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A Rare Find
"Mulata" is not one of Ninón Sevilla's celebrated melodramas. It does not contain the outrageous campy elements that make "Víctimas del pecado", "Aventurera" and "Sensualidad" such undeniable classics; it has not the spectacular musical numbers in big sets and complex choreographies, found in almost all of her films; and it contains no humor, as in "Club de Señoritas". But somehow "Mulata" is probably the motion picture that is closer to Sevilla's cultural roots, ethnic and social concerns, and the varied and different ways of love that made her life so rich. Adapted from "Mulatilla: Estampa negra", a novel by Uruguayan writer Roberto Olivencia Márquez, the action now takes place in Cuba and tells the story of Caridad (a name that echoes the name of the Virgin patron of the island), the beautiful daughter of a black slave, who has to struggle against those in high positions that exploit her, and the men who only desire her as a sexual object. Her life is marked by tragedy and she will be physically abused, betrayed and forced into prostitution. The story is told in retrospect, from the memories of the Mexican sailor who took Caridad from the port of Mariel where she was born and raised, to the city of La Habana, where she ends up dancing in a third-rate cabaret, and then to Mexico, causing her downfall upon their return to Mariel. The role is played in the usual brutish manner of actor Pedro Armendáriz (as in Buñuel's redundantly called "El bruto"), but his narration if filled with rhetorical expressions: there is a long sequence on the beach that interestingly covers a ritual dancing celebration of Santería, the Yoruba religion practiced by Ninón, which is also an important element in her films "Víctimas del pecado" and "Yambaó". It is through those dances that Caridad connects to her African origins, and feels free and joyful. For 1954 the sequence is a strange and daring mixture of ethnography and sensationalism, including the bare breasts of several dancers and actress Lolita Santacruz. (I can't tell if this is true, but I have been to many of those rituals, and it was very rare to have seven to eight women deliriously tear their blouses apart). What I find most irritating is Gilberto Martínez Solares' routine direction (being the usual director of Tin Tan's anarchic comedies, he was not the right choice) and his brother Agustín's cinematography, repeating framing and rarely moving the camera. If you pass these minor objections, you may enjoy the film (it is thankfully quite short), and if you are interested in Ninón Sevilla's screen career and on cultural survival and racial self-affirmation, you will doubly enjoy it.
Considered a ground-breaking documentary in its time, and still highly respected (though mostly forgotten), "School" was a novelty by 1939 standards of the genre, as it avoided the off narration and allowed the subjects of the film to tell their own story, not by making statements in front of the camera, but re-enacting their experiences as students and teachers of the Hessian Hills School, in the state of New York. Besides it was then and it is still today a very interesting liberal school experiment: we see the children being encouraged by their facilitators to train themselves to become their own "life managers" in a future community, in order to make the democratic society grow and develop. Sometimes pupils and teachers decidedly recite their obvious previously rehearsed scenes, but it is still fresh and, as a 1939 product, very innovative. There is an obtrusive element, though, and it is the musical commentary that is really unnecessary (some sequences are even better watched in the silent mode). Somebody who is not credited made a medley of children's song that sometimes collide with what we see on the screen (as "London Bridge Is Falling Down", when the kids are being constructing). Director Lee Dick is one of the few pioneer American female documentary filmmakers, whose next work, "Men and Dust" (made with her then husband, photographer Sheldon Dick) was included in the US National Film Registry. Take a look at it, it is fast and short, and you will not regret it.
