From Dolores Hidalgo to Cacaluta: The Ups, Downs, and Ups of Mexico’s Film Industry

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

Some folks come to Huatulco because they’ve seen it, few leave without hearing about it, boatloads of snorkelers explore its cinematic beach without knowing a thing about it. “It” is Y Tu Mamá También, the 2001 Alfonso Cuarón film that made northerners sit up and take real notice of the Mexican film industry. Cuarón went global in short order, making Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), Children of Men (2006), and his latest Gravity (2013). He owns Esperanto Filmoj, a film production and distribution company that put out Guillermo del Toro’s film El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) in 2006, and co-owns another production house, Producciones Anhelo.

Y Tu Mamá También also put the acting careers of Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna on the fast track. Since 2000, they have become international stars; they have founded their own production company (Canana Productions) that concentrates on Mexican social issues, as well as the itinerant documentary festival Ambulante that tours the country for three months a year, seeking to “support and spread documentary film as a tool of social and cultural transformation” (http://ambulante.com.mx/en/festival).

Garcia Bernal and Luna’s enterprises have also worked to bolster the “Era of New Mexican Cinema,” which could be said to have kicked off in 1991 with Cuarón’s first feature Sólo con tu pareja (“Love in the Time of Hysteria”) and Arturo Ripstein y Rosen’s La Mujer del Puerto (“Woman of the Port,” a remake of the 1934 classic), and María Novaro’s Danzón, followed in 1992 by Alfonso Arua’s Como agua para chocolate (“Like Water for Chocolate”) and Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos.

The Many Eras of Mexican Cinema

New Mexican Cinema builds on a century of Mexican filmmaking, which has waxed and waned, changed focus and style, and has been inextricably connected to the politics and pressures exerted by government. Like American cinema, it began with silent films made at the end of the 19th century, from one-minute wonders to introduce audiences to moving pictures to full-length documentaries on the Mexican revolution, much encouraged by the government. Again like the U.S., talkies brought on a Golden Age that ran from the 1930s to the 1960s. The next two decades were characterized mainly by horror and action, action and horror, but the 1970s and 1980s were also marked by the emergence of the young directors who led up to the New Era. Despite the fluctuations in the quality and popularity of the Mexican film industry, it has always displayed a distinct national character, redolent of traditions and values, concerned with social and political issues, and constantly re-exploring the national character and multiple identities. Always, it is characterized by color, passion, and an unmistakable Mexican ambience.

Mexico’s Silent Films

The great majority of Mexico’s silent films were documentaries on the Revolution and the War of Independence a century earlier. The Mexican government strongly supported this work—about 60 such patriotic works have been identified, although very few have survived. Some were basically shorts constructed from footage shot live on the battlefield. The encouragement of patriotic documentary films succeeded in sharpening the skills and techniques of Mexican cinema while engaging larger and larger audiences. In fact, three war dramas emerged from this trend—El Grito de Dolores, “The Cry of Dolores [Hidalgo], 1906-07, about the declaration of war against Spain; the first full-length Mexican film, 1810 or los libertadores de México, “1810 or the Liberators of Mexico,” 1916, with a screenplay by Yucatecan poet Arturo Peón Contreras; and Conspiración, “Conspiracy,” 1927, which portrays a pre-Revolutionary insurrection considered the precursor to the declaration at Dolores Hidalgo). Despite, or maybe because of, its concentration on Mexican wars, the cinema was an extremely popular form of entertainment. Mexico City had 16 movies houses by 1906, and many more once the Revolution was underway (fourteen were built between 1910 and 1911 alone).

During the silent era, as happened in the U.S., the government also started getting in on the act with censorship controls. Under President Francisco I. Madero, an odd duck who managed to defeat the dictator Porfirio Diaz and served from 1911 until 1913, movie censorship took the form of saving the lower classes from immoral entertainment. It’s doubtful that movie censorship was the cause, but Madero was assassinated in 1913; in the government that followed, censorship legislation failed while the practice continued, and the Mexican government has been shaping, supporting, or ignoring segments of the film industry ever since.

The most significant element of the silent era was the move towards fiction and drama in films designed to entertain, with two notable examples that presaged the types of films that would emerge a decade later. In 1898, Salvador Toscano Barragán, who had directed a number of “war footage” documentaries and opened Mexico’s first movie salon with a projector ordered from the French Lumière brothers, made a fiction feature, Don Juan Tenorio, based on an 1844 play by the Spanish author José Zorilla. Actress Mimi Derba set up her own studio, Azteca Films, and in 1917 produced the drama En defensa propria, “In Self-Defense,” a romantic drama that foreshadows class interaction and inequality, one of the most enduring, and officially promoted, social concerns in Mexican films. While the plot particulars could be traced to the Italian film d’art melodramas, the story of orphaned Enriqueta, who becomes a governess, marries the father of her pupil, and faces opposition from a European relative who discredits herself with a dalliance, depends for its essence on the notions of the inherent goodness of the working class and the moral failures of the upper class.

