Roberto Gavaldón Retrospective: A Lost Mexican Master?

in 6th Mexico City International Contemporary Film Festival

by Joel Poblete

From the days of “Indio” Fernández and the Spanish films Buñuel shot outside Spain to the successes of Ripstein, the Hollywood arrival of González Iñárritu, Cuarón and Del Toro and the formal challenges of Carlos Reygadas, over the decades Mexico has established one of the most stimulating cinemas in the Latin American panorama. Both for quantity and quality, this country is an unavoidable reference point for those attempting to understand the region’s cinema — and in the context of such a huge and extensive idea, it is logical that there would be filmmakers of the past who, however well-known they may be by audiences and critics at home, remain unrecognized beyond those borders.

An exemplary case could be the one of Roberto Gavaldón, the emblematic director whose centenary will be marked this year by a retrospective of his work in this sixth version of FICCO. The festival screened (in a series of high-quality prints, managed between the festival and the Cineteca Nacional) ten of the almost fifty titles in Gavaldón’s filmography, spanning his career from his debut as a filmmaker in 1944 to his final film, completed in 1977.

The opportunity to see these productions on a big screen is as significant for today’s Mexican audiences as it is for the visitors and foreign guests who participated in the festival. And surely the latter must have approached the works of Gavaldón as unknown jewels from some hidden master, shadowed from the rest of the world until now — except perhaps for those who had some distant memory of his 1961 film Macario, which screened at Cannes and was nominated for the Foreign-Language Oscar. But the truth is that, while it is necessary to recognize the filmmaker’s importance, his works cannot be described as masterpieces and his talent does not surpass the successes of a capable and effective craftsman of the classic melodrama.

The films exhibited at FICCO’s retrospective reveal the strengths and weaknesses of Gavaldón’s cinema. For the latter, there are the excesses and stereotypes of the most conventional melodrama, even approaching soap-opera levels, and very far from the successes that Emilio Fernández or Ismael Rodríguez achieved in this arena around the same time; in this aspect, one of the main impediments to taking his stories seriously are some overacted, affected performances, lacking in some moments of even the briefest spontaneity. Gavaldón worked with some of the biggest stars of the classic Mexican cinema — María Félix, Dolores del Río and Arturo de Córdoba — but he didn’t obtain the same flexibility from everyone. The famous Pedro Armendáriz, for example, so good when directed by Fernández, Buñuel and even John Ford, doesn’t convince so much and teeters on the brink of the caricature in his villainous roles for Gavaldón, performing the selfish sportsman in La Noche Avanza, or the main character in Rosauro Castro, a tough “cacique” in a small town. If we had to talk about someone who shines especially in his performances in Gavaldón’s films, is impossible not to praise the eclectic range of the magnificent Ignacio López Tarso, who could play the humble farmer who carries Macario; the noble, lovable native that resists selling his land in Rosa Blanca and the sympathetic naïveté of the humble Dionisio Pinzón in The Golden Cockerel (El Gallo de Oro). It is worth mentioning that the same actor, now 84 years old, is still working: he was in the theatrical production of Twelve Angry Men that was running in Mexico City during the FICCO festival.

Among the details that have perhaps kept the perception of Gavaldón’s films from being as enthusiastic as it could be, it is possible to point to the erratic capacity of his scripts to generate characters and situations that could more effectively play to the strengths of melodrama; often adapting literary works and relying on the collaboration of such interesting and talented screenwriters as José Revueltas and Emilio Carballido, when writing his screenplays the filmmaker couldn’t always avoid the dangers of naïveté and convention. While Fernando Mino writes in his FICCO program notes that “for better or worse, he renounced passion for reason and psychological depth; he bet on the stories rather than visual refinement”, often his characters’ psyches lack a sense of dramatic truth and are diminished in the face of the simplest and most direct passion. And if, at some moments of the films, a bit of inspiration is noted, it comes more through good visual ideas than the scripted dialogue: “Beat me, it makes me well!” a desperate lover will say in one of the films, while in another one, a heartbroken wife and mother says “This is not a home, but a curse of God!”

