrote about this Mexican film, which I saw at last year’s London Film Festival, in my round-up of my favourite LFF films, and it also made #13 in my favourite films of 2018. Now it’s getting a proper cinematic release in the UK, so if you haven’t seen it, please do.
At the level of plot, almost nothing really happens in this film — a young woman called Eve (Gabriela Cartol) works as a hotel cleaner, and moves around its spaces almost anonymously. Guests ignore her, and those who do seek her help and show appreciation — like a rich Argentinean woman who asks Eve to look after her baby for a few minutes while she’s in the shower, then proceeds to offer her lucrative work in Buenos Aires — disappear from her life with ease. She joins a work educational scheme that is summarily cancelled by the union. At length, she shares a few laughs with co-workers, but even they let her down in the end. Yet while in content it could be grim and unrelenting, it’s really not — and a lot of that is down to the central performance. Eve just wants to be noticed and appreciated, it seems, but she’s enigmatic and reserved, and if it weren’t for the lead actor, maybe even we wouldn’t notice her. It’s a compelling character study, and a fine debut feature.
Director Lila Avilés; Writers Avilés and Juan Carlos Marquéz; Cinematographer Carlos Rossini; Starring Gabriela Cartol, Teresa Sánchez; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Thursday 18 October 2018.
Mexican cinema was responsible for a glorious run of full-blooded melodramas in the 1940s, and I’ve already covered a few in recent posts, including Another Dawn (1943) with Andrea Palma and Twilight (1945) with Gloria Marín, both directed by Julio Bracho, and the wonderful Dolores del Río in La otra (1945). I mention the female leads because it’s the women who really define this period in cinema, and before we move on to Ninón Sevilla, it’s worth mentioning my favourite restoration at the 2018 London Film Festival, Emilio Fernández’s Enamorada (1946), which stars the glorious María Félix, who not only dominates the film but steals every single frame she’s in, a definite highlight of the era.
Ninón Sevilla as Violeta comes across a bit like Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls (1995), and like that film this is a melodramatic ride through the sleazy underworld of a (Mexican) city. Still, director Emilio Fernández shows a great deal of sympathy and generosity towards his nightclub dancers forced into street work thanks to the dangerous and violent vicissitudes of low-class gangsters like Rodolfo (Rodolfo Acosta). He is introduced in the opening scenes and, without any dialogue required, his character is perfectly set up: big suit, concerned about appearances, cheap with his barber but flashy with his money, he struts out into this underworld with the brio of a man who is clearly not only going to fall but ensure that he pulls down with him as many others as he can. Throughout, the grimy sweaty reality of inner city life is stressed, the vast plumes of smoke from the steam trains that pass by crowd the frame like a bleak Turner painting (and like a lot of red-light districts, this one is tucked up alongside railway lines). The women of this film aren’t victims of their own sin, but very much that of the men around them, who are violent and, with a few exceptions, thuggish brutes. If anyone here survives, it’s only by the slenderest margins, but those margins are what the film is all about.
Director/Writer Emilio Fernández; Cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa; Starring Ninón Sevilla, Tito Junco, Rodolfo Acosta; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Tuesday 2 July 2019.
On my regular Women Filmmakers’ Wednesday slot, I don’t have any specific women in Mexican cinema to focus on, as there haven’t been a huge number over the years (far more as actors than in the major roles behind the camera), but there have been an increasing number of documentaries of interest. Both the ones I focus on below sit somewhere between narrative and documentary, blending observational techniques with a more poetic sensibility.
Continue reading “Two Recent Mexican Documentaries by Women: Tempestad (2016) and Faust (2018)”