Roberto Gavaldón's Mortal Visions

A Museum of Modern Art retrospective showcases the bold visual style and dark tone of the films by the Mexican director.
Ela Bittencourt

Macario. Courtesy Filmoteca de la UNAM

The celebrated Mexican filmmaker Roberto Gavaldón was born in Juárez and worked as a film extra in California before returning to his native country, where he worked for ten years as assistant director, perfecting the technical aspects of his trade. He then launched his career and during the next four decades made over fifty features, a number of which are celebrated as Mexico’s finest. Gavaldón’s time in America makes some of these films—particularly the noirs—resonate deeply with the darkness and the cynicism that pervade American crime noirs of the 1940s and 50s. The current retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art sheds light not only on Galvadón’s supreme craft and visceral storytelling but also his profoundly pessimistic vision.

Gavaldón’s early sentimental melodramas—such as his renowned debut feature, La barraca (1945), and also one of his later great epics, Macario (1960)—are marked by the austere beauty of natural landscapes and by Gavaldón’s feel for the lives of the poor and the wretched. Both of these films are set in arid territories: La barraca in Valencia, Spain, where an impoverished farmer can’t pay his debt and is forced out of his modest home. The wooden house, la barraca, gains a new owner some ten years later, but despite the new farmer’s inventiveness, the family suffers the prejudice and spite of neighbors, and meets an equally tragic end when their home burns down.

The neo-realist approach of Gavaldón’s cinema is bleak, but his later work, as is the case with Macario, is inflected with the poignant richness of Mexican spirituality, particularly its proximity to death. In Macario, a poor laborer dreams of having a roasted chicken all to himself so that just once he doesn’t have to share it with his many children. His pitying wife finds a way to realize his dream, but as the man settles to a solitary feast in the wilderness, a series of strange incidents occur: men, or apparitions, visit him, determined to share his meal. He resists at first, but finally gives in to the mysterious figure that so much resembles his own wretched state he can’t help but commiserate. For this, he is rewarded with a miraculous potion, which cures illnesses. A miracle, but one which comes at a price, and will bring this poor farmer great wealth, but also envy and misfortune.

Macario’s folkloric bend and desert-like settings are full of hallucinatory evocations of death: white barren skulls, glimpses of cemeteries, death masks, and the elaborate rituals that the farmer cum charlatan—or healer, depending on how you see him—performs at the bedsides of the ill and dying. Macario is also a story of greed, of how a man wastes the gifts he is given the minute he seeks to make money from them. Which he is bound to do: it’s his nature.

This skeptical vision of humanity and of the permanence, the fear—but perhaps also the nostalgic longing for death—are even present in Gavaldón’s sleeker mid-career pictures, cast in a film noir vein. Among these, Night Falls (1952) has the slimmest dramatic arc, but nevertheless proves a compulsory viewing, thanks to the brutal, reckless performance of Pedro Almendáriz as the notorious jai alai champ Marcos Arizmendi. Marcos is a cold-blooded sportsman and womanizer, with the brutish force of a hoodlum. It is a mystery why so many women pine for him, but when he gets himself involved with a squeamish unhappy young socialite, his good luck turns rotten. Night Falls comes off at times as a strained melodrama, but Gavaldón’s talent for figuration, aided by his cinematographer, Jack Draper, is such that we can’t but admire the adrenaline-raising sports arena scenes, juxtaposed with the moody Mexico-by-night backdrops or the languid bar and home interiors. From the start, it’s clearly a world marked by doom, by the Manichean order of good-and-evil that Marcos defies and gets him in the end.

Night Falls. Courtesy Cineteca Nacional.

Gavaldón creates a vivid sense of the underworld, or, even more so, of the human psyche’s propensity to give in to resentment and envy. This same pessimism exudes from such American noirs of the 40s and 50s as Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1946), Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1950), and Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953), and the Mexican maestro’s best noirs easily match his Yankee counterparts in their profound pessimism and the twisted complexity of their characters. In the Palm of Your Hand (1951), a darkly witty story of multiple double-crossings features Professor Jaime Karim (Arturo de Córdova), a charlatan posing as a clairvoyant who claims to have trained with the best gurus in India lures miserable widows, gullible old men, and socially aspiring ingénues to his parlor. Helped by the gossip cleverly gathered by his morally conflicted yet obliging beautician girlfriend, Karim is after riches. When an eligible widow turns up, Karim moves to ensnare her. What he doesn't know is that Ada Cisneros de Romano—brilliantly played by Leticia Palma as one of cinema’s most effortlessly poisonous villains—is his devil’s match.

We are kept guessing who will outdo who in this spirited noir, in which just about everyone has a murderous motive or a secret to hide. True to the memento-mori motif of his earlier films, Gavaldón also frequently hints at predestination—we can never tell if Karim and Ada are meant to hate or to love each other, but they do seem fated to meet. Death is also present, particularly in the torments and premonitions of Karim’s preoccupied girlfriend, who foresees Karim’s downfall and the retribution that death eventually exerts. Or as one character puts it in Night Falls, “What goes up must go down. Today you’re no more than yesterday and less than tomorrow.”

Eternal damnation is also the trick on which turns one of Gavaldón’s finest, relatively underrated films, The Other One (1946), in which a woman passionately envious of her sister’s riches tries to usurp her place. It’s an almost Shakespearean arc, yet Gavaldón keeps the passions under cool control, setting up in detail the similarities and differences between the two sisters, Magdalena and María, both played by Dolores del Rio. María’s slow degeneration, as her meager surroundings start to oppress her, makes up for a fine psychological portrait. What María doesn’t foresee—and here Gavaldón shows that he loves Hitchcockian twists—is that her sibling herself dabbled in a gruesome murder. To take Magdalena’s place is to then escape one suspicion of murder, only to land in a murderess’s shoes. María then is a prisoner of fate who risks all, and then finds herself besieged by both, her guilt and direct threats.

As in Gavaldón’s other crime stories, The Other One’s settings are lit with high contrasts and deep shadows, drawing out the richness and elegance of black-and-white photography. The evocative cinematography by Alex Phillips also plays with reflections, with crossed glances, doubles and multiples, since María is never certain that she can fully pass as her sister’s doppelganger—a cinematic approach that is both visually and psychologically compelling. Similarly to his epic dramas, Gavaldón makes sharp observations of class differences and the ruthless coolness of the higher-ups towards the less privileged, though here he does it en passant, sticking to the necessities of plot. The dreamier sequences show the director’s true love for the technical aspects of cinema, particularly in its ability to evoke deepest emotions, and to summon forth hallucinatory impressions—even stark visions of death. 

"Roberto Gavaldón: Night Falls in Mexico" runs April 25 - May 5, 2019 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

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