SPAN 480 – Film Review
March 26, 2010
(NOTE: this review is about the Latino Film festival in Arcata, CA March 9-11, 2010).
The most important issue established during the recent Latino Film Festival in our community was an awareness and situated historical context of the Mexican Revolution within 2010, the Centennial celebration. It’s been a hundred years, and the festival was an excellent introduction not only to place-time, events, and historical figures but also to the underlying power politics that transported Mexico into revolution.
The three films shown at the Festival are cultural products representative of the movement recognized as the Mexican Revolution. These films also reveal commonalities in how their characters treat issues of Power, Ethics, and Moral Responsibility. Each film reveals a similar power dynamic, which is an inverse relationship between Power (and how it is utilized) and Ethical / Moral Responsibility (and how that affects communities). Generally speaking, what is exposed in each film was that as Power over larger populations increased in a continuum (individual à family à village à City à Stateà Country), the Moral and Ethical responsibility of those in power decreased by proportion. Conversely, those characters who exhibited elements of strong moral fiber or ethical decision making tended not to hold power. For them, the only path to freedom (from coercive power) and out of oppression was Revolution. Lastly, as another element of Revolution, in all three films the audience is meant to take the point of view of the oppressed. This is VERY important, muy importante; for each film to successfully signify knowledge of the Revolution’s goals, a veritable visual revolution must take place in the theater for the audience. The films “celebrate the movement by taking one back in time to the fields of Mexico”[i].
Essentially, there are two kinds of power represented in these films: Colonial Power, held by wealthy landowners descended from Spanish conquistadors and non-native European invaders, and Indigenous-People Power, which is more democratically structured, shared power having roots in ethics and morals, and coming out of the native traditions of the original inhabitants of Mexico itself.
The two forms of power are on opposite ends of a continuum, and what all three films embody are the human struggle of leadership transfer from Colonial to Indigenous centers of Power. The filmmakers portray characters caught in the triangle of Power, Ethics, and Morality in order to reveal the underlying power politics that fuel a revolution. The films portray the shift of power that occurs during a revolution and inherently turns the power triangle upside down, moving the center of power away from the few and into the hands of the many, in this case the indigenous people of Mexico. At the start of the Festival, Dr. Escareño said, “The unique nature of these films is they are visual artifacts captured right after the end of the Mexican Revolution. They were among the very first films produced in Mexican cinema, and it is unusual to have such a historic event documented so close to it’s occurrence.” In this paper I will briefly discuss the films as they appeared in order of the program: “El Compadre Mendoza”(1933)[ii], “Vamanos con Pancho Villa” (1935[iii]), and “El Principio (1972)”[iv].
“El Compadre Mendoza” by Fernando de Fuente
From the comical scenes of Rosario’s butler switching paintings of Huerte and Villa to the heartbreaking ending, “El Compadre Mendoza” is an excellent early morality film, showing the tragic cost of not choosing sides in a civil war. One doesn’t lose the Dramatic irony in the film’s title – as Rosario was “friend” to both sides, selling arms in order to make money, but in the end, no one was his friend or on his side – Rosario gambled everything (the love and respect of his family, friendship with Felipe`) and lost it all. Note that Rosario sells out his friend, the bandit Felipe to his government “friends”, even more corrupt in their concentration of absolute power, lacking all ethics or moral responsibility. Rosario’s power at that moment is comparable to those he lords over, and thus reduced, he gives in to the greater power structure. We watch Rosario’s character struggle with his poor judgment. The audience can see he is capable of taking moral responsibility, but chooses not to, and thus falls.
“Vamanos con Pancho Villa” by Fernando de Fuente
This film was representative of what common people believed Pancho-Villa to be, an idealized and memorable revolutionary figure, and how he disappointed them. Following the Power-Moral continuum, it might be argued that he started with a high level of ethics and moral responsibility, but lost much of that as he gained power. A dramatic foil to Villa, the last remaining villager from the “Lions of San Pedro”, maintains his dignity by adhering to his own high ethics by leaving Villa’s army after being forced to kill his compadre’, who Villa feared had smallpox. Later during the evening discussion, Peter Blakemore mentioned that Latino historians painted Villa as a “quaint, mythical, almost quixotic figure” with his lack of military technology during the war. Dr Escareño juxtaposed those histories with controversy, telling us what Mexicanos at that moment in time said of Villa, “Pancho Villa’s men killed my sister…they killed my cousins, my brothers…They raped my mother…”[v])
“El Principio” by Gonzalo Martinez Ortega
Using elements of “magical realism” (as Dr. George Potamianos pointed out[vi]), “El Principio” is Mexican New Wave cinema using several flashbacks to tell the story of a local factory owner Ernesto, the company town he controls, and how he instigates Revolution thus ending his reign. It’s a small, powerful story representing the larger reality in Mexico at the time.
