Golden-Epoch Cinema in Mexico

Delores del Rio in Flor Silvestre. Photo courtesy of Filmoteca UNAM Collection

Creating National Myths on the Silver Screen

By Alma Guillermoprieto

The acting was appalling, the inconsistencies of plot and character so constant that any occasional consistency seemed glaring. The soft-bodied chorus girls always skipped and wiggled in non-unison and the heroines always sobbed in precisely the same cadence, and no director ever attached negative value to the term “over the top.” During its three-score-long heyday, the Mexican movie industry produced hundreds of movies that scored low in at least one of the categories of wit, good taste, pacing, psychological insight, or complexity—or, sometimes, all of the above.

And yet, as much as any single other force, Mexican movies defined a nation, and an era, in a way that mattered deeply not only to Mexicans: throughout Latin America, the weepy musicals and glamorous dramas held tens of millions of viewers captive in their silvery light. Not for nothing does one of the revolutionary poet Roque Dalton’s best-known poems end with the words: “Let’s see if you sleep as good as you snore/ as Pedro Infante used to say.” [my translation] To this day, Mexicans traveling through points south will generate friendly surprise when their accent is revealed. “Mexicana!” a Peruvian shopkeeper, or an Argentine bureaucrat, will exclaim. And life for the wayfarer will suddenly become easier, as if by virtue of nationality the traveler were somehow to be thanked for the gift of those old-time Mexican movies.

In this country almost no one who is not Latino has ever seen a Mexican movie from the Época de Oro, or Golden Era--as the period from, let’s say, 1938 to 1954 is generally known. And yet, whenever in the course of a lecture I’ve shown a snippet of one of those pinnacles of obsessive sentimentalism, I’ve seen the entire audience relax, visibly let go, at the first strains of a mariachi song, or laugh at the movie’s silliest jokes with good-natured delight, or stare in wonder at the extreme beauty of María Félix. What is it about these bad films that makes them so powerful? Let us say, for the moment, that it is the strength of their conviction in their own Mexicanness.

In the early 1930s, Mexico began to emerge from long decades of revolution and social upheaval into the normality of a daily life, albeit a life transformed not only by the Revolution itself but by an accelerated presence of the modern world. The working class was working, an emerging bureaucracy was giving rise to a new sort of middle class, and at long last it was possible for families to live a predictable life, one in which weekend family entertainment had pride of place. In the burgeoning economy brand-new movie houses, each more glamorous and extravagant than the next, showed hypnotic entertainments. The glimmering figures on the screen could be from anywhere—swashbuckling stars like Douglas Fairbanks and John Barrymore played as important a role in the fantasy life of young Mexican matinee-movie-goers as they did north of the border—but in post-revolutionary Mexico the proud new workers and employees (oficinistas) also wanted their own faces, language, and taste for high drama and great singing up on the screen. Moreover, a country that had seen itself ripped up and turned inside out by nearly twenty years of warfare had a lot of stories to tell, and the factions that emerged victorious from the bloodshed wanted certain stories told their way. Thus, the emergence of a national and nationalistic film enterprise, financed by the government of President Lázaro Cárdenas and, to a lesser degree, by producers in the United States. In the new mythology known asnacionalismo revolucionario, Mexico was not a tangle of corruption, backstabbing factions, religious warfare and outrageous inequality. Instead, it was a nation forged in the fires of revolution, tempered by want, rooted in tradition but emerging triumphant into the modern world. In any other country, perhaps, and certainly at any other point in Mexico’s development, the subjugation of creative endeavor to official history would have reeked of cynicism or propaganda. And propaganda there was, certainly, by the reel, along with ghastly exploitation of the audience’s hunger for “schmaltz,” but the Época de Oro of Mexican cinema coincided with a rare moment, perhaps akin to the first decade of the Cuban or Chinese Revolution, in which a poor and often victimized country believed in itself and thus created itself in the image it was in the act of conjuring. The energy released by this sort of magical thinking can fuel the unlikeliest representations of story.

