South of the Border, Down Mexico Way
A 48th New York Film Festival “Masterworks” sidebar covers rare if DVD-available “Fernando de Fuentes’ Mexican Revolution Trilogy.” Set during that uprising of whose beginning this is the centenary, the three were done quickly in the 1930s under the social and artistic influence of Eisenstein’s recent visit and for a public that had largely lived the events.
Contrary to the reactions of some viewers, the casts are more than adequate, on at least a par with many contemporary performers elsewhere betraying stage and/or silents origins. The unusual plots were written in whole or in collaboration by the former-journalist director and, while sympathetic to ideals striving to overthrow dictators and privilege, go above politics in that concern focuses on human elements caught up in situations that condition choice and like as not turn actions on their heads.
The first is Prisoner 13/El prisionero 13, which, despite coincidences, would have been a picture-perfect exposition of the cruel twists of fate if only the final cop-out frames had been omitted, for there are no second chances and this is not a temperance tract. Garrison commandant Colonel Julián Carrasco (Alfredo del Diestro) drinks and womanizes hard, but it is his domestic tyranny that drives away the wife (Adela Sequeyro, as Marta) who means nothing to him and the baby who is everything. In short fades, years pass and the father’s efforts have failed to locate the child, now a young man (Arturo Campoamor, as Juanito) paying court to Lolita (Alicia Bolaños) while street unrest prompts mother’s fears for his safety.
The New York Times likened De Fuentes to John Ford, but, just a little longer than real time, P13 prefigures Zinnemann’s High Noon in on-screen clocks and watches that visually count the minutes between dusk and 5 am sunrise.
Twelve leftist suspects are sentenced by the governor to the firing squad. In furs, the widow Martínez and her daughter tempt worldly Certucci (Luis G. Barreiro) to intercede with his friend the colonel for the release of their son and brother Felipe. The two bribed men accept fifteen thousand pesos -- secured from extortionist banker Ordóñez (Joaquín Coss) in a sly aside -- but also have eyes for the blonde daughter. The prisoner clandestinely released, an officer is dispatched to detain anyone vaguely resembling him so that the full complement of a dozen will be lined up against the patio wall. Juanito is unlucky enough to be apprehended, and mother and sweetheart hasten to confront his unsuspecting father the colonel.
This film ran into criticism for depicting corruption among the military. In a turnabout the following year, Del Diestro became Rosalío Mendoza in My Buddy Mendoza/El compadre Mendoza. This successful farmer-businessman time and again expresses his philosophy of pragmatic action over idealism. His good-fellow time-serving character is symbolized too often by butler Atenógenes’ (Barreiro) switching General-President Huerta and Emiliano Zapata portraits depending on which side is presently being entertained at Hacienda Santa Rosa.
Quick to seize whatever bull by the horns, Rosalío is smitten with the daughter of ruined businessman Don Andrés and at once arranges to marry her. Belying her looks and youth, Lolita García (Carmen Guerrero) remains a physically faithful wife and mother of their only son, Felipe. At the wedding, the groom is saved from execution along with an army colonel, when irregular general Felipe Nieto (Antonio R. Frausto) intervenes. The handsome immaculate Zapatista is immediately a fast family friend, beloved godfather to the son to come, and bosom buddy confidant. From the very first 1912 moment, mutual sparks shine in Lolita and straight-arrow Nieto, unconsummated and unnoticed by all save observant deaf-mute housemaid María “la Muda” (Emma Roldán).
As the insurrection wearies and Rosalío nears financial collapse, Colonel Bernáldez (Joaquín Busquets) proposes that the harried haciendero sell out the friend who once saved his life. This clash of loyalty and situational reality also informs the last of the trilogy, Let’s Go with Pancho Villa/Vámanos con Pancho Villa, on the wearing down and disillusionment of five rural friends who join the charismatic general’s forces.
In cast and cost the first Latin American mega-production, this epic was ironically ignored in favor of the director’s simultaneous Out on the Big Ranch/Allá en el Rancho Grande, winner at the Venice Film Festival of Mexico’s first international award and at home of the Medal of Merit from President Cárdenas, the country’s first overseas hit as well as forerunner of the enduring sentimental ranch musical type.