Beginning with haunting images of men crawling like Wolves, group raping a Latina – this visual metaphor of primary ¡Chingada!, defined by Dr. Escareño – as a “metaphor for the struggle of Mexico, and as a term used by Octavio Paz for the rape of the first indigenous woman, by Spaniards…since that seminal event, Mexico has never recovered…” and has struggled for identity and independence from her dark Colonial history. Other animalistic observations are drawn. With the loss of the original, respected Patroñs from the town, (Ernesto’s grandfather and father), “El Principio” plays out like one big Alpha-Beta male battle for dominance, reminiscent of a pride of lions in Africa. We see the living former Alpha-male (Ernesto’s father), now mute and crippled, useless to his community, though he was popular with factory workers. His son Ernesto tries to gain control of the workers forcefully, not unlike a Conquistador. Ernesto is portrayed as all power, no ethics or morals whatsoever; he exhibits brutal, misplaced power – egotistical, abusive, and lethal. Disconnected from his constituents (i.e. the factory workers), he sees them as a threat, and a local battle ensues – an ideal metaphor for the kinds of struggles that took place all over Mexico during the Revolution.
Continuing with the Alpha-male concept, we perceive that the character with increased moral backbone is at the bottom of this power triangle – the Blacksmith is by far the strongest man in village (physically and ethically). However, due to Class restrictions, he struggles against Ernesto from the bottom of the power triangle, and is ultimately assassinated by Ernesto during the uprising.
In films and theater, when ghosts appear, ¡atención de la paga! The flashback scene of Ernesto’s son seeing his great-grandfather release Ernesto’s horse is akin to the ghost of Hamlet’s dead father appearing to Hamlet, revealing the uncle as his slayer. (“Murder most foul, as in the best it is; But this most foul, strange and unnatural.”[vii]) This is a blatant foreshadowing of the demise of Ernesto, revealing ancestral disrespect and disownment of the former leader for his grandson, Ernesto.
There was one interesting gender study in the film of Ernesto’s gun, a filmic phallic symbol; initially the gun follows the classic movie rule (has to be used once shown), but subverts the paradigm by allowing the dispossessed to gain revenge on the oppressor with the original murder weapon. Also interestingly, the only time Ernesto regrets his power abuses is near the film’s end, during the dying of his father. The disrespect of his ancestors finally wears him down, and in his weak, reflective moment, he is cut down in the scene where the kept prostitute kills Ernesto with his own gun. This scene is emblematic of the Revolution, the release of the subjugated using the tools of the oppressor, with an altered outcome.
ALICE in Wonderland = Revolution?
Even today, the idea of Revolution appears in films in order to resolve conflicts between sides – even in a Disney film! A current example showing in theaters now (March, 2010) is the popular Tim Burton vehicle, “Alice in Wonderland – in 3D”. Comparing the popular film to those from the festival is easy: observe the impetus for battle in Wonderland between the White Queen (representing Purity, an unspoiled country, indigenous peoples…), invaded and overturned by her jealous sister, the Red Queen, her hair blood Red, who destroys the White Queen’s land with red soldiers (led by Crispin Glover’s armored Knave of Hearts). She utilizes new technology (a large fire breathing Dragon), and chaos ensues, much like the disparity of the battles shown in “El Compadre Mendoza” where the peasant soldiers are mowed down by machine guns.
Near the end of the film, Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter, a powerless character with tremendous ethics and morals, leads the throng of common people and animals to Revolution and, with the help of a Champion warrior (a magical Pancho Villa in the guise of ‘Alice’), defeats the Red Queen, democratically integrates the red citizens, and reestablishes the White queen to her rightful place as leader of the land. One could argue this is a contemporary symbolic scene of ¡Chingada! Being represented, original rape, ravaging the Garden of Eden, where the original people are avenged only through Revolution.
In conclusion, the films viewed during the Latino Film Festival are cultural artifacts of historic events of Mexican Revolution. They showed historically based characters acting along defined Class-based lines within an ethical and morality power play, and where they started heavily influenced their own direction and the outcome of their community and ultimately, an entire country. During this Centennial, we must reflect upon the images shown, and we must reconsider how that past informs Mexico’s present struggle and how it will influence its future.
Comment from Dr. Itzia Fernandez Escareño, Arcata, CA March 09, 2010.
[ii] El Compadre Mendoza”(1933). Director: Fernando de Fuente.
[iii] “Vamanos con Pancho Villa” (1935). Director: Fernando de Fuente.
[iv] “El Principio”(1972). Director: Gonzalo Martinez Ortega.
[v] March 10, 2010 – post film Panel discussion with Peter Blakemore, Dr. Escareño, et. al.
[vi] Comment from Dr. George Potamianos, March 11, 2010.
[vii] Shakespeare, William. Hamlet; Act 1, Scene 5.