Take Jorge Negrete, the opera-trained singer from a respectable Northern family, who would embody ranchero culture by erasing the whole notion of social class. Yes, it was true that most rancheros were more dark-skinned—and rather less well-nourished—than he, and that he sang not necessarily traditional ranchero songs wearing a mariachi costume no mariachi had ever worn before (indeed, the whole concept of the mariachi was pretty much a Mexiwood invention). But it was also true that Negrete embodied the Mexican persona at its best: the big-hearted and exquisitely courteous male from la provincia who bears himself with virile elegance and an easy-going smile. Mexicans could both identify with him and ache to be like him. Or take Dolores del Río and Pedro Armendáriz, stars and muses of the artiest of all the Mexican film directors, Emilio (“el Indio”) Fernández. Del Río came from an haute bourgeois family and was a star in Hollywood long before she ever acted in a Mexican movie. Armendáriz inherited his famous green eyes from his American mother, was partly brought up in the United States, and was an unreconstructed bohemian sometime-journalist, sometime art-student, before he turned to acting as a lark. On the face of it, the notion was ludicrous that these two worldly people could embody, over and over again, indigenous Mexican couples crushed by poverty and discrimination. But like Jorge Negrete, Pedro Infante, and a dozen other screen idols, these actors believed so strongly in the archetypes they were helping to create that they came to embody them for the generations. (I am using the overworked term “screen idols” advisedly: Infante’s and Negrete’s funerals, for example, provoked outpourings of national mourning that ended in riots at the cemetery and several reported suicides.) National identity became actors’ and scriptwriters’ substitute for individual personality and character. Or, rather, national identity became character. It is the innocence and conviction with which these representations of identity were enacted onscreen that made them vital, irresistible, and, in some unaccountable way, true.

The last great box office hits of the Época de Oro included the Pedro Infante trilogy about Pepe el Toro--heart-broken hero of the working poor--and the whole cycle of hip-shivering rumbera movies, which made audiences dance and sob late into the 1940s. Then it was over. In the 1950s only the comic actor Tin Tan would command the kind of devotion that made the stars of the Época de Oro household names, but the plots of even Tin Tan’s best movies unravel long before the ending, and there is a frantic energy in his acting that can be read as trying too hard. He remains an old-style icon, but the formulas he clung to lost their magic even as he did his best to prod them back to life.

Towards the end of the 1950s, Mexican movie studios made the decision to shift to color film. The dispirited flatness of the first movies in color, their unbearable triviality, come as a shock after the great outpouring of narrative that the Época de Oro represented. It was as if the whole country had suddenly run out of stories to tell. Moreover, there were less and less stories in common. Mimicking the beach-blanket songfests Hollywood was churning out, Estudios Churubusco produced teen musicals in which stand-ins for Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue bounced aimlessly around the screen, singing tuneless covers off the U.S. pop charts. These misconceived attempts at cosmopolitanism did find an audience (what else, after all, was there to see?), as did the only slightly more original risqué dramas featuring heavy-breathing actresses in their slips, but the social classes no longer mingled at the movie theatre: the middle class surrendered entirely to imports—mostly from the United States––while an entirely different audience favored the still-kicking ranchero genre. (Indeed, the ranchero movie would eventually morph into the narcoepic, appallingly badly-made drug sags whose existence is barely noted by the middle class, but which have found a huge audience, and are currently produced directly for DVD.)
The dominance at the box office of American movie spectaculars, the widespread influence of television, and the demise ofnacionalismo revolucionario, which had collapsed under the weight of its own broken promises, combined to demolish the Mexican film industry by the 1960s, despite the fact that its revival is regularly announced.

In recent years a dozen or so talented young directors—mostly male, mostly devoted to full-length fiction features—have, in fact, revitalized the art, if not the industry. But these new directors are as determined to prove their ability to tell stories about any part of the world as their artistic forbears were to sing the song of Mexico. The standard-bearers of this new wave, Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón, are internationally recognized, and therefore a great source of pride for their many compatriots. But they are still hugely outsold by Spiderman. And because they do not have a truly national audience, as a general rule they are not definers of a new myth of national identity (Y tu mamá también comes to mind as an exception.) Instead, the new wave of directors are individual artists, making highly personal films. This is probably just as well: after all, the Época de Oro fed us lies on a silver spoon, and now we are grown up. But oh, how delicious those lies were, and oh, how we miss them!