Hide Your Smiling Faces (2013)
The Sense of Living
With excellent performances from Ryan Jones and Nathan Varnston, "Hide Your Smiling Faces" is another of the remarkable and recently seen films about children and adolescents, adding it to a list that includes "These Birds Walk", a documentary about street kids in Pakistan, who find refuge in a home created by an old humanist; and a science-fiction motion picture dealing with education, and sold as a horror movie, called "The Tall Man", which is in reality a terrifying parable of the destiny of children these days, that made me think of the education methods in totalitarian societies and reminded me of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers". "Hide Your Smiling Faces" is the gentle one, although it does not lack elements of tension in environment, family and relations among the young persons. It belongs to the category of observational motion pictures, in which you deduce and obtain information (and, from the aesthetic angle, pleasure form the viewing experience) in a very quiet way. Even its dramatic peaks are handled in a wise tone, with a quiet touch, , when danger is present: I refer to the final scenes involving Jones and Varnston, with elders and the force of nature (I can't be more specific, for I would spoil your viewing experience). In a jaded world where violent images are what bring "artistic fulfillment" to most persons, motion pictures like this one, although rarely done, are the kind of productions that are needed every now and then, to remind us all what we are, where we belong and what in the end is the purpose of existence.
Sex and Death in La Habana
Daring but static film adaptation of Abel González Melo's play, "Chamaco" is a stagy production, the more so for the aesthetic resolution taken by director Juan Carlos Cremata Malberti, of filming almost everything as if from the fifth row in a theater, and for the performances of several players, especially Francisco García, as an aging homosexual, repeating the over-the-top type of representation that served him a bit better in "Molina's Ferozz" to play a grandmother wicker than the Wolf. A dark and gloomy portrait of people of the night, "Chamaco" tells a dramatic story of cruel and cold sexuality among several persons from La Habana and a young man from the country side: they all use each other for financial reasons, in a general landscape of economic and spiritual misery, leading to a tragic ending -or beginning, as its structure often resorts to flashbacks. Cremata created high expectations with his thesis film made at the Cuban international film school, and then made "Nada", an interesting first feature. But in the following years he opted for stage works that he has not been quite successful when bringing them to the screen. This is one of those unfortunate cases.
The Tall Man (2012)
Although this production has been sold as a horror film, it is a cautionary drama that had me thinking for a couple of days after watching it. When the movie was finished I felt a combination of anger and awe, wondering where the director's heart was in this sort of modern folk tale, questioning if he really endorsed the ideas expressed by the leading character, as the story is closing, tying its loose ends. Jessica Biel plays a nurse that for most of the film is trying to save a little boy from being kidnapped by someone called the Tall Man by the people from the town where she lives. But then the cards start to turn, and as she gives something that sounds like a consciousness-rising, social speech (which has a lot of logic!), she also reveals in herself strange traces of a hippie freak, mixed with features of a despairing soldier from a totalitarian society, and she turns into a delirious, mystic visionary with a bad agenda
The next day I realized how really terrifying the story was, as in my mind I began to make more connections and associations, and started to think of body and mind snatchers, and of us mankind as entities that resemble easy to pack-easy to swallow vegetables for the "chosen ones", them of the little privileges. For me "The Tall Man" was a very satisfying film experience.
Dicen que soy comunista (1951)
Comedy with Cult Potential
"Dicen que soy comunista" is a very funny comedy, directed and co-scripted (with art director Gunther Gerszo) by Alejandro Galindo, a serious and progressive filmmaker, responsible for half a dozen major works made during the "golden age" of Mexican cinema, including telling portraits of the working and middle classes ("Campeón sin corona", "Una familia de tantas", respectively), as well as a fine motion picture about the illegal migration from México to USA (see ["Espaldas mojadas"). A spoof on the witch-hunt craze of the 1940-50s, when many persons were victims of the madness created by the fear of the so-called "red menace", Communism, some may object that there is nothing to laugh about from this chapter of world politics, but the same could be said of the situation described by Charles Chaplin in "The Great Dictator". Resortes is moving as well as funny in the role of Benito Reyes, a naive typesetter who gets involved with a gang led by Macario Carrola (Miguel Manzano), a thug who fronts as the secretary of a leftist party with a name as long as rhetoric, and a membership of 2800 men. Carrola in turn follows orders from Wilhelm Ribenburf (Charles Rooner), a mean foreign entrepreneur, and things get kind of ugly with explosions, deaths and torture. At the time the film was made, Mexican unions and workers' organization were still considered victories of the 1910 Revolution, but they had also become corrupt and the revolutionary party had turned into a questionable institution, which is also reflected in the film, with crooked politicians and gullible workers. The plot also involves a contest to select the Queen of the Waitresses, a set of popular dances of the day (in which Resortes excels), and a benevolent gang of street kids and a Republican Spanish shopkeeper, who save the day when things get out of hand for the typesetter, his little son Huicho (funny Joaquín Roche) and girlfriend Berta (María Luisa Zea). Among films with potential to become cults favorites, this one has a secure place.
