Famously Sergei Eisenstein worked on an unfinished film in Mexico in 1931 and early 1932. The visit to this country came at the end of a tour that took in Europe and the USA, including Hollywood. Europe was productive, Eisenstein was involved in making a short avant-garde film at a conference of progressive filmmakers. Hollywood was [predictably] unproductive though Eisenstein did work on some unfinished screenplays. In Mexico he found an empathetic environment and, for a time, was supported by the US socialist Upton Sinclair in producing a film. The film was to be ¡Que viva México!, which remains one of those lost but tantalising projects in film history.
Now Peter Greenaway has written and directed a film about Eisenstein’s sojourn in Mexico. It is typical Greenaway fare, with his usual stylistic flair but also his idiosyncratic treatment of a subject. I saw Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015) at the Leeds International Film Festival. This screening was the low point of the Festival if not the entire year.
The characterisation of Eisenstein offered in the film clearly possesses some of his known traits, in particular his sexual orientation. There is an incredibly long sex scene. But there is little attention to his intellectual and artistic prowess. And whilst there are number of sequences where we see Eisenstein, with his colleagues Eduard Tissé and Grigori Alexandrov, filming, Greenaway’s treatment shows little real interest in this lost but much discussed film.
In addition Greenaway includes sequences from the seminal films that Eisenstein had already made in the Soviet Union. However, these appear to be from not great quality video and [even worse] they have been reframed in to the 2.39:1 anamorphic frame. There are other recent perpetrators of this practice, but few of them have actually inflicted the very wide letterbox on archive footage.
Greenaway does show more interest in the erotic drawings that Eisenstein produced during his stay. A whole truckload of these were confiscated by the US customs on his return journey. Some of them could be seen in the recent exhibition in London, Unexpected Eisenstein.
Greenaway’s film is now receiving a limited general release. It is recommended only for masochists and anti-Bolshevik types. What would have been more illuminating would be the event held in April at the Regent Cinema Eisenstein in Mexico. This event, jointly organised by A Nos Amours and Kino Klassica, included screenings of several films developed from the some 200,000 plus footage shot by Eisenstein and his colleagues. There was Marie Seton’s Time in the Sun (1939), Alexandrov’s ¡Que viva México! (1979), and a film I have yet to see. Mexican Fantasy (1998). There were also talks and discussions during the event.
My fantasy wish is that the Metropolitans get the Greenaway film and that we deprived northerners get the three-film event.
This unusual film was introduced by its writer-director Alejandra Sánchez who joined ¡Viva! programmer Rachel Hayward for a Q&A after the screening. Ms Sanchez is a documentary filmmaker who has here moved into ‘documentary drama’. In 2006 she made a documentary about the violent attacks on women in the city of Juárez near the US border. She made contact with a woman whose daughter had been killed in Juárez in one of these attacks and who was now looking after her two small grandchildren. Ten years after her daughter’s death this woman was herself attacked and shot several times outside her house. Somehow she survived the shooting (which Alejandra Sanchez argued was prompted by her work as an activist in the campaign about violence directed towards women). The director then decided to dramatise the story of the two children, one of whom witnessed the shooting. She wrote a script and then decided to cast the real teenagers to play themselves. As well as this element, she also used photographs and ‘home movie footage’ of the children and their mother as part of her film.
In the film the two children, Jade and Kaleb, now teenagers, are visited in the hospital where their grandmother is in a coma by a journalist, Martha, who has been summoned by the family’s lawyer, David. Martha (Nora Huerto) is asked to take the teenagers on a trip, away from possible danger, with the hope that they will be able to meet up with their grandmother in Mexico City when she has recovered and go with her to a safe house in Canada.
Seguir viviendo thus turns into a road movie. The brother and sister are understandably traumatised by this second attack. Kaleb never speaks (a device suggested by the director) but his sister eventually comes round. Later it is revealed that Martha has lost her small son in a car accident and one stop on the road trip is at the bar owned by her former lover, the dead boy’s father. There isn’t a great deal of plot but the road trip includes some of the familiar generic moments, including a drive down the coast and various overnight stays in motels and at least one village house. The film has an ‘open’ ending with a song and an animated sequence – which I certainly wasn’t expecting. During the Q&A Alejandra told us that she chose the ending against advice because she preferred it to the more realistic end point of the airport where the teenagers would board a plane to take them to the safe house.