Alma Guillermoprieto is a Mexican-born journalist and author of several books, including Samba and Dancing with Cuba. A 2004-05 Nieman Fellow and a 2006-07 Fellow at the Radcliff Institute of Advanced Studies at Harvard, she taught a seminar on 20th-century Mexican history and movies as a 2008 Visiting Lecturer in Harvard's Romance Languages and Literature department.

See also: Mexico, Film

Eréndira Ikikunari

Celebrating Indigenous Cultural Heritage

By Juan Mora Catlett

Hucha mítetixapquia escacsi hupiringa, máteru cuiripuecha. Atahpiticha encacsi tyámu xucuparhapca ca engacsi cacapequa úquaaca imaechani engancsi cuahpequarhenga. Ma cuiripuhcu no cherheaspti. Yurhistsquiri ma enga naneni, hamemquia Eréndira arhicurhispti...

“We had heard about the intruders: Warriors covered with iron who descended from heaven and killed all who dared oppose them. The only one that didn't fear them was a girl, barely a woman: Her name was Eréndira…”

The language is Puréhpecha, spoken by the indigenous people who had lived in Michoacán, Mexico, long before the arrival of Europeans. They were one of the most powerful pre-Columbian empires, only second to their worst enemies: the Aztecs. Actually, they were never conquered by anyone, so their descendants still maintain many of their traditions and customs.


The feature film Eréndira Ikikunari (2006) is based on a 16th century legend. It tells the story of a young girl, Eréndira, who became an icon of bravery during the destruction of her world by the Spanish conquistadors. The intruders took advantage of conflicts and discord among the Mexican natives that allowed the newcomers to reap the spoils of a country divided. But Eréndira refused to allow her nation to be destroyed and stood up against the social conventions that prohibited women from participating in warfare. It took extreme courage for her to capture and learn to ride one of the Spaniards’ horses— seen as terrifying creatures by the natives. However, in this fashion, Eréndira won the respect of tribal leaders and became a symbol of resistance and the preservation of her culture. She was an exceptional woman, who fought to attain the dignity and respect that her culture only granted men.


When I was shooting a mural depicting the History of Michoacán for a documentary film about the Mexican painter Juan O’Gorman, I discovered the figure of an almost naked Indian Amazon facing the bloody, iron-clad Spanish conquistadors. Immediately I thought: “This is a great theme for a movie.” The idea of doing a film on a real red-blooded heroine was very attractive; first, I didn’t have to invent or idealize anything, and second, the theme countered the low status that women had in pre-Columbian cultures and the degree of invisibility in which women are maintained even today.

The plot is based on two sources: the widespread legend of Princess Eréndira and the 16th century illustrated manuscriptRelación de Michoacán, written immediately after the conquest. This codex narrates the history of the Puréhpecha people, from their mythical origin until the arrival of the Europeans. The two accounts complement each other as two pieces of a puzzle, although giving opposed views of the conquest, the Relación being the official history written by the victors, and the legend, handed down by oral tradition, being the only history book of vanquished peoples.

We planned to stage the film in locations in Michoacán: the Paricutín volcano as the abode of the gods, Lake Pátzcuaro, the ruins of two pre-Columbian cities and the spring of the Cupatitzio river. As we would be working in actual ruins instead of building sets, we decided that the characters’ wardrobe and makeup should be based on the archaeological sources (the drawings of the codices and representations of people in ceramics and stone) and the contemporary crafts of the Puréhpecha (pottery, textiles and the attire of the folk dancers).


