[10 April 2007]
Even before the final skirmishes of the Revolution had subsided, President Elias Calles was busy institutionalizing its memory with the creation of the PNR (National Revolutionary Party). As the Party changed its name to the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) during the ‘40s, it began to auction off its revolutionary inheritances for quick graft, rigged elections, and political violence.
While the government gradually abandoned the Revolution, Mexican cinema rewove its sundry and complicated histories into a singular, nationalistic spectacle filled with valiant leaders, easy morals, stunning imagery, and catchy songs. As years intervened, this movie mythology crystallized into official history, its figures serving as a readily accessible set of “extras” for anyone who wanted to claim the Revolution as his/her own, as seen during the 2006 presidential elections when supporters of López Obrador sold pictures of Pancho Villa sitting in the presidential chair like so many production stills in order to suggest that their candidate’s suspect loss was yet another instance of the Revolution betrayed.
However, the ‘30s offers a very different story. The decade’s proximity to the actual events of the Revolution foreclosed any chance to reify it into a theme-park memory. Dazed from more than 15 years’ fighting and all the moral and political ambiguities that entails, people were simply trying to come to terms with the new Mexico. Cinema played a key role in mediating audiences’ understanding of the Revolution, and no other director was better suited to take up the challenge than Fernando de Fuentes.
De Fuentes stands as Mexico’s most important director of the ‘30s. His body of work encapsulates the major commercial and political tendencies of Mexican cinema at the time. Allá en el Rancho Grande (1936) initiated the genre of the commedia ranchera, which proved to be incredibly profitable both domestically and internationally. As a result, the film’s commercial success dictated the industry’s future investments into creating low-budget, melodramatic productions that held popular appeal and significant profits. Yet preceding this international acclaim, de Fuentes created the Revolution Trilogy, the most ambitious cinematic attempt by any Mexican director to this day to address the historical complexities and moral ambiguities of the Revolution.
If any theme unites the trilogy, it is that of fallen ideals. De Fuentes possesses a meticulously critical gaze that chronicles the multiple ways in which both sides of the Revolution have undercut their own goals and community. Yet within this critique, de Fuentes empathizes with the betrayer by acknowledging the vast psychic costs that betrayal requires. It is precisely both de Fuentes’ nuanced interpretation of history and empathy that makes the Revolution Trilogy an amazing achievement.
The trajectory of the trilogy moves from a more traditional critique of the counter-revolutionary government to an eventual deconstruction of the ideals of the Revolution itself. Prisoner 13, the first of the trilogy, embodies a fairly routine outlook that investigates the government’s opportunistic and corrupt practices. The film takes place during Victoriano Huerta’s reign, one Mexico’s most disliked leaders.
Julián Carrasco (Alfredo del Diestro), the film’s protagonist, is a drunken government functionary who beats his wife and causes her to flee with their son. Years pass since his wife’s and son’s desertion. Carrasco has just orchestrated a dragnet to apprehend dozens of revolutionary sympathizers. Yet one prisoner’s family bribes Carrasco into releasing their son. As a result, Carrasco must find a substitute prisoner, who ends up being none other than his long-lost son, Juan (Arturo Campoamor). The prisoners are to be executed in the morning as Marta (Adela Sequeyro), Juan’s mother, tries to contact Carrasco in order to warn him that their son has been apprehended by his men.
De Fuentes skillfully utilizes the film’s melodramatic plotline to create a work of both emotional intensity and psychological subtlety. For example, the day following the dragnet, de Fuentes creates an ambiance of paranoia through carefully composed framing and camera movement. A woman carrying a basket is voyeuristically tracked from behind as she leaves her house. After following her for some time, the camera then pans to the right, searching for new prey. As the camera scans, we hear two women at a fruit-stand discuss the previous night’s raid where the soldiers apprehended one of their bosses. The scene cuts to other locals gossiping about the raid until finally ending on a high-angle shot that randomly gropes over the city’s crowd, making everyone a suspect under the constant surveillance of the government’s invisible eye.
