Bunuel's Los Olvidados Today Gerald Peary reviews "The Devil and the Red Page"
by Gerald Peary
The Devil and the Red Page (El diablo y la nota roja), John Dickie’s fast-paced, appropriately hardboiled Mexican documentary, begins where it should: among the dead. We’re at a “common pit” somewhere in Mexico City, a place where anonymous bodies are thrown together into the ground — those that aren’t sold for medical research, turned into varnished skeletons for medical students to ponder. Our tour guide, giving to the camera all the sordid information above, and with black-humor enjoyment, is Alejandro Villafane, a tabloid journalist who toils obsessively, and at terrible pay, for a daily Mexico City newspaper specializing in scandal. Alejandro’s beat is reporting on, and photographing, death and the dying, the more juicy and violent and sexual the better.
So he’s at home where the movie starts, this burial ground for the forgotten poor. “I’m not afraid of the dead. I’m afraid of the living,” Alejandro explains. And the first statement is certainly true: we see him on several occasions crawling about a morgue, climbing on the same slab as a dead naked body so he can take a better, high-angle photo of a nearby body for his bloodthirsty paper. Alejandro’s gory stories and sickening photographs appear together on his newspaper’s infamous Red Page, the “Nota Roja” of the film’s title. And “El Diablo”? That’s Alejandro’s nickname because his immoral journalist ethics — anything for a story! — a nickname which he wears proudly.
As Alejandro rushes about Mexico City and his environs, always thirsty for a first-hand scoop, Dickie races about with his camera also, traveling with Alejandro to the most subterranean places and rubbing against the most sketchy, ratty, lowlifes. One can ask: is there any difference between the tabloid reporter and the exploitative, sensationalist filmmaker? Not much. In fact, there’s a time in the movie where Alejandro is left off camera and Dickie alone becomes the criminal investigator, questioning on camera all the people who knew an unfortunate adolescent girl who killed herself with a shotgun. Shamelessly, Dickie has people show him the room, and the spot in the room, where the suicide took place.
Probably it’s good that the filmmaker has symbolic blood on his hands, so that he can show us Alejandro’s seedy world without preachment or condescension. And what a Mexico! Bunuel’s Los Olvidados today! A farmer who comes to town has a heart attack while a prostitute services him! (The newspaper headline: “Looking for Sex, He Found Death!”) A lowly peasant, visited in jail (Alejandro poses him clutching the bars of his cell), has no memory of killing someone the night before, as he’s had 16 beers. An alleged criminal — did he beat the bus driver? Did the bus driver beat him? — has a day job, the early morning shift training roosters for crowded 5 am cockfights.
What’s fascinatingly revealed is Mexico’s still-lethal class system. At the bottom are the permanently impoverished and trampled-on, whose one chance to appear in a newspaper is if they have some involvement in a brutal crime: as victim, perpetrator, witness, or relative of the above. “The Red Page” might be interested! It’s curious (and sad) to see how easy it is for Alejandro to get people to speak to him for the record, even though these people will be ruthlessly exploited. It’s simple: someone of a higher class, a newspaper guy, has asked them to talk. The poor blindly obey their superiors. But there’s a pecking order, of course. Alejandro — self-taught, self-educated—pushing his whole life to enter the lower echelon of the middle-class, gets no respect from the owners of his newspaper.
Here’s the big difference between Alejandro and filmmaker John Dickie, a Brit residing in Mexico. The publishers are happy to be in the film, to be interviewed in their offices up a stairwell, which Alejandro and his writer cohorts never climb in the movie. They never will make the climb: it’s impossible in Mexico.
There’s one great shot that says it all. Alejandro is talking on the sidewalk and interrupts his soliloquy to yell out, “My boss!” Behind him a large limousine passes left and right, whizzes in and out of the frame. For less than a second, boss and worker are visually united. That’s all — then Alejandro, desperate to feed his family, is off to another fire, another murder, another chilly afternoon at the morgue.