The Mexican Revolution wasn’t one rebellion, but several. Beginning in 1910, military parties grappled like wrestlers, the winner changing on a regular basis. Political stability needed more than a decade, and over two million casualties; till then, peasant armies clashed on fields day and night.
Guns, blood, shifting loyalties—all ripe for cinema, but Mexico’s film industry didn’t emerge until years after the chief battles. By the time Fernando de Fuentes, Mexico’s best early filmmaker, addressed the Revolution (with a trilogy consisting of Prisoner 13, El Compadre Mendoza, and Let’s Go with Pancho Villa), nearly a quarter-century had passed since the first uprising. The trilogy is showing at this year’s New York Film Festival, in prints from Mexico City, in honor of the Revolution’s 100th anniversary—and, coincidentally, the 200th anniversary of Mexico’s War of Independence from Spain. To say that this is a rare treat would be understatement. Not only were these films unknown in the States when they were made; Mexican cinema didn’t have an international reputation, period, until de Fuentes’s later films.
The three films don’t have common characters or a continuing storyline. Each focuses on a different sector of society—Prisoner 13 on the urban military rulership, Let’s Go with Pancho Villa on the rural peasant rebels, and El Compadre Mendoza, the middle film, on the bourgeois civilian class torn between the two. Yet the films’ strongest commonality is sympathy for the Revolution’s casualties, regardless of which side is being spotlighted. I don’t know what de Fuentes’s personal politics were, but the trilogy’s compassion for every group’s victims offers a profoundly liberal—I mean humanist—perspective.
Prisoner 13, the crudest film of the trilogy both technologically and narratively, approaches its subject with blunt satire. The film opens with one of Colonel Carrasco’s men telling him, “You are so drunk that you can’t see your cards anymore”; the colonel (Alfredo del Diestro), all perfect thick mustache and burbling chin fat, then reaches for a bottle. He pays greater attention to it, and to the flagrantly phallic thermos on his desk, than he does to his wife and child. Family dynamics unfold didactically: “You know very well that if it weren’t for the kid, I’d have left you long ago,” she says, and he answers, “You haven’t left because you know that without me, you’d starve.”
Suffice to say that mama and child do run off, and that years later Carrasco unknowingly marks his own boy for death by firing squad. Throughout, you can’t help noticing the ways in which the film calls attention to itself: the telegraphed dialogue; the blatant typecasting, with the innocent girl a frail hand-wringing lily and the oily counselor a slim bespectacled snob; the brazen editing, (cut—counselor’s eyes to girl’s knees); the way de Fuentes shoots many scenes head on, in theatrical long shot, the camera in the position of the seated audience member.
Watching the drama unfold in such a way might make you feel like you’re being offered a Brechtian lesson play, with a song of capitulation the lone missing piece. And indeed, you’d be right to feel so. Though the Revolution had officially ended when de Fuentes made Prisoner 13, fierce military men were keeping the peace. Simply put, the film depicts leaders destroying their country’s future, and while brutal, the movie’s also quite fun. De Fuentes even plays “Mock the Censor” by inserting not just one, but two, silly cop-out endings.
As with all period films, it’s useful to approach these movies with a double-consciousness, reading them both as statements on the periods during which their action unfolds and on the periods during which they were shot. In 1934, the year after Prisoner 13’s release, the corrupt military leadership stepped down in favor of Lázaro Cárdenas, a politician so honest that he cut his own salary in half. A good change, for certain, but one that took getting used to, especially for those in the upper class attached to the old guard. And that conflict—having to choose a political group, which easily becomes the same as choosing the direction of one’s life—is El Compadre Mendoza’s theme.
Its protagonist, again played by del Diestro (a wonderful ham actor, with gigantic, darting Alberto Sordi eyes and piles of blubber that he keeps dumping toward the audience), feels torn between the military men who have always protected him and the Zapatistas (followers of lower-class rebel leader Emiliano Zapata) whom he considers friends. The film, far more technically fluid than its predecessor—a freely and continuously moving camera, lots of medium shots and close-ups, a lilting semi-waltz score that bridges the frequent fades—is a perfect film school text for how to match images. Example: A painting of Zapata fades to one of military dictator Victoriano Huerta, a pendulum swing the movie often returns to.
