We’re now deep into the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, though I can’t tell you much about the director himself. He was from a large family, was sister to Andrea Palma (seen in 1934’s The Woman of the Port and in Another Dawn below) and a cousin to Dolores del Río (whom we saw in La otra). He was involved with modern theatre in Mexico City in the 1930s and then moved into writing and directing between the 1940s-1970s, though he had trouble with the censors later in his career. He passed away in 1978.
This opens as a grand melodrama of two sisters — one a mousy manicurist trying to eke out a meagre living (expected by her boss to work extra on the side in a rather more personal manner than she wants), the other living the high life as the newly-widowed wife to a millionaire — but quickly starts to loop in grander themes of crime and punishment. Both sisters are played by Dolores del Río (mostly in shot-countershot or using stand-ins, but there’s a split-screen for at least one brief scene), and though they start out with distinct identities, things start to converge for what I shall obliquely refer to as ‘plot reasons’ (and shan’t divulge). The director and cinematographer have a keen eye for interesting framings — not least in a scene shot through a convex mirror, or another climactic scene which lays vast shadows of prison bars over chiaroscuro depths — and the costume designer is no slouch either, especially for a hairpiece which is an entire black bird, its wings outstretched across del Río’s hair, or the prominent jutting shoulder pads worn by Victor Junco’s smarmy Fernando (even in his dressing gown). It all builds towards a grand emotional climax in which the sins of one sister come back to haunt the other.
Director Roberto Gavaldón; Writers Rian James, Gavaldón, José Revueltas and Jack Wagner; Cinematographer Alex Phillips; Starring Dolores del Río, Victor Junco; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Tuesday 2 July 2019.
I’m doing a week of Mexican films on my blog, starting with the Golden Age of Mexican cinema and building to some more modern films in advance of the UK cinematic release of The Chambermaid (somewhat less melodramatic than these early films, but still very attentive to the social structure).
Despite the taut running time, this feels like a slightly underwritten film. That may partly be due to it being an early sound film, and so still an art form trying to figure out its conventions, but there are long sequences that feel repetitious, even if the intention is to build the melodramatic potential of a plot that isn’t short on soap operatic detail. Andrea Palma is the titular character, Rosario, a woman with a dusky Dietrich-like allure (you can’t avoid that image of her that adorns the poster; it’s almost iconic in the golden age of Mexican cinema), but she is spurned by an unfaithful boyfriend and her father dies trying to protect her honour. Without him she is clearly unwelcome; during these early scenes set in the city, there’s a particularly memorable trio of judgmental older women in her apartment block, who gather around the camera and conspire against Rosario and her father. Needless to say she soon leaves town and, with few options open to her, finds work at the port of Veracruz in a convivial establishment. For a film of this period it’s all fairly clear what’s going on, though a very late twist takes the tale in unexpectedly dark directions. What really makes the film, though, apart from Palma’s excellent performance, is the direction. Russian emigré Boytler may experiment with any number of scene transitions (wipes in every direction, up and down, irises, and lots of lap dissolves), but he has an effective way with overlapping images suggesting memories and premonitions, and coordinates some excellent cinematography replete with expressionist lighting (largely the work of another emigré, the Canadian DoP Alex Phillips, whose credit will show up on several other films of the era). For a film that tells a story of setback piling on setback ultimately leading to tragedy, there’s a feeling not of oppressive gloom but rather a kind of poetic realism (familiar with some contemporary French cinema). This may not be entirely successful, but it’s a fascinating gem from early Mexican cinema.
Directors Arcady Boytler Аркадий Бойтлер and Raphael J. Sevilla; Writer Raphael J. Sevilla (based on the novel Le Port by Guy de Maupassant); Cinematographer Alex Phillips; Starring Andrea Palma, Domingo Soler; Length 76 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Tuesday 16 July 2019.