The Singapore National Museum Cinematheque and Mexican embassy in the country is running a short program on Golden Age of Mexican Cinema. During this period, they are show-casing some moveis from Mexico made during the period 1936 to 1969, which is labeled as the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, when some of the finest movies came out of the country.
I have so far watched two movies during the program, and am hoping to catch another one tomorrow. So far it has been a refreshing experience. National museum has a cozy, but sufficiently spacious gallery theatre, which is a good place to watch movies (unlike the Singapore comercial theaters which are small, and often have poor screen quality). At the beginning of the movies, a cultural attache gives a brief introduction of the movie to be shown, which sets the context.
The first movie I watched Vámonos con Pancho Villa! (Let’s go with Pancho Villa) is also a movie that is said to be the beginning of the golden age, even though it did not do so well at the time of its initial release. Pancho Villa is the nickname of one of the decorated generals of Mexican Revolution (which began in 1910). He was dominant in Northern Mexico, looted and commanded trains, and was largely supported by the US in his revolutionary efforts.
The movie is about a group of 6 friends from a village who decide to join Villa’s revolutionary army. Through their lives, the director/writer Fernando de Fuentes depicts life in midst of a revolution. In this life, Fuentes shows us, there is a mad energy as people feel a sense of purpose, but there is also heartlessness, ruthlessness. While shooting at the enemy, sometime the boundary between enemy and your own men blurs, while at other times, people engage in mindless shooting at the Canteen, so that the pianist has to put up a sign “Don’t shoot the Piano Player”, and the waiters have to hide behind counters. Villa is shown to be a hard task-master, as one must be to lead a revolution of that size. It is ironical that sentiment can be side-tracked so immensely in a war which would have begun from concern for sentiment.
It is hard to believe that this movie was made as early as 1935. Technically, it does not go wrong anywhere – the mood is perfectly set with overwhelming scenes of trains loaded with revolutionaries, or forts being conquered, or men riding their horses in the grim landscape of mexican desert. If the movie was made in the 70’s, nothing could be improved, and it would have to wait till the 90’s to get better sound.
The second film I saw, La Perla, was made in 1947 by another celebrated Mexican film-maker Emilio Fernández. This simplistic film was based on a novella written by Steinbeck, who also co-wrote the screenplay for this visually appealing film. It is a story of a simple fisherman and his wife, who find a rare and big pearl. The pearl, which seems to them the means of freedom, invites a lot of attention from the villagers, and some unwanted hostility from rich men, who want to acquire the rare pearl and are willing to rob and murder for it. With a pearl, the simple life of the family is completely destroyed and they are forced to wander around in the neverlands of mexico without food and water, carrying a baby in their arms. The seed of hope becomes the harbinger of darkness, sometimes causing rift between the lovely couple. A very socialist fable, in my opinion, but beautifully brought to life, specially by the angelic Maria Elena Marques(plays the wife), who looks innocent and untarnished, almost like Mary.
This movie is visually very captivating. In the beginning of the film, wives wait at the shore, hoping for the tides to turn. The camera first focuses on two women looking towards the sea, and then pans out to encompass a much larger group. The sense of abatement is so strong in the first few shots that it carries throughout the movie, despite the ongoing action. Later, as the couple wander through deserts, the camera work again comes to the rescue of a film which might have bored the viewer by a seemingly endless and vindictive pursuit.
During one of the most important moments in the movie, there is a long underwater shot, which is near flawless. The entire shot shows Tino’s struggle under water. Then, when he finally cracks open the oyster and finds the pearl, his brief performance shows a peek into what is to come. That was one of the finest moments of the movie. It is only during the later half of the movie, especially during the pursuit that the movie became tedious and lost a little of the momentum that it had begun with.
This is the first film festival I have attended in Singapore, and it is disappointing since I had hoped to enjoy many more. Unfortunately, the movie culture in this city/country is minimal. Movies often arrive here late, and even in opening weeks or shows, few people are seen in the halls. There is a film society, of which now I have become a member, but even they screen only 2 movies in a month.
But it is a good start for me, and it was encouraging to see the participation for La perla’s screening today. Perhaps this will give some boost to the festivals.