The costume design was developed from the Relación de Michoacán illustrations, where all the social strata of the pre-Columbian Puréhpecha are depicted. Considering that these images are stylizations, their translation into three-dimensional costumes was a challenge. Instead of using materials such as tiger or deer leather, tropical bird feathers, raw cotton or jute fabrics, we employed materials used by contemporary ethnic groups, like straw mats --which served to create armor-- or hand-woven fabrics. Instead of embroidering them, we used textile paint, imitating the codex’s drawings. The end result was very interesting, achieving the look of a “cinematic pre-Columbian codex.” Another challenge was to present the conquistadors as supernatural beings. We wanted to see them as the Indians did, as “ironclad warriors that had descended from heaven.” We hit upon an answer in the folk dance of the “Curpitis,” where we see natives wearing wooden masks that depict white men. Their costumes were a combination of renaissance armor and the wardrobe of the “Curpitis,” including, of course, the masks. Puréhpecha devil masks were used to represent pre-Columbian gods. Even the horse wore a metallic mask, acquiring by association a divine quality. This goes on, of course, until the Indians unmask the invaders, realizing that they are merely human. The only one that never loses his is the horse!


Eréndira Ikikunari’s makeup was developed from an idea from my previous feature on the Aztecs of Mexico, Return to Aztlán, in which we substituted body makeup for expensive costumes (expected in a period piece). In the Mixtec pre-Columbian codices, characters were usually decorated all over with signs, and certain Mexican indigenous tribes still paint their bodies for their ceremonies. It was surprising to discover that a practically nude person covered with body makeup appeared to be richly attired, and also, as in the case of the depiction of gods, was transformed into an extraordinary being.

In Eréndira we went even further. In the Relación we read that the great warriors used to cover their bodies with the soot from dense black smoke of green wood bonfires. This gave us the idea of using different qualities of black body makeup to distinguish the great warriors from the foot soldiers. Also, as the film deals with a fratricidal war, the rebels were painted solid black and the Spaniards’ allies had white markings upon their black makeup. In this way we could show that all belonged to a common culture, although they were fighting each other as harsh enemies. Eréndira had a red stripe on her face, to show that she was struggling for all of her people.

Makeup also served to give dignity and greatness to the characters, and to distinguish social strata and trades. As the film starts with Eréndira preparing for her wedding, we created a “wedding makeup” based on a pre-Columbian clay figure. Also, in the Relación, characters appear with faces painted in different colors, information that was very useful as it broadened our makeup palette.


To make the film I sought the collaboration of the indigenous community as well as input from scholars and linguists. I wanted the indigenous voice and perspective to be the true narrator. Then, instead of working with professional actors speaking Spanish or English, I chose to train indigenous actors, speaking their own tongue, acting in their imperial pre-Columbian cities, wearing the outfits of their ancestors and recreating a very important episode of their own history. This gives the film a very special authenticity; more than mere entertainment, it’s a Statement of the Original Peoples regarding their own History.

The dialogue is mostly spoken in a Puréhpecha with an ancient flavor, mixed with a little 16th century Spanish and Latin. With the help of linguists from several indigenous villages, we had to create a dialogue that everybody who knows the tongue could understand. The actors, who were mostly authentic Indians acting for the first time ever, went through intensive rehearsals in the eight weeks before we started shooting. For the role of Eréndira we wanted to break away from the commonplace of mannish and superhuman heroines typical of U.S. action films. So we chose a young actress doing her first professional role in a very feminine way.

We started working on the shores of Lake Pátzcuaro, in the ancient imperial cities of Tzintzuntzan (the place of hummingbirds) and Ihuatzio (the place of coyotes), still mostly buried. The fact that we were working in the place where the original events took place also added a kind of magical aura and communion with living nature and the ancient gods. This was echoed in the actors’ performances and in the camera work. Due to the difficult shooting conditions, as we were working in exteriors, with natural light, with non-professional actors who were almost naked, the largest part was shot with three simultaneous cameras in digital cinema, one in high definition (HD) and two miniDVs. The other part of the film was shot with two S16 mm film cameras. This allowed the actors to perform without interrupting the flow of their emotions, as is usual in features. We also could take advantage of the continuity of the lighting conditions and colors of each hour of the day. There were many magical moments that were captured by the cameras in astounding photography.