Why was the children’s mother murdered in the first place? Why are women being attacked in Cuidad Juárez? These are the questions that several people in the audience wanted answers for. Alejandra was not able to answer such questions directly (it may have been simply a translation problem). She said that the attacks and killings had been going on for more than 20 years and that you really had to live in Mexico to appreciate what this meant. I took her statements to imply that the children’s mother was killed almost as part of the overall violence of the city rather than for something that she did and that the grandmother was attacked because she was an activist campaigning for better police and judicial action against the killers. This discussion did, of course, raise the spectre of violence associated with Mexico’s drug gangs, especially in the areas near the US border. A Guatemalan filmmaker in the audience said that this violence should be discussed and audiences needed to be educated about it and why it has happened – otherwise the representation of Central American societies remains simply barbaric for outsiders. This is something people feel strongly about and indeed it does need discussion. Both Rachel Hayward and Andy Willis asked questions which tried to focus on how Alejandra felt in dealing with such highly emotional (and possibly personally dangerous) filmmaking. There are a couple of scenes where the characters think they might be being followed and Alejandra admitted that the paranoia was ‘real’ for herself and the teenagers and her crew.
This an emotional and at times very moving film and Alejandra Sanchez is a brave filmmaker who deserves support. The film is technically well-made but it is quite short (81 mins) for a feature and I did feel that the final section lacked something. I fear that the film will mainly be seen at specialist film festivals but I hope it does find a wider audience and that it encourages other filmmakers to be equally brave and authorities to initiate action against the violence and towards support for the victims.
When I first began to write about this film I thought it would be straightforward to describe it as a mainstream ‘feelgood film’ – a romantic drama with comedy and a universal narrative. However, when I started to read a few of the other commentaries on the film and to reflect on what we learned about Mexican cinema during the ¡Viva! Weekender, I realised that there was more to it than that. The Mexican audience is growing but in the main Mexicans still watch Hollywood films over their own domestic releases. I tend not to watch Hollywood mainstream comedies, so a film like Paraíso perhaps seems less unfamiliar to me than it might to the Mexican audience. I’m referring to the concept of a very large woman as the central character of the film. Her weight is an important element of the narrative but, apart from one short sequence, the film does not ask us to laugh at her because of her weight. Instead, the weight issue is just part of who she is and how she deals with the real issue of maintaining her relationship with the man she loves and feeling good about what she does with her life. (I have seen one Hollywood film recently, Spy, in which the talented Melissa McCarthy is a large woman who triumphantly rules the narrative but that is unusual in contemporary Hollywood, I think.)
In Paraíso, Carmen and Alfredo are a loving couple, happily together in their ‘dormitory town’ in the outer suburban area of Mexico City. When Alfredo gets a promotion in his banking career they must move into the city. From day one, Carmen doesn’t really like big city life. Part of her problem is that she now has time on her hands after being an integral part of her family’s tax and legal advice business. The crunch comes when at their first bank function when Carmen overhears two of the well-dressed and ‘toned’ bank employees describing her and Alfredo as overweight country bumpkins. Carmen stumbles into a weight-watchers operation and the couple start diets. The outcome is fairly predictable – one of them loses most of their excess weight and the other doesn’t. It’s a recipe for marital disaster.
Carmen is an intelligent and seemingly confident young woman. The comedy is gentle and mostly comes from the quirks of social interaction rather than staged pratfalls or comic dialogue. One of the few ‘mistakes’ is a brief montage of Carmen trying to adopt yoga stances with predictable results. The film feels like a romantic comedy partly because the narrative resolution is to some extent dependent on a rather formulaic cookery competition that is handled very sketchily, as if even the writer didn’t really think it made much sense. Most of the time, however, the writing benefits from careful social observation. It’s perhaps not surprising that the script is by two women, Julieta Arévalo having written the original story that is adapted by the director Mariana Chenillo. Carmen is played by Daniela Rincón and she doesn’t appear to have other credits on IMDB. If she is indeed a new screen talent this is an impressive first screen performance. Alfredo is played by the more experienced Andrés Almeida. His is quite a difficult role underplaying Alfredo who behaves sensitively towards Carmen and things go wrong that aren’t his fault. Overall this is a story about two people in love who have to go through a difficult period in order to appreciate how good they are together. I hope that it gets widely seen on DVD in Mexico and that seeing it will encourage more Mexican filmmakers to look for local stories. I realise now that it’s a film that relates to the session on ‘Latin American Cities‘ (and the alienation they can generate) delivered in the first ¡Viva! Weekender earlier this year. I’m also reminded of another film from a few years ago, Real Women Have Curves (US 2002) a Hispanic-American film which similarly struggled for a cinema release (but which eventually made $5 million). That film’s lead, America Ferrera, went on to achieve fame as ‘Ugly Betty’. I hope Daniela Rincón goes on to achieve something similar.