It could certainly be said that it’s necessary to understand the melodrama tradition of the Mexican cinema, which evolved from literature and music to become synonymous with passion and tragedy, even if often what we see and hear seems excessive or even ridiculous. But it’s also enough to note how, in The Golden Cockerel, Gavaldón goes even further in the service of the typical musical numbers, turning what’s already a fairly folksy story into a sensitive portrayal of the fleeting success and later resignation to the destiny of a simple man tempted by fate and worldly profits. Of course, in that sense it is not accidental that the task of adapting Juan Rulfo’s story to film was placed in the hands of two prestigious Latin American writers, Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez. Those happy coincidences are the ones that allow the audience to understand that, without needing to be overly demonstrative – like the ones that characterize the excessive and reiterative incidental music of almost all of his films – Gavaldón could have held his audience just through the strengths of his story.

Thanks to the recurring conventions in Gavaldón’s films, it is possible to find common elements in the director’s body of work. By all means, melodrama — in its more suffered and overflowed expression — is united by a certain fatalism, because although in some moments signs of hope may appear, there is usually no way in which the main characters can escape their destiny. This doesn’t necessarily imply tragedy, but at the very least suggests they will not be able to fulfill their dreams, or their illusions will be buried. The moral message usually is direct and inescapable, but there are also exceptions: Although the “bad” ones rarely triumph, and their infidelities, vanities and selfishness will be punished, it’s also the case that innocents don’t always succeed even when goodness is on their side, as in the case of The Golden Cockerel’s protagonist, defeated by the unbearable selfishness of Lorenzo Benavides, or the farmer who refuses to accept that Capitalism, in the form of an American oil conglomerate, has devastated his lands in Rosa Blanca. As a matter of fact, this film, with its disillusioned and ruthless view to the North American abuses on Mexican soil, was banned at the time; it was finally released in 1972, one decade after being completed.

But beyond those stated objections, the recovery of Gavaldón’s cinema at FICCO had an inestimable historical value, especially for its aesthetic attractions, that even without being totally original at least reflects a solid and professional talent. It can’t be denied that Gavaldón’s work stumbles in its symbolism or superfluous visual commentary, emphasizing its ideas with unnecessarily obvious metaphors like the dog urinating in the poster that announces the main character, symbolizing his fall, at the end of La Noche Avanza, or the roses dyed black when the oil begins to flow in Rosa Blanca. But at the same time, Gavaldón also demonstrates a good feel for a story’s rhythm, a solid grasp of narrative fluidity and some visual successes with ideas that are very effective and well played, like two good examples in Rosauro Castro: The severe, austere dramatic quality he creates while following the displacement of the funeral courtship crossing the streets of the town at the beginning of the film, or the young Chabelo noticing the presence of the abusive protagonist thanks to a reflection in an object inside the drugstore.

And if we’re talking about visual elements, perhaps the biggest success of Gavaldón’s films is the remarkable work that he obtains from his cinematographers, not just the legendary Gabriel Figueroa — who performed brilliantly for Fernández and Buñuel and shone while working with such Hollywood filmmakers as Huston and Siegel — but also in precise collaborations with Alex Phillips and Raúl Martínez Solares. While with this last it’s necessary to mention his splendid, suggestive illumination in the nighttime street scenes of Rosauro Castro, Figueroa is always a part of Gavaldón’s best works, his imagery as an inseparable, expressive element of the narration, working wonders with the black-and-white contrasts in Rosa Blanca and dazzling with his variety of colors in The Golden Cockerel.

Ultimately, Gavaldón may not be a key figure in the panorama of Latin American cinema, but if someone wants to appreciate an important part of the Mexican melodrama legacy, his films can be very illustrative. As the work of a filmmaker who knew how to adapt himself to an assortment of film genres, from drama and film noir to musicals (consider, for instance, how he presents the songs in The Golden Cockerel) … and as the reflection of a specific era, and the traditions of Mexican society half a century ago, from the urban complexities of Mexico City to the microcosmic worlds of rural farmers (“I am a town in Mexico, but my name does not matter”, says the voiceover that opens Rosauro Castro).

And finally, Gavaldón can be viewed as a lens through which we may understand melodrama which, unable to free itself from convention or transcend naïveté, still tries to find a path of its own. One that feels honest.