Because I love to step off a plane and come across the unexpected, Mexico holds a special place in my store of travel memories. We went there first in December 2001, a few months after the Twin Towers fell. Airport security in the U.S. was at unprecedented levels, and the mild sense of danger, always familiar to strangers in Mexico, was intensified. We were there for an archaeological tour of ancient Mexico, beginning with the sparse ruins of Aztec temples at the center of Mexico City and extending on the first day to the amazing remains of Teotihuacan (say Tay-oh-tay-wha-cahn), which can be seen in full panoply in the movie, Frida (below). Soon enough, we were far from the concerns of the modern world, except for a local rebellion in Oaxaca (say Wha-hak-ah) and some latter-day Juarista (say Whar-ista) activity along the border with Guatemala.

P1240357Our second trip came in December of 2011. Airline delays made us late for lunch and we went straight to the eatery on the roof of our hotel to get some nourishment. Distracted by some music from below, I went to the railing and found myself looking out over the main square of Mexico City, called the Zocalo, directly in front of the Metropolitan Cathedral. The square was filled with dozens of large papier-mâché figures called Alebrejes (say Ala-bree-hays). We were about to learn that we had arrived in the city on the third and last of the Days of the Dead. Young and old were strolling on the square that warm afternoon, enjoying the fantastical sights.

P1240378In pursuit of my spare time project of visiting all the major art museums of North and South America, we went on the next day out to the edge of the city to Coyoacan (say Coy-oh-ah-cahn). Here was the Museo Frida Kahlo and, a little further along in San Angel (say An-hel), the Museo Estudio Diego Rivera. Because the Days of the Dead had just ended, there were fanciful displays being dismantled everywhere we went. In the two museums, there were offrendas, altars bedecked with marigolds and assortments of offerings for the departed. Frida and Diego were much revered for the roles they played in the renaissance of Mexican cultural identity after the revolutions. In Frida (2002), Director Julie Taymore brings the unique pictorial language of these artists to life on film.

In 1930, Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein was contracted in Hollywood to make a film about Mexico. The filming for que viva mexico (sic) went on for several years but Eisenstein could never bring it to completion. It exists today only in fragments, and underscores the relatedness of revolutionary Mexico and revolutionary Russia. Like many filmmakers who would come after him, Eisenstein was inspired by the exuberantly macabre festivities of the Days of the Dead.

Update:  In 2015, Peter Greenaway released a film called Eisenstein in Guanajuato.

Frida (2002)

This movie played with my expectations. Almost all of the mainstream press reviews were negative. The gist of the criticism was that Salma Hayek had failed to capture the quality of Frida Kahlo (1907-54), and that director Julie Taymore had followed Titus with yet another overly artistic, off-the-beam movie. Neither the actress (who also produced) nor the director got much attention in the awards buzz (though Hayek was nominated for a Golden Globe, and an Oscar). The film did not even make it into the cineplex in Ithaca, near where I live. Partly for this reason, it took us a couple of months to get to Frida. We saw it in San Diego and were stunned to find it excellent from beginning almost to the end. This is not to say that there might not have been more of an edge to the work, but it captured its subject admirably and delivered a richly colored depiction of its times.

Taymore’s cinematic collages are dangerous, but completely consistent with the vision of Frida Kahlo. The film follows through her spirited girlhood in Coyoacan and the tragic trolley accident in Mexico City that left her near death in 1925. She marries Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) in 1929, and lives a life of physical and emotional suffering mixed with the enticements of celebrity and artistic success. She first meets Rivera while he is painting the palace mural for the government in Mexico City. It is a panoramic history of Mexico, filled with faces from the near and distant past. Also featured is her affair with Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush), which begins when the two of them climb to the top of the ancient pyramid at Teotihuacan. The only real flaw in the film is the too abrupt ending with inadequate detail on the death of Kahlo at the age of forty-seven.