I knew this film was going to work from the first few minutes of the opening scene. Four men in their late 70s or older are sat round a table in a café-bar playing dominoes and squabbling. Suddenly one orders 5 shots of tequila. Consternation amongst the other three since none of them drink any more. The drinker explains that they are all for him and that he is ‘out’ – he has colon cancer and he hasn’t got long. He then makes the other three promise that they will deliver his most prized possession to its final resting place when he is gone. This object is a paper napkin on which are written the lyrics to a new song by the famous singer José Alfredo Jiménez. The lyrics are dedicated to the dying man and signed by the singer. This is indeed a historical document that is dated and in the handwriting of the star. The three survivors are charged with taking this sacred object to the museum in Dolores Hidalgo where the singer is buried – a trip of over 250 kilometres from Mexico City. That doesn’t sound very far, but these are old men with very little money.
The ‘three amigos’ are great performers, each very different, and I knew I would enjoy their company. The film was briefly introduced by Yossy Zagha Kababie, co-writer and producer (and brother of the director) who featured in a Q&A after the screening. He confirmed that all four of the old men are experienced performers from TV, theatre and film – some primarily working in comedy sketches or telenovelas but others as character actors. One of them, José Carlos Ruiz (Emiliano) has appeared in Hollywood films including Peckinpah’s Major Dundee (1965). Luis Bayardo (Augustin) reminded me at times of Stan Laurel with a quizzical expression and a general air of innocence.
The plot develops a road movie with a clever script that finds numerous ways of delaying the trio on their journey so that it takes several days for just one of them to reach Dolores Hidalgo and deliver the napkin. (UK readers will possibly remember a similar trip in Last Orders, UK 2001, a Fred Schepisi film based on a Graham Swift novel.) Each of the three men who start the trip has a family issue to deal with. One is a widower being forced into a nursing home by his daughter-in-law, one has a wife with dementia and one is constantly finding the ghost of his dead wife popping up and criticising him. These are universal problems for men of a certain age but the appearance of the ghost also refers us to the ways in which the film tries to connect with Mexican culture and the nostalgia for the trio in thinking about the Mexico of their youth. One of the men ‘sees’ a white horse on a couple of occasions – a reference (Yossy told us) to one of the 1,000 songs written by Jiminéz. The men also meet a ‘witch’ and survive a dangerous premonition that involves another ghost. As one of the audience questions highlighted, the role of women in the film is quite interesting in this film about four men – the women have quite small parts but they are often characters with real ‘agency’ – assertive, organised and ‘active’. Yossy agreed that the script had tried hard to achieve this.
This is a genuinely funny film with laughs aplenty but also a social commentary and a moving drama. It’s a major achievement. In answering questions during a lively Q&A conducted by Andy Willis, Yossy Zagha Kababie made many revealing statements. He explained that there is a big growth in film production in Mexico, but small films (this cost just US$1.5 million) find it difficult to get screened in Mexico despite the box office boom in admissions (Mexico now rates as the fifth biggest film market in cinema admissions). Most cinemas screen American films and the 100,000 admissions for this film is a sign of success in a difficult market. He argued that as a producer with his brother they aimed to make films about Mexican culture that weren’t about drugs gangs. Comedy is popular in Mexico but mainly ‘simple’ comedy and not the character stuff as in this film. Comedy is also a harder sell to international film festival programmers. So, it’s difficult but worthwhile work that the filmmakers enjoy. The focus on music and the town of Dolores Hidalgo – one of Mexico’s official ‘Magic Towns’ with a historical role in the struggle for Independence – is part of this ‘reclaiming of Mexican culture’. I think any festival would benefit from including this film and I just wish a distribution deal was possible in Europe – it seems that a Mexican comedy like this doesn’t even travel to other Spanish language markets elsewhere in Latin America, but the Hispanic market in the US may be a taker of both DVD and TV rights? If you stumble across this film, take the plunge and you’ll have a great time.