María Candelaria, 1944, Emilio Fernández

The Golden Age
Mexican Cinema, 1930-1954

February 10 to 28, 2010


Beginning in the early 1930s and continuing for a quarter-century, Mexico was home to one of the world’s most colorful and diverse film cultures: not many other countries could claim a comparable range of production, diversity of genres and number of master filmmakers. The excellence of Mexican cinema was founded on its commercial strength – Mexico supplied all of the Spanish-speaking markets in Central and South America, and delivered several box-office successes in the United States as well. During the thirties, the country also became an important refuge for European exiles. Numerous filmmakers and craftsmen had their own (usually semi-secret) Mexican Period, and German-born Alfredo B. Crevenna became Mexico’s most prolific director. In the 1940s, few other film cultures were quite as potent.
Today, the riches of this Golden Age have been nearly forgotten: in Europe, one is more likely to find DVDs of Mexican wrestling films than the masterpieces of Emilio Fernández or Fernando de Fuentes. Milestones such as Vámonos con Pancho Villa (1935, De Fuentes) or Rio Escondido (1948, Fernández) are completely unknown. The Film Museum retrospective thus offers a rare glimpse at the singular beauty of this film culture and the genius of its masters – such as the enigmatic Emilio ‘El Indio‘ Fernández who is represented by five films. The retrospective also traces the Mexican footsteps of two seminal foreign artists: Sergei Eisenstein and Luis Buñuel – the former a key influence in the development of a national film idiom, the latter a maverick on the margins of the film industry whose works often undermined and contradicted mainstream themes and approaches.
The arrival of the talkies was a blessing for Mexico: finally, filmmakers could emancipate themselves from Hollywood and make films that were easily understood by the native – and often illiterate – audience. The joy of having one’s own cinema aligned with the government of Lázaro Cardenas, which strove for a nationalization of the arts. This program supported numerous projects dedicated to the traditions of the indigenous peoples and their contributions to the development of a nation-specific aesthetic. These include many of Fernández’ major works, especially María Candelaria (1944; his nickname, ‘El Indio,’ was no accident). In the mid-1930s, the government began to massively subsidize film production; it co-financed the CLASA-Studios and also participated in several experiments, one of which, initiated by the Ministry of Education, was Fred Zinnemann’s and Emilio Gómez Muriel’s Redes (1934-36).
The most artistically vital impulse, however, came from the outside – from the Soviet Union, in the form of Sergei Eisenstein, whose unfinished Qué viva México! (1930-32) influenced a great deal of the era’s cinema. Mexico’s outstanding cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa, worked on Eisenstein’s film as a young man and soon became a principal contributor to the films of the Golden Age. Emilio Fernández’ extremely plastic and geometric compositions can also be traced back to Eisenstein – who, in turn, was inspired by the indigenous arts of Mexico. Some have commented that Eisenstein “reintroduced” the country to its own aesthetic.
Another Russian influence was Arcady Boytler, whose La mujer del Puerto (1934) is among the era’s key films. Like Jean Grémillon in France or Werner Hochbaum in Germany, Boytler dedicated himself to a kind of poetic realism which acknowledged the “dirt” of the real. Mexican cinema continued to oscillate between these two poles, the statuesque stylizations of Eisenstein and Boytler’s porous realism, never really showing a definite preference for either one – except perhaps in the case of Fernández, whose films always tended towards the archaic and the “essential”, in his films about the revolution (Enamorada, 1946) as well as in his melodramas.
For the artistically ambitious cinema of the era, melodrama was the dominant genre. All major directors – from Fernández (Flor silvestre, 1943) and De Fuentes (La Mujer sin alma, 1943) to Julio Bracho (Distinto amanecer, 1943) and Roberto Gavaldón (La diosa arrodillada, 1947) – excelled in this form, sometimes leaning towards surrealism (like Buñuel), in other cases towards a sober tone of urban disenchantment, as in Alejandro Galindo’s socially critical masterpiece, Campeón sin corona (1946). These filmmakers could also draw upon a system of stars who often achieved notoriety far beyond Mexico. María Félix, known as “La Doña”, Dolores del Rio, Pedro Armendáriz and Arturo de Córdova were icons of popular mythology, fully comparable to the classic movie stars of Hollywood.
In the 1950s Mexican film production reached ist peak – while at the same moment ceasing to function as a viable industry: the state monopoly system collapsed and television finished the job. What remains today are the films themselves, the best evidence of a completely independent and effective film culture that has few equals in the history of cinema.
The retrospective has been organized in collaboration with the Filmoteca de la UNAM and with the support of the Mexican Embassy and the Mexican Cultural Institute in Vienna.