Monday, August 30, 2010

Viva la Revolución

2010 marks the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution. I used to live in El Paso which is right across the border from Ciudad Juárez or Juarez as it is more commonly called and spelled. Juarez has been making headlines recently as one of the most dangerous places in the world (outside of warzones). There have been some drug cartel related killings including some officials associated with the El Paso Police Department and US Consulate. In addition, there have been a string of murders dating back nearly 20 years involving female workers at the maquiladoras.

However, when I lived there, Juarez was better known as a place underage minors could get a drink amongst college strudents, GIs from Fort Bliss & Mexican nationals. Corrupt cops were still to be feared but mostly for the shakedown they would impose on arrested US citizens to avoid detention.

At the time, Texas public schools taught a smattering of Mexican history since they shared a 1,200 mile border. I learned a little of Zapata, Villa, Carrnza, etc. It was all very confusing since the Mexican Revolution seemed more like anarchy. The players kept switching sides. Recently, I've read a book called Villa and Zapata: A History of the Mexican Revolution by Frank McLynn. McLynn called the Mexican Revolution one of the four most significant revolutions of the 20th century. Presumably, the other three are the Russian, Chinese and Indian Revolutions. I find that a big of a stretch. I never associated the Mexican Revolution on par with the other three. However, the author makes the assertion the Mexican Revolution, by virtue of predating the other three as well engaging in violent excessiveness, influenced Lenin, Mao and Gandhi. Is that true? I don't know. I do recall Trotsky was exiled to Mexico City for several years.

John Reed, whose famous book Ten Days that Shook the World chronicled the Russian Revolution, spent time with Pancho Villa & his movement. Reed's life would later be brought to the silver screen in the movie Reds with Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson.

Anyway, upon reading that sentence about the "Big Four," I decided to learn more about La Revolución. As if by cue, the PFA produced a five film series called Viva la Revolución: Celebrating the Hundredth Anniversary of Mexico’s Revolution. By the way, Mexican Independence Day is celebrated September 16. It is called El Grito and celebrates Mexican independence from Spain. May 5 or Cinco de Mayo commemorates Mexican independence from France or at least expulsion of the occupying forces. I'm not familiar with a holiday that commemorates the 1910 Mexican Revolution which is more accurately a civil war.


The four films in the series which I watched were:

Prisoner Number 13; directed by Fernando de Fuentes; Spanish with subtitles; (1933)
El Compadre Mendoza; directed by Fernando de Fuentes; Spanish with subtitles; (1933)
Let’s Go with Pancho Villa!; directed by Fernando de Fuentes; Spanish with subtitles; (1935)
La Soldadera starring Silvia Pinal; directed by José Bolaños; Spanish with subtitles; (1966)

I missed Reed: Insurgent Mexico (1971).


Fernando de Fuentes was a renowned Mexican film director. Considered a pioneer of Mexican cinema, de Fuentes directed Alla en el Rancho Grande which was a huge box office success and launched the comedia ranchera genre.

The series showed a trilogy of de Fuentes films known as Mexican Revolution Trilogy. I enjoyed the three films although Prisoner Number 13 had a cop-out ending which was probably imposed on de Fuentes since the film cast the military in a bad light. El Compadre Mendoza is tale of betrayal and surprisingly effective although it telegraphs the ending.

Let’s Go with Pancho Villa! was my favorite of the three films. It follows six friends who join Villa's army. One by one, they meet their demise as a result of the cruelties of war and Villa. The film has a remarkable scene which ranks among the most spellbinding I've ever seen. The last three friends are in a cantina for a drink. It's crowded so they sit at a table with some strangers. One of the strangers notes that there are now 13 people at the table and it is very unlucky. Another man says he knows how to cure the problem. He will cock the hammer of his pistol, throw it up in the air and when it fires upon hitting the ground, the bullet will hit coward among them. De Fuentes masterfully prolongs the scene to build the suspense.

La Soldadera has a back story. In 1930, Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein was commissioned by Upton Sinclair to make a film about Mexican culture and politics. Beset with problems such as a poorly defined script and censorship, the film was eventually compiled and titled ¡Que Viva México!. Eisenstein shot 30 to 50 hours of footage before the government pulled the plug and denied Eisenstein access to the film stock so he could assemble it. Not until 1979 did Grigori Alexandrov compile the footage into a 90 minute film.

Eisenstein envisioned a six film series but never shot footage for the fifth entry Soldadera. José Bolaños while never acknowledging it, filmed the fifth part of Eisenstein's vision and titled it La Soldadera which means the female soldiers. McLynn's book makes reference to this practice. Women followed Mexican soldiers around the country and sometimes fought in combat; particularly after their spouse died.

La Soldadera was a grim film about the horrors of war as well as the sexism women faced in Mexico at the time. Actress Silvia Pinal does a nice job showing how an innocent girl can be transformed into a war weary veteran. The character loses her husband, gets pregnant, discovers her family's house & village burned to the ground but yet must still endure.


All in all, PFA's Viva la Revolución series was less edifying than I hoped. The films were not fully satisfying for me. Melodrama was in high supply. I'm not anti-melodrama per se but it's easy to cross the line with regards to my tastes. I think some cultures value melodrama to an extent which turns me off. These films laid it on a tad too thick for me. Still, many of the films had their moments - the aforementioned tossed gun in Let’s Go with Pancho Villa!, the lead-up to the betrayal in El Compadre Mendoza and the interminable wait for the firing squad in Prisoner Number 13.

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