The Return of the Vivancos
Less sentimental than its predecessor (well, only a bit less
), shorter and funnier, "El proceso de las señoritas Vivanco" is though a bit below the standards of the first installment of the diptych. Following the story of the thieving sisters Hortensia and Teresa Vivanco y de la Vega, this one starts with the little old ladies being escorted to prison by police detective Saldaña (whom they made pass as their fictional nephew Ernestito), who does everything to avoid putting both women in jail: to no avail, of course. Since there is only one accusation by the singer whom Hortensia re-possessed the family jewels- "Ernestito" tries to take her only to court, but Teresa refuses to let her sister alone, and fakes a robbery in the hotel she is staying while Hortensia is being booked. So both sisters enter the penal institution to wait for the trial, and in the meantime they redecorate their cell, add ruffles to their uniform, ask for permission to go out and attend a couple's wedding anniversary, help fellow inmate Trini to escape (so she can take care of her 3-year old daughter) and get literally stoned while burning marijuana they have in their cell, when they discover it is not a remedy for belly aches. Although production values are as high as in the first part, the plot of this sequel is thinner and the conflict is lighter, taking more time in creating funny situations, which most of the time function very well. As in the first part, it is a joy to see Sara García and Prudencia Grifell working together, with funnier lines in this occasion (especially from 81-year old Grifell, whose Teresa is more stubborn and proactive than Hortensia), and again with excellent support from Manolo Fábregas as "Ernestito"/Saldaña, and Miguel Ángel Ferriz as the head of the prison. Carmen Salas repeats her role from the first film as Trini, a young prostitute, but Ana Luisa Peluffo as the accusing singer is missed. As successful as "Las señoritas Vivanco" was before, it is strange producer Jesús Grovas did not re-team García and Grifell (who were still active in the 1970s), giving new adventures to the Vivancos, as the end of this one suggests, when they offer their niece and her husband financial assistance to raise their baby.
Las señoritas Vivanco (1959)
Sentimental comedy that revived the old "Porfirian comedy", a Mexican film genre that euphemistically questioned the ideals of the 1910 Mexican revolution, while stressing the values of the white and petit-bourgeois Mexicans who were followers of dictator Porfirio Díaz. The main characters are Hortensia Vivanco y de la Vega (Sara García) and Teresa Vivanco y de la Vega (Prudencia Grifell), two flat broke old Porfirian sisters who find a baby niece at their door, just when they have been gone bankrupt. Refusing to accept their new condition and to keep up with the appearances of material well-being, they decide to rob to survive and raise the girl: first, Hortensia works as a maid for a vaudeville artist (Ana Luisa Peluffo) to re-possesses the family jewels that her womanizer dead brother have given to the singer; then Teresa becomes the French-speaking governess of the four children of a Catholic nouveau riche couple (Miguel Manzano, María Teresa Rivas), and steals an effigy of the Holy Child of Atocha with a money box, brought to the house by a priest, with all the pesos that were given by the parishioners to build a sanctuary for the little saint; next Hortensia works in a brothel and takes the hush money a minister (Roberto Meyer) gives to the madame (Emma Arvizu) in a moment of impending scandal, and finally Teresa steals the loot from a revolutionary general (Pedro Armendáriz, at his macho worst). What definitely makes this work is the two actresses: García (who was 64 when the film was made) and Grifell (who was 80, and still active in films when she died at 91) work in such great harmony that they are fun to watch, with fine support from José Luis Jiménez as the friend who secretly loves both women; and handsome Manolo Fábregas as a police detective. It was a big success, followed a couple of years later by "The Trial of the Señoritas Vivanco".