Censorship under the Huerta administration ensured that movies would not show unpunished crime, insults to authority, or other material that provoked public disorder; with the close of the revolution, censorship increased, the government was short on cash and closed the film offices it had opened in the Ministries of Education and Agriculture, the big Mexican stars (Ramón Novarro, Dolores del Rio, Lupe Vélez) decamped to Hollywood, and film production dropped to almost nothing by the mid-1920s. The actors left in Mexico paid their bills by starring in the Spanish versions of the films put out by Hollywood, not a successful trend because audiences were confused by a plethora of regional accents that Hollywood didn’t notice.

The “Golden Age” of Mexican Cinema

By the 1930s, politics and revolutionary aftermath had simmered down, and film production resurged. Famed Russian director Sergei Eisenstein visited Mexico in 1930, giving encouragement to Mexican production; he started a large film project referred to as ¡Que Viva Mexico! Unfortunately, Eisenstein never finished the work (although others made various films from Eisenstein’s oodles of uncut footage). However, his visit inspired more and better Mexican-made films.

In 1932, the first Mexican “talkie” came out. Santa, directed by Antonio Moreno and starring Lupita Tovar as Santa, a lovely and humble Mexican girl. She falls for Marcelino, an arrogant wandering soldier by whom, of course, she is seduced and abandoned. A social outcast, she ends up in a brothel in the big city, courted by an assortment of men (the good-woman-in-a-brothel theme resurfaces two years later in La Mujer del Puerto). This film is credited with establishing a Mexican national cinema, with Mexican themes, a committed national audience, and the possibility of export to other countries—something the silent movies did not do, in part because the film houses had little to choose from in terms of domestic films (from 1929 to 1931, 89% of the films shown in Mexico City were made in Hollywood).

The 1934 version of La Mujer del Puerto is a melodrama in which Rosario, played by Andrea Palma, is happily in love with a boyfriend who not only cheats on her but kills her very ill father. Seduced and abandoned, she ends up in a brothel in Veracruz, where she’s rescued from a series of scuzzy-looking sailor clients by Alberto, only to discover that Alberto is her brother.

The 1930s saw the production and release of more than four dozen substantial Mexican films, most of them melodramas like Santa and La Mujer del Puerto, but there were comedies with Mario Moreno (Cantinflas—see article elsewhere in this issue), and a couple of historical military pictures that harkened back to the silent era. The 1940s continued the “golden” development of Mexican filmmaking; the U.S. film industry was busy turning out war-support films, while the European film industry was much reduced during World War II. With Argentina and Spain laboring under fascist governments, Mexico had its moment in the sun as the world’s foremost creator of Spanish-language films; in 1947, the film industry was the third largest sector in Mexico’s economy.

During the 1940s, film directors and actors became celebrities, movie attendance was high, Dolores del Rio came home from Hollywood to star in Flor Silvestre, “Wildflower,” 1942, in which she tells her son about her experiences during the Revolution, and Maria Candelaria, 1944, the first Mexican film to go to the Cannes festival, where it won the Grand Prix, and was the first Latin American film to do so. “Maria Candelaria” co-starred Pedro Armendáriz and was directed by Emilio Fernández, both immensely famous and popular figures. The film continues the themes of dignity and innocence as essential characteristics of indigenous peoples, along with suffering great travails of discrimination and hard luck. Maria is already star-crossed and rejected by her people for being the daughter of a prostitute, and after a string of troubles, she poses for an artist to get the money to get her fiancé out of prison, but she refuses to pose in the nude; the artist paints another woman’s naked body, but Maria is stoned to death because people assume it is she in the painting.

The 1940s saw the development of other distinct genres of Mexican film. Films about natives peoples evolved into the indigenista genre—Janitzio, 1934, portrays abused indigenous fisherman on the island of Janitzio in Lake Patzcuaro; the government of Lázaro Cárdenas found it politically useful to support indigenista films, which, not surprisingly, are condescending and paternalistic, with little evidence for any positive influence on the life chances of their subjects. The good-woman-in-the brothel theme gave rise to the carabetera (“showgirl”) genre with a feminist stance—their loose-woman characters were not at fault, but suffered from a lack of protection from male-dominated family and social structures.

Films combining Mexican and Cuban dancers were called cine de rumberas, after the rumba, and had rudimentary plots set in cantinas that showcased the striking dances. The 1950s, which saw the beginning of the end of the Golden Age, produced the popular comedia ranchera genre, in which the men were strong, the women adore them, and the actors do the singing—think Gene Autry and Roy Rogers—and which gave rise to an enduring genre of Mexican music.

