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Sombra verde (1954)
"Sombra verde" is another little gem by underrated Mexican director Roberto Gavaldón. Shot almost entirely in open spaces, the melodrama is an adaptation of the 1949 novel of the same name by Mexican writer Ramiro Torres Septién. It tells the story of scientist Federico Garzón who is sent by a pharmaceutical company to investigate the possibility of exploiting barbasco in the jungle of Veracruz, to produce cortisone from its roots. But Federico and his guide Pedro get lost, and when the scientist is the only survivor in the middle of the jungle, he finds a remote farm by a waterfall called Paraíso (Paradise). The owner tries to kill him, but his young daughter Yáscara falls for the stranger. Gavaldón, who usually wrote the script with his collaborators, created magnificent images, as a popular fair; the sequence when vultures fly low, surrounding Federico on horse, as he carries the corpse of Pedro on another animal; or all the intensely erotic scenes involving young, beautiful and lovely Ariadne Welter as Yáscara. There was no Hays code ruling the Mexican film industry nor the Catholic fanaticism of Franco's Spain to deprive the relation of sensuality and to suggest a chaste friendship instead: it is obvious that Yáscara knows everything about mating, as it is she who asks Federico to be her man, and whenever they start romancing, there is no denial of the intense foreplay
the camera looks somewhere else with complicity. Handsome and well-built Ricardo Montalbán returned to the film industry of his home country, taking a brief and healthy rest from Esther Williams' swimming pool romantic vehicles and other silly Hollywood mishmash. Víctor Parra's solid enactment of Yáscara's father; Jorge Martínez de Hoyos' award-winning performance as Pedro, Antonio Díaz Conde's score and Alex Phillips' monochromatic cinematography, are all assets in this fine production.
I had never expected to hear Ninón Sevilla delivering her lines in English. Although she was dubbed, for the movement of her lips it is obvious that Ninón was saying her lines in English, so I deducted that it was also shot in English for an American version distributed in the United States. I do not know if this version is the only one in color that survived after the vaults of the Mexican national film archive caught fire in 1982 and many negatives and first copies were forever destroyed. Although there is a low resolution copy available in Spanish, it is in black and white, I opted for this foreign version, so the vision of this melodrama, which by itself is already psychotronic, definitely became a weird experience. A while ago I saw Ninón in "Mulata", another film dealing with Santería, but in "Yambaó" there are elements of fantasy: while it is true that there is a respectful treatment of the Yoruba religion (never called "voodoo", as in many American and European films or comments here in IMDb, that make no distinctions among African cults), here we find possessions of spirits and the power of magical brews and invocations. Everything else is natural: prestigious composer Obdulio Morales Ríos wrote the ritual music; musical direction was by Lan Adomian, the Russian-American who wrote the Republican hymn during the Spanish Civil War; and the dances were staged by Rodney, the famous choreographer of the Tropicana cabaret. To reinforce the ethnic-folkloric aspects several Cuban singers are featured: Olga Guillot sings a duet with Ninón, Xiomara Alfaro sings in a funeral scene, and Celina Reynoso plays the landowner's nanny, while there are cameos by popular Paulina Álvarez, the so-called "Queen of Danzonete", and Haitian singer Martha Jean Claude. Also all the dances were shot in exteriors: in fact, almost all the action takes place in open spaces, except for the cave where Yambaó hides with her aunt, the white landlord's hacienda, and the shack where lovers meet. At first glance it seems that the plot of "Yambaó" takes elements from Cirilo Villaverde's "Cecilia Valdés", known as the national novel of Cuba. But in general what happens in the film is quite common in the island, as well as in most of Latin American countries: in short, it is the typical story of the delirious passion of a mulatto woman for a white man (and vice versa). The cult of the white Spanish man (and the rest of the Caucasian men), is a curious racist introjection. I have never forgotten when a Cuban film student, as he referred to a handsome man he had met, said, "He was so beautiful that he seemed a Spanish man!" This admiration has its complement in a highly favored Cuban cultural trait, which I call "mulattism": the adoration of the mulatto stereotype consists in worshiping mulattoes of both sexes as the epitome of crossbreeding beauty and sensuality. It is very common in the island, where almost all the indigenous people were slaughtered, so many Cubans find typical Latin American persons "ugly". So the drama of the Yambaó (Ninón) is falling in love with the owner and ruler of a cane field in 1850. The woman was raised in freedom by her aunt Caridad, a black slave and santera, specialized in spells, love knots and magic powders. Everybody thinks Caridad died when the previous owner sent her into exile. But Caridad returns with her niece and a plan for revenge that will be executed by Yambaó: she has to kill the son of the old boss and new owner of the fields (Ramón Gay, who could equally fight the Aztec mummy and doll people, and appear in a drama by Roberto Gavaldón). But Yambaó likes the "whitey"
and Caridad's plan screws up. Here Ninón is far from her best works. She was no longer the slender beauty, wears an unbecoming brunette wig and was directed by a rather gray filmmaker, Alfredo B. Crevenna, who had better luck in other projects. But, of course, Ninón is Ninón and as always she dances with passion, and confronts the bold with her hands on hips and raising her chin. One enjoys her dance and performance, but "Yambaó" is saved above everything else by its music, dances, singers, landscapes of the Cuban countryside and Eastmancolor.
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 Varnson, "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".