Corri uomo corri (1968)
Sollima, Milian and Chelo at Their Best
1968 was a very good year in films. For most specialists though, it is the emblematic year of a tumultuous period in world politics, and it has been mostly analyzed by historians, sociologists and philosophers. An analysis of films from this perspective is always interesting, but I know very few works dealing with this topic: it would be propitious to do it for the 50th anniversary of those events (in 2018), because during that year many major works were released, as varied as "if....", "Faces", "Memorias del subdesarrollo", "Night of the Living Dead", "Teorema", "2001: A Space Odyssey", "Fando y Lis" or "Salesman"
and this is just a handful. Of course, if we consider 1968 in film from the viewpoint of denunciation, militancy, pamphlets and banners, the honor would go to the monumental Argentinean film and masterpiece of world documentary, "The Hour of the Furnaces". In the field of genre, if we had to choose a paradigmatic 1968 European western, the obvious option would be "Once Upon a Time in the West", a drama about the expansion of civilization in the United States, through uncivil methods. However, the plot of "Run, Man, Run", another European western of 1968, combined the political-activist spirit and the fun of those days (to get an idea, the pop and soul hit-parades of the year are a big help, as well as films as "Joanna", "Vixen", and the like): the film is the culmination of Sergio Sollima's trilogy, preceded by "The Big Gundown" and "Face to Face". Here the action takes place against the Mexican revolution of the 1910s, a conflict of epic proportion with diverse sides, from agrarian problems to military struggle, class conflict, religious controversy and vandalism, without forgetting American interventionism. By choosing this background, the scriptwriters were able to address all these sides, to reflect the spirit of rebellion in 1968 in a costume drama, and to insert many contemporary slogans and common phrases of the left. In the end, though, the tone is more ironic and parodic than dramatic: with a leading character as peculiar as the thieving scoundrel Manuel "Cuchillo" Sánchez; with Dolores (Chelo Alonso), Cuchillo's assertive woman and a revised version of the "soldadera" (a female follower of soldiers), opposite to the Adelita of Mexican folk; and with Cassidy (Donald O'Brien), an atypical American bounty hunter who opts to support the Mexican revolution, it is logic that the final product is an amusing ride, full of emotions, laughs and tension. As Cuchillo, formidable Tomas Milian is probably the greatest Cuban actor that I have ever seen in films, while for the first time I was able to see his fellow countrywoman Chelo Alonso in a good role that justified her characteristic fierceness beyond caricature, although in many moments there is a lot of humor, as in a demented comic book. The film also contains scenes of great splendor, as the horse persecution through the snow; confrontations with guns and knives; a wonderful score by Ennio Morricone, who, for apparent contractual reasons, had to give composing credits to his collaborator and arranger Bruno Nicolai; a multi-colored gallery of villains, including the loud-mouthed bandit Riza (Nello Pazzafini), the greedy Salvation Army official Penny (Linda Veras) and two ruthless French mercenaries (Marco Guglielmi and Luciano Rossi); and revolution leaders with marked differences: poet Ramírez (José Torres) and megalomaniac Santillana (John Ireland). An original and enjoyable European western, and a very good motion picture, still vigorous 46 years after its first release.
No Man Is an Island (1962)
This American-Filipino co-production is a good example of cheap, proto-fascist cinema, with a formula script supposedly inspired by soldier George R. Tweed's "heroics" during Japanese invasion in Guam, turned into adventure non-sense, loaded with bad dialogue and "exotic" touches by the Filipino actors. Unfortunately, the make-up department had no pancake for them, so while Jeffrey Hunter sports a glorious tan, the others are all made-up with obvious powders intended for Caucasians. Add the U.S. Army propaganda, the scratched war footage, the shaky sets, and a score that goes from pompous to soapy, and you have a dreadful product.