MoMA salutes Mexican auteur Emilio Fernández, champion of the working class


Hollywood's Golden Age was matched by a similar flowering of cinema worldwide. “El Indio: The Films of Emilio Fernández,” a series running March 1-13 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, highlights 13 films either by or with one of Mexico's most accomplished directors, many in restored versions.

Born in 1904, Fernández joined in General Adolfo de la Huerta's failed rebellion against President Alvaro Obregón. Escaping prison, he fled to Los Angeles, where he worked as a bartender, longshoreman and mason before becoming an extra and stunt double in films. Returning to Mexico in 1934 during a general amnesty, he found work as an actor and screenwriter.

All those jobs gave Fernández strong empathy for the poor, perhaps because he had so often shared their hardships. They also offered insight into how the world, with all its peculiarities, worked. In his movies, the director never lost his distrust of authority or the upper classes. An occasional policeman or landowner might behave with respect, but most trampled on the rights of the poor. The foot soldiers, dance-hall girls, farmers, maids, even street urchins in his films were almost all noble, trustworthy, true to their idiosyncratic creeds.

Fernández's debut as a director, La Isla de la pasión (1942), was his first collaboration with Pedro Armendáriz, a former insurance salesman who became one of Mexico's leading actors. A year later Fernández started working with Gabriel Figueroa, a cinematographer who had assisted Eduard Tisse on Sergei Eisenstein's aborted ¡Que viva México! (1932).

Figueroa, a towering cinematographer whose breathtaking landscapes were matched by intensely emotional close-ups, may have been Fernández's most important creative partner. But the director also relied heavily on screenwriter Mauricio Magdaleno and editor Gloria Schoemann. Together they built a visual and narrative style that found beauty and pride in customs and traditions that had often been scorned.

Take the opening film in the series, Janitzio (March 1 & 7), a 1935 drama directed by Carlos Navarro. In it, Fernández plays a Tarascan Indian named Zirahuén who is in love with Eréndira. They live in a poor fishing village, Janitzio, an island on Lake Pátzcuaro. When Zirahuén faces jail after attacking a villainous shopkeeper, Eréndira agrees to sleep with the shopkeeper to free her betrothed, even though the customs of her people demand her death as a result. Almost a Mexican version of F.W. Murnau's Tabu, Janitzio also betrays the heavy hand of Eisenstein in its predeterminism and blunt politics.

This kind of stoic suffering became a hallmark of Fernández's movies. The director returned to Janitzio in Maclovia (March 4 & 9), an informal remake from 1948, with Armendáriz playing a fisherman so poor he's not even allowed to look at island beauty Maclovia (Maria Félix). An evil sergeant from the city causes a crisis that threatens Maclovia's life. Figueroa uses many of the same locations that Jack Draper did in the 1935 film, but his compositions have a searing beauty.

Félix, one of the great beauties of her time, was billed over Armendáriz in Maclovia and in an earlier film, Enamorada (March 2, 10 & 12), perhaps the most delirious title in the series. Set during one of the many revolutions that swept across the country, it finds Armendáriz as a rough-hewn rebel general who storms into a town to rob its riches "for the people."

Fernández has no illusions about the revolution: General Reyes' first act is to summon the rich, demand their money and execute them if they refuse. A childhood friend who is now the town's remaining priest prevents Reyes from killing an elderly landowner whose daughter Beatriz (Félix) is about to marry a foreigner.

One sight of Beatriz, and Reyes turns into a lovesick puppy, spouting poems about her beauty and hiring musicians to serenade her at night. She in turn knocks him unconscious with bats, firecrackers and whatever else she can get her hands on.

Structurally, Enamorada is a mess, but Fernández knew the impact his two stars would have on viewers. Like Bergman and Grant in Notorious, Félix and Armendáriz are too spectacular to be constrained by a mere screenplay. Cinematography this brilliant looks even better in Enamorada's restored version. Figueroa's close-ups of the two stars—especially one of Félix as she listens to singers outside her bedroom—are extraordinary.

María Candelaria, Fernández's breakthrough film, won both the Palme d’Or and Best Cinematography awards at the 1946 Cannes Film Festival. Screening March 1 and 6, it stars Dolores del Río, who had worked in Hollywood and was making her debut in Mexican cinema. Once again she and Armendáriz were innocent, impossibly beautiful lovers menaced by shopkeeper Miguel Inclán.

Along with actors like Manuel Dondé, Rodolfo Acosta, José Morcillo and Roberto Cañedo, Inclán appeared over and over in Fernández's films, playing crooked soldiers, mean fathers, stubborn peasants. In Salón México (March 4, 9 & 13), he has a rare virtuous part as a security guard at the eponymous dance hall who falls for Marga López, a thief and a cheat only because she is trying to put her orphan sister through convent school.

Salón México is noir with a vengeance, crooks fleeing down shadowy alleys, double-crosses marked by knives and pistols, López hiding her beatings with scarves and sunglasses.

Fernández, Figueroa and Armendáriz collaborated with author John Steinbeck on La Perla/The Pearl (March 3 & 7). Winner of the Golden Lion at the 1947 Venice Film Festival, The Pearl was the first Mexican-made English-language picture released in the United States. The Spanish version, which is being screened in this series, is some ten minutes longer.

Many of Fernández's collaborators worked on or appeared in The Fugitive (March 3 & 8), John Ford's version of Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory. Henry Fonda stars as a "whiskey priest" who risks death for practicing his religion. Armendáriz, del Río, Acosta, and Inclán are among the actors, with Figueroa behind the camera and Fernández credited as associate producer. Gloomy and downbeat, The Fugitive is notable mostly for Figueroa's work.

As his career progressed, Fernández's interests seemed to narrow. His movies took on an earnest, hectoring tone, and he focused more and more on didactic, one-on-one confrontations between rich and poor, military and religion, man and woman. The settings might be shantytowns or the front lines of revolutions, but the stories all revolve around eternal passions, around love and duty and betrayal. In films like Los Olvidados and Nazarin (both shot by Figueroa), Luis Buñuel would take a chainsaw to Fernández's themes.

The director returned to working as an actor, for years a reliable presence in westerns and later in the films of Sam Peckinpah. In Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (March 6 & 11), he's a ruthless gangster out to avenge his pregnant daughter.

Despite some dated elements, Fernández's films remain both compelling and entertaining. His bold, assertive style succeeds in part because he is dealing with such enormous landscapes and figures. In Enamorada, a rebel general argues with a priest over who is best serving God. It's a fascinating, honest debate, beautifully lit and framed in a proscenium by Figueroa, and staged so cunningly that you don't even realize at first that it's a single take almost three minutes long.