Films forged by revolt

Mexican Cinema
August 23, 1996

Mexican cinema, the subject of this excellent anthology, goes back almost as far as cinema itself. According to Aurelio de los Reyes, the early Mexican cinema, forged in the conditions of the revolution, developed greater skill in the second decade of the century in the construction of narrative documentary than filmmakers in North America. Indeed they were the first film-makers anywhere to develop what he calls "a local vernacular form of representation of contemporary happenings". The "golden age" begins in the mid-1930s, signalled by the first great Mexican-made commercial success in Latin America, All en el Rancho Grande (Over on the Big Ranch) by Fernando de Fuentes; the subject of a fascinating essay here by Emilio Garcia Riera. It continues after the war and between 1949 and 1989, annual production figures reached 100 features or more, some 16 times; although in 1991, the year of Como agua para chocolate, it plunged to a mere 34.

Like similar industries, that of Mexico display genres and styles mostly derived from Hollywood models, but strongly adapted to the national culture. Mexican melodrama, or the ranchera, are genres with their own delights, conventions and history, which scholars have recently been rediscovering; while Como Agua para Chocolate belongs to a tradition of the Mexican revolution on screen which begins with the revolution itself. There are several essays here on these topics, including a suggestive piece by Andres de Luna on the fictional reconstruction of the revolution. On the one hand, he observes, the whole of Mexican cinema is filled with allusions to historical figures and events; on the other, history was a headache for the producers, because "at stake was the establishment of a paradigm or a conceptual model that would serve as the official version of the events".

Critic and screenwriter Thom s Perez Turrent contributes three essays - one of them on Bu$uel in Mexico - and Carlos Monsiv is, one of the country's leading cultural critics, has two. The first dissects a series of myths about Mexican cinema; the second, which discusses the character of its relation with the audience, delivers, in a few pages, a sociological analysis of the impact of cinema as a symptom of modernity more penetrating than many a book, and not just applicable to Mexico.

While this is probably not a book that anyone will want to read from cover to cover, it provides solid documentation, beginning with a detailed year-by-year chronicle of Mexican history and cinema from 1895 to 1994, and ending with a dictionary of Mexican films and film-makers. This English edition is a revised version of a volume originally published in France by the Centre Pompidou.

Michael Chanan is senior lecturer in film and video, London College of Printing.

Mexican Cinema

Editor - Paulo Antonio Paranagua
ISBN - 0 85170 515 4 and 516 2
Publisher - British Film Institute
Price - £50.00 and £18.99
Pages - 321

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