Mendoza ultimately can’t hang both on his wall; inherent in the title is the suggestion that he can be a compadre, but not a revolutionary himself. When he gives his newborn son a Zapatista friend’s name rather than his own (“Rosalio’s an ugly name”), he’s also longing for his child to join the tradition he never could. His attempts to bridge the gap lead to tragedy, as we know they will: While Mendoza is getting the Zapatista and the colonel to shake hands, the camera stays focused on the rebel’s gun belt.
El Compadre Mendoza isn’t a masterpiece, I don’t think, though I’d like to see it again to be sure (the film tends to pile up similar motifs separately, rather than meld them into a newer, greater whole). Yet it’s still gorgeous, and by far the best of the trilogy. Comparing it with Prisoner 13 also shows how much range de Fuentes had, as though he tried to follow M with My Darling Clementine. Let’s Go with Pancho Villa, made two years into Cárdenas’s rule, shows him trying out Red River: quick, fluid movement, lots of music, smooth unassuming transitions, clean sound, rapid action, and extended colloquial humor as boys let themselves be boys. Yet the film also possesses the agitprop expository dialogue so common to big-budget classical Hollywood productions, without Prisoner 13’s self-awareness; when the protagonist says, “For our sake we must go join Pancho Villa,” you believe him. And that’s the problem.
Villa was the northern guerrillero to Zapata’s southerner. His follower’s name here is Tiburcio, and Antonio Frausto gives a far more subdued, naturalistic performance than the theatrical del Diestro gave in the previous two films (side note: De Fuentes’s actors are frequently wonderful). As a result, we’re drawn into the emotion of his situation, rather than led to contemplate the fact of it. Unlike in the previous two films, we’re asked to walk much of the critical distance ourselves.
Tiburcio’s situation is that he wants to succeed in Villa’s army, and bring his other “lions” (the gang of six’s nickname) up alongside him. The first half of the movie is essentially camaraderie and gunsmoke, all well and good if not particularly distinguished, especially since actors and camera both fall static whenever there’s a group scene (nice effect though; men charge in foreground while gunsmoke envelops a tree like fog in the background). The movie gets most interesting once Tiburcio’s men start dying for the cause, especially since he’s at least indirectly responsible for several of their deaths—and sometimes directly so.
Meanwhile, the movie sums up Villa in a hurry: The general is told that a group of musicians has been captured. He decides he has enough musicians already, and orders them executed. It’s no stretch to imagine how much Villa might ultimately value Tiburcio, as well as to consider how Tiburcio might respond. The film’s last shot shows Tiburcio walking off by himself into darkness, gradually disappearing, an image of a man obliterating himself. And for what?
The Mexican writer Octavio Paz once claimed, “It is the Revolution, the magical word, the word that is going to change everything, that is going to bring us immense delight and a quick death.” Of de Fuentes’s three films, this statement seems most salient to Let’s Go with Pancho Villa, but I do believe that many Mexicans came to feel that way about the Revolution in real life. By 1936, Cárdenas had created welfare and work programs for the poor, arrested or deported many of Mexico’s corrupt former military leaders, and abolished the death penalty together. De Fuentes’s films, set during wartime, were made with the hope for and knowledge of future peace.
It’s useful to compare de Fuentes’s mythmaking with Hollywood’s subsequent treatment of the Revolution, particularly Elia Kazan’s 1952 film biography Viva Zapata! In Kazan’s film, Pancho Villa gifts Zapata with the opportunity to lead people because he can read; by contrast, de Fuentes’s films show educated people abusing the uneducated, and more or less calls Pancho Villa a shit. Yet, at the same time, Viva Zapata! offers some fruitful problems very relevant to de Fuentes. “Can a man born in violence properly prepare for peace?” a prisoner asks Zapata, and indeed the whole film struggles with the question of how far war and peace can be kept apart in the brain (coincidentally, this is John McCain’s favorite film).
The issue of whether the same people should be allowed to lead both war and peacetime efforts has turned up in many other movies (The Searchers comes most immediately to mind), but it’s far, far more relevant to politics today. All during the de Fuentes screenings my mind kept wandering over to South America, Africa, and Asia, where many countries have either recently ended dictatorships or are still struggling to break free of them. But whether people have medicine and clean drinking water is more important than who’s governing them. The de Fuentes films are showing to celebrate an anniversary, yet they offer a timeless message. Earning peace is hard, sure, but earning prosperity’s even harder.
The 48th New York Film festival runs from September 24 to October 10. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.