Interestingly, de Fuentes refuses to totally demonize Carrasco. As he accepts the bribe, he assures the family that he is “honorable” and “doing the noble thing.” These words, however, are addressed more to his own guilty conscience than to those around him, yet they offer no solace, causing Carrasco to soon drink himself into incoherence and fall into a deep slumber as his son is being jailed and prepared for the firing squad. The sins of the father have been bequeathed to the son, revealing a government that has sacrificed its children for nothing more than a quick bribe.
El Compadre Mendoza mainly critiques the middle-men of the Revolution: the war profiteers. Rosalío Mendoza (Alfredo del Diestro), a hacendado (landowner), uses the ideals of each side of the Revolution to shield his ultimate profit motives. His quickly changing and superficial allegiances are represented by the photographs of both Huerta and Emiliano Zapata that he readily keeps at hand. While manipulating both sides, Mendoza befriends a Zapatista, Felipe Nieto (Antonio R. Rausto), who becomes a godfather to his child. By establishing a personal relationship between Mendoza and Nieto while also using Nieto to symbolize the grander ideals of the Zapatatista movement, the film fuses psychological depth with political insight.
El Compadre Mendoza links Mendoza’s exploitation of the Revolution with his domestic exploitation of his wife, Dolores (Carmen Guerrero). Early on in the film, Mendoza seeks Dolores’ father’s approval for marriage. The father consents as long as his daughter doesn’t object. Mendoza replies with shock, “Why should she object?” During this reply the camera tracks towards Dolores’ face revealing the despondent look of a woman trapped. Her image then dissolves into her indifferent face underneath a wedding vale. Just as the images of the Revolution cloak Mendoza’s mercenary drive, the semblances of marriage veil the domestic misery that defines the Mendoza home. In both cases, Mendoza sees their artifice merely as means to his own ends.
Comparably, the film reveals how the Revolution will always be doomed as long as its ideals obscure its vision of existing reality. Nieto tells Mendoza, “One day there’ll be justice for those of us who fight for ideals.” However, he doesn’t realize how his words are falling on deaf ears. With his focus on a better future, Nieto remains blind to the complexities of the present. If anything, he is under Mendoza’s spell, as the lyrics of a mariachi song suggest, making Nieto into Mendoza’s star-crossed lover: “She’s got you so stuck-up, my dear friend / I don’t know what she gave you.” Unable to see through the artifice, Nieto confides in the very man who will lead him to his execution.
Yet Mendoza is also a victim of his own illusions. We see him gradually torn between his growing friendship with Nieto and his desire to obtain the money needed to transport his family safely to Mexico City. Both friendship and family have long since been sacrificed by his mercenary spirit, causing him to betray the very man who once saved his life from another Zapatista. Finally, the film ends with Mendoza’s self-alienation, looking on as the troops surround his house to ambush Nieto. A tracking shot moves in on Mendoza’s agonized face, trapped by the results of his own actions. Mendoza’s practices have come full circle, destroying family, friendship, and him in the process.
Let’s Go with Pancho Villa is the most impressive of the trilogy. Subsidized by the Cárdenas government, the film had an unbelievable wealth of resources at its disposal. Perhaps most surprising is that this government-funded film holds the most critical stance towards the Revolution. Ultimately, it interrogates both the role of machismo and the tactics employed by revolutionary leaders by following the exploits of six men from San Pablo who join Pancho Villa’s forces.
Initially, the film offers a hagiographic portrayal of Villa (Domingo Soler) and the Revolution. A romantic mariachi song plays as we see revolutionaries perched on top of trains, riffles proudly in hand. Soldaderas pat tortillas. Villa, dressed in common garb, distributes corn to the peasants. A sense of community and purpose pervades this picturesque scene as the men from San Pablo who call themselves “The Lions” are introduced to Villa, a man of the people. But as the film progresses both the Lion’s macho ideals and Villa’s actions become problematic.
