Paulo Antonio Paranagua, Mexican Cinema

By Rob Rix

British Film Institute 1995 produced in association with IMCINE and The Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes de Mexico

Mexican Cinema, published to accompany the BFI season in early 1996, covers the troubled history of the most productive national film industry in Latin America. A revised and enlarged version of the French edition produced for the retrospective at the Pompidou Centre (1992-93), it brings together a broad range of essays by mainly Mexican scholars and writers. Organised into sections on film history, genres, directors and other looser concepts such as ‘Currents and Structures’, it is varied in style and approach, and this makes it an absorbing if uneven read. Aimed at those who ‘wish either to begin or to extend their study of Mexican history and society in the field of film production’, it serves both audiences well, visiting and re-visiting epochs, cineastes, films and stars from a variety of critical perspectives. The inevitable repetition within essays of names, details, synopses and occasionally critical judgements is helpful rather than tiresome, and the volume passes one of the tests of a good film book: it whets the reader’s appetite for the films, although in many cases the most we shall ever get to see are the 100 or more excellent still photographs reproduced throughout the volume.

Paranagua’s introduction is lively and provocative; he usefully mentions two fundamental absences from Mexican cinema which differentiate it from other Latin American film cultures, namely neo-realism and a lasting revitalisation begun in the 60s. Despite the periodic popularity and success of Mexican films, he stresses the lack of consolidation by national directors who, he claims, ‘could not find their own voice’. Occasionally his deliberately contentious tone spills into the pretentious, describing La mujer del puerto (1933) as ‘…an unashamedly heterogeneous film making all existing and conceivable models into examples of heterodoxy.’ Elsewhere in the book there are negative judgements which are nevertheless sufficiently thought-provoking to avoid the impression that Mexicans love to hate their own film industry. Carlos Monsivais notes that ‘In this school-in-the-dark the people were educated in suffering and relaxation’, and that ‘the ethics and aesthetics of Mexican cinema are based on a false obedience to the life of its spectators’, while Salvador Elizondo claims that ‘with a few shining exceptions’, Mexican cinema has been ‘a judgmentally moralistic cinema…’ Representations of the Mexican Revolution, melodramas unfolding from abuse of women, nostalgic visions of rural harmony and the comic expression of picaresque heroes are analysed repeatedly; in the eyes of most critics their treatment tends towards formulaic exhaustion rather than originality and renovation. Again and again the message is that Mexican film culture fell into traps set by its own successes.

Without doubt the two most impressive contributions are from Aurelio de los Reyes, on the silent cinema, and Julia Tuñón, whose seminal essay on Emilio ‘El Indio’ Fernández clarifies the successes, contradictions, failures and ultimately the triumph of his art. His work reflects Mexico’s struggle to establish its identity and to come to terms with unresolved conflicts between tradition and modernity. Mexico seems constantly in the throes of birth, and yet haunted by the suffering of those condemned to death or to a suffering existence. Aurelio de los Reyes notes that ‘the realistic or critical representation of reality had become the first taboo in Mexican cinema’, and that early films had a major impact on public taste and behaviour, influenced by Hollywood models and styles.

Buñuel is given adequate attention, and although more recent directors like Hermosillo, Leduc and Ripstein are given fair coverage, the book has not caught up properly with directors like Mariá Novaro, featured in the BFI season. One irritant in the typesetting is a proliferation of falsely hyphenated words in mid-line, but otherwise the volume is well produced. A mine of information and interpretations, it is a worthy response to a challenging and fascinating subject.

Rob Rix, Trinity & All Saints University College, Leeds