 Under the Volcano (1984)

"La Catrina," popular icon of the Days of the Dead

“La Catrina,” popular icon of the Days of the Dead

Based on the novel by Malcolm Lowery and directed by John Huston, the events in this film take place on November 1, 1938 in Cuernavaca, south of Mexico City. It is the Day of the Dead and the movie unfolds within the span of twenty-four hours. Albert Finney plays a drunken and self-destructive former member of the diplomatic corps wandering among the marigolds and offrenda. His wife (Jacqeline Bisset) had departed for New York but returns on this very day with hopes of reconciliation.

The foreground story is almost nonexistent. Finney and Bisset, along with Finney’s half-brother, range the city enjoying the festivities while Finney guzzles alcohol. They get on a colorful open bus and travel into the countryside to do some barhopping. Finney wanders away from the others and ends up in a sleazy cantina where he has a degrading encounter with a whore and ends up dead. What I liked best about this movie was the opportunity to spend the Day of the Dead in Cuernavaca. Deeper in the background is the impending war with Germany. Huston saw fit to give us more of the character than the situation.

NOTE: John Huston also directed the 1964 film, The Night of the Iguana, about a dissolute Western male pouring his life down the drain in Mexico. The lead role was played by the dissolute Richard Burton. Could there be a pattern here? Once again, the film is more about the character than the situation.

Bordertown (2006)

This is a well-intentioned misfire. It was conceived on the one hand as an exposé of the Juárez murders in Mexico, and on the other hand as a vehicle for Jennifer Lopez in a serious role. The idea was to draw worldwide attention to the ongoing Juárez tragedy by making a popular thriller with popular movie stars. Martin Sheen and Antonio Banderas also have starring roles. Jennifer plays a crusading American journalist who is sent by her editor (Sheen) to investigate the murders in Juárez. She was hoping for an assignment in the Middle East, which would have meant more advancement for her career. She teams up with her old friend Banderas, who is a local newspaper editor in Mexico. Quickly, she finds herself involved with a 16-year-old girl who has been raped and left for dead. The effort to find and prosecute her attackers is filled with pitfalls, but Jennifer gets the story. Her paper however, refuses to print it under pressure from those who wish to protect the trade agreement with Mexico.

La Masacre de Tlatelolco  (2008) – Mexican

This documentary appeared on Netflix in early 2015. It is a full account of the massacre of student protesters by government soldiers in Mexico City on October 2, 1968. We had visited the Plaza of the Three Cultures in Tlatelolco (say Tlat-el-lolco) in December 2001 and stopped briefly at the site of the shootings, but little was made of it at the time. Youthful rebellion in 1968 had extended to cities around the world. The young were agitating for a fourth culture, beyond wartime mentality. The Mexican government could see no alternative but to call out the army. Unlike the later shootings at Kent State in Ohio, this use of deadly force was entirely intentional, and well planned. If it had been more publicized at the time, it would no doubt have been one of the signal events of 1968. My best recollection is that I first became sharply aware of it in a book by Mark Kurlansky called 1968: The Year That Rocked the World (2004). The massacre took place ten days before the opening of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. The government wanted stability at all costs. Estimates of the deaths range from 30 to 300.

A Night in Old Mexico (2014)

Robert Duvall carries this movie on his 82-year-old back. It’s not that the supporting players lack adequacy: his coming-of-age-grandson plays idealism and naïveté with callow conviction; the pretty señorita they meet in Mexico is very attractive and likable; and the villains are convincing. The timeliness in the film arises when a satchel full of drug money is left accidentally in Duvall’s big old Cadillac. Having lost his Texas ranch and most of his resources, he is not about to give up what he considers a gift from God. He fights the bad guys to the end, and he wins. He also gets the girl. He has been a bad father and grandfather, a bad husband, a bad rancher, and even a bad fighter, but he is there to be loved in this movie – like a Texas Zorba the Greek. This film takes place in a roughly twenty-four-hour period during celebrations for the Day of the Dead.

On YouTube, there is a trailer that distills the whole movie to two minutes, but it cannot be shared.

More to Come:

Santa Sangre (1989)

Don Juan DeMarco (1995)

Y Tu Mamá También (And Your Mother Too – 2001)

Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)

 Bandidas (2006)


Mexico Related Posts:

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