The Lions state their macho ideals one night around a campfire by reflecting on how they want to die. One claims to leave him where he falls. Another doesn’t want to die a coward. Another wants to die fighting, and so on. All get their wish, yet each succeeding death becomes more of an ironic comment on the ideals initially proposed. The first two men die in battle, yet the third is unintentionally killed by his regiment. The fourth death is one of the most brutal and needless. Three of the Lions enter a cantina after battle. They are invited to join another group of revolutionaries already there. Their combined number, 13, symbolizes bad luck and certain death for the men. To break the spell, one revolutionary challenges the Lions to a game of chance where they will all sit in a circle and toss a loaded gun. The one it shoots will supposedly be the biggest coward. Despite recognizing the stupidity of the challenge, the Lions accept it in order to prove their courage. Here the insanity of machismo is laid bare, revealing its utter lack of purpose but to devolve into a fratricidal force, anathema to the Revolution’s communal goals. The scene raises the critical question: is machismo a means to revolutionary ends or is the Revolution a means to display one’s machismo?
Our second encounter with Villa shows him training the Lions to shoot a gun without removing it from its holster. The ideals of a fair fight must be abandoned for revolutionary necessity. Later, we see Villa ordering the execution of captured musicians because his troops already have enough musicians to entertain them. Villa’s final act is the most devastating. By now, only two Lions remain: the eldest, Tiburcio (Antonio R. Frausto) and the youngest, Miguel (Ramón Vallarino), who has contracted smallpox. Villa orders Tiburcio to shoot and burn his friend since Miguel’s condition endangers the troops. This occurs only moments after Miguel pleaded with Tiburcio to return home. But instead of having the foresight to look after Miguel’s best interests, Tiburcio led him to certain death. The patriarch, once again, fails. After reluctantly carrying out his duty, Tiburcio returns to Villa’s service. But instead of welcoming Tiburcio and acknowledging his difficult task, Villa shuns him, afraid that Tiburcio might be infected. Having killed his surrogate son and now, abandoned by his leader, Tiburcio picks-up his belongings and walks off into the darkness, a forlorn and broken footnote of the Revolution.
As despondent as the aforementioned ending might sound, the “extras” reveal an alternate ending discovered in 1973 that had been banned by Cárdenas’ government because of its even bleaker scenario. Years have passed. Tiburcio sits at home with his son, reading about Villa’s exploits in the paper. His wife and daughter make dinner. Tiburcio romanticizes his exploits with Villa, telling his son that someday Villa will return for their help. One gets the sense that Tiburcio is simply storytelling, not actually believing his own words . . . until the apparition appears.
Villa and his troops arrive at Tiburcio’s doorstep. Claiming that Tiburcio abandoned the Revolution, Villa now insists that he rejoin. But confronted by the reality of the situation, Tiburcio says that he cannot abandon his family. After listening to Tiburcio’s pleas (and helping himself to the wife’s dinner), Villa shoots Tiburcio’s wife and daughter, claiming, “Now you have no one to stay for.” Tiburcio raises a rifle at Villa but is then killed by one of Villa’s men. The son, crying and alone, has no choice but to join the Revolution. Any ambiguity that the censored ending might have held is here dispelled: the Revolution is the destroyer of the very thing that it set-out to save: the people. Underneath the romanticized memories and the popular accounts lurks the brute violence of machismo, setting out to consume anything that obstructs its way.
Quite simply, the Revolution Trilogy is an incredibly important body of work. Not only does it exemplify the brilliance of de Fuentes’ direction, but it also reveals a time when popular cinema was actively engaging with the complexities of the Revolution. Before being transformed into an easily consumable myth, the Revolution spilled its ambiguous inheritances from mainstream screens in the hopes that audiences might recognize at least some of its mixed experiences as their own.
Chris Robé is an associate professor of film and media studies. He's written for various journals such as Jump Cut, Cinema Journal, Framework, and The Velvet Light Trap. His monograph Left of Hollywood: Cinema, Modernism, and the Emergence of U.S. Left Film Culture was published by University of Texas Press. In his spare time he agitates for his friendly faculty union. He is currently researching contemporary media activist formations from the 1970s to the present.