The Roots of the New Era of Mexican Cinema

During the 1950s and 1960s, the director Luis Buñuel started creating the kind of films that made it to American art houses (while people might think of Buñuel as a Spanish filmmaker, he spent 35 years working in Mexico and became a Mexican citizen). The 20 films he made in Mexico generally take the overworked genres and put them to almost subversive political uses, and represent the first work by an auteur with a personal vision. His early film Los Olvidados, “The Young and the Damned” (literally, “The Forgotten”), 1950, about youth gangs in Mexico City, deeply offended the Mexican establishment with its grim, simmering violence born out of poverty that was anything but noble (eventually it won Buñuel the Best Director prize at Cannes). His other themes include sexual desire—repressed, obsessive, unfulfilled, perverted, the foibles of the Mexican bourgeoisie, the hypocrisy of the Mexican family image, the inequities of the Mexican class system.

The decline of the Golden Age has been attributed to commercial forces; in particular, American businessman William O. Jenkins, who controlled both of the major Mexican distribution entities, simultaneously favored Hollywood output and cheaply-made Mexican genre pictures with little export appeal. Another constraint was the directors’ union, which was virtually closed to new, younger directors for the fifteen years between 1945 and 1960. A national film policy, with proportional quotas for Mexican output, was caught up in resistance from Hollywood and lax enforcement. Perhaps the real cause was what had started the Golden Age to begin with—World War II artificially reduced the competition, giving Mexican cinema the chance to flourish. However, it wasn’t strong enough on its own to compete against the restoration of European film making, with Britain, France, and Italy all producing challenging, innovative work, and the U.S. countering with way more serious fare than the Doris Day/Rock Hudson pillow comedies.

Following on Buñuel, Mexico saw the rise of several young Mexican directors, including Arturo Ripstein y Rosen, who in addition to remaking La Mujer del Puerto, put out El Castillo de la Pureza, “The Castle of Purity,” 1972, based on the true story of man who keeps his family imprisoned for eighteen years to avoid outside influences that might corrupt them while they invent and manufacture rat poison; and El Lugar Sin Limites, “Hell Has No Limits,” 1977, a sophisticated realist filming of a Chilean novel set in a brothel.

The 1970s were the high point of one form of Mexican filmmaking, production financed by the private sector. As noted, some superb films emerged from private financing, but in trying to keep costs low and appeal broad, i.e., pitched to the lowest common denominator, these productions descended back into predictable genres and gradually lost their audience and market share to imported films. Towards the end of the 1970s, the government started supporting the film business, keeping it from falling apart and creating the conditions for the New Mexican cinema. The state sometimes served as the chief source of financing for quality artistic productions, but the policy and practice was evaluated and changed with each new administration, contributing to the downturn in Mexican filmmaking in the 1980s. The downturn was complicated not just by particularly chaotic policies during the Portillo administration (1976-82), but by the country-wide economic crisis that made it difficult for promising directors to get their second features made.

The Newest Era of Mexican Cinema

In one particular way, the New Era of Mexican Cinema of today differs sharply from the New Era that started with outstanding films in the last couple of decades of the 20th century. Mexican filmmakers and Mexican films are now competing on the international stage. The combined impact of the country’s two major film schools (the National University’s Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos and the Centro de Capitación Cinematográfica), along with the government’s Instituto Mexicano de Cinematographía (IMCINE, the Mexican Film Institute) has deepened the talent pool of directors and producers, and given rise to new themes, artistic integrity and individual vision, and a parade of awards from international film festivals.

There are still structural difficulties in keeping the film industry strong. The peso performs poorly against other currencies, a particular obstacle to distribution. The role of government fluctuates (Vicente Fox wanted to discontinue funding to filmmaking, close the film schools, and get rid of IMCINE, but was met with strong opposition—the budget for IMCINE, which invests in both established and experimental films, actually increased). Major Mexican directors get pushback for “abandoning” their homeland to make films in other countries, or co-productions with other countries, but the criticism ignores the difficulties of completing financing in a single country no matter where the production starts.

For your “New Era” viewing pleasure, regardless of how “global” the production might be, try these lesser known Mexican films.

El Violin “The Violin,” 2005, directed by Francisco Vargas Quevedo, a drama about the rural peasant rebellions of the 1970s.

En el Hoyo “In the Pit,” 2006, a documentary by Juan Carlos Rulfo about workers on the Mexico City periférico highway.

Cochochi “Okochochi Valley,” 2007, directed by Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán, which addresses the choices to be made between a Mexican and an indigenous identity.

Año Uña “The Year of the Nail,” 2005, directed by Jónas Cuarón (Alfonso Cuarón’s son) a collage of still photos narrated by a 14-year-old Mexican boy and an American college student.

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