The use of digital techniques during the editing allowed us to combine the beautiful drawings of the Relación de Michoacánwith live action, establishing a style that followed the Puréhpecha concept of the epic and allowed the rendering of a myth. So, through a non-realistic style, a world that we can't possibly recreate is made credible. The story is finally told by the voice of an old Indian through the text and drawings of a codex. This combination of graphics and live action in collage form brought the form of the film near to the aesthetics of pre-Columbian codices while maintaining a very contemporary look.

The music was made from the sound recordings of the scenes. Human voices, sounds of nature, conches and drums, were used to create the music digitally. The film thus attained a very special unity, as all the sound, music and images stemmed from the same source.


Such films on pre-Columbian themes are extremely rare and contribute to the awareness that our most important roots, especially in a large part of Latin America, are not only European. It’s true that since the conquest both indigenous cultural heritage and religions have been labeled as “primitive,” “useless,” “naive,” “inferior,” and “valueless,” as that served the Europeans to strengthen their dominion. Even today, the fact of being of non-European origin is a source of shame for many people in Latin America. During the premiere of the film at the Puréhpecha community theater in Pátzcuaro (the city where the O’Gorman mural is located), the response of the indigenous audience was extremely moving. One old lady who did not speak Spanish fluently said that she “was very happy because it was the first time she had understood a Mexican film.” One man told the audience very openly that since his childhood he was made to feel ashamed of his language and culture, but after watching the film he felt very proud. Those two comments were for me justification enough for having made the film, which, incidentally, did very well in Film Festivals all over the world and in box office receipts in Mexico. The film has also been shown in various indigenous communities, always resulting in discussions about the necessity of studying their own history, ending ancient grudges between villages, unifying the diverse dialects of their language, and longing for more Eréndiras.

Juan Mora Catlett is a filmmaker and full professor at The University Center of Film Studies at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). He has distinguished himself in developing a style of fiction cinema based on pre-Columbian cultural roots.

Mexico's National Museum of Film

Poster courtesy of Claudia Arroyo Quiroz

Filmmaking and Identity

By Claudia Arroyo Quiraz

Mexico has a long history of filmmaking, from the silent era to the present, with some particularly prolific periods that have been stimulated by state sponsorship and international recognition. Appreciation of the results began in the 1940s, when Mexican films won prizes at European festivals such as Cannes, has continued more recently with the success of directors such as Alfonso Cuarón (Y tu mamá también, 2001- And Your Mother, Too), Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores perros, 2000- Love’s a Bitch; Babel, 2006) y Guillermo del Toro (El laberinto del fauno, 2006- Pan’s Labyrinth). The National Museum of Cinema seeks to broaden Mexico’s collective knowledge about its national film history, but first I’d like to provide a little bit of it here.

During the silent period, cinema served as both entertainment and a source of information through fiction features, very much influenced by European and American films, and through documentaries that registered the final phase of Porfirio Díaz’s dictatorship (1876-1910) and the avatars of the Revolution (1910-17). In the 1920s, film production was not so abundant in part because the newly formed state focused on sponsoring other projects such as public education and mural art. It was not until the mid- 1930s that the post-revolutionary state invested in cinema on a large scale, which led to the formation of a film industry that in the 1940s dominated the market of the Spanish-speaking world (Latin America, Spain and the United States). This period, known as the Golden Age (1935-55), saw the emergence of new genres, directors with distinctive styles and a local star system that helped to assure a massive audience. Characterized by the predominance of a nationalist discourse and a melodramatic narrative, Golden Age cinema gained international recognition particularly through the success of director Emilio Fernández and his cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa.

In the 1960s, a new generation of filmmakers and film critics began to reject the 1940s popular cinema. Their attempts to form a new film culture, along with state funding in the early 1970s, contributed to the development of a kind of auteur cinema led by directors like Felipe Cazals and Arturo Ripstein. In the early 1990s, Mexico’s cultural scene came to be refreshed by a new corpus of films produced by younger directors, which would come to be known, both locally and abroad, as the New Mexican Cinema. While several of these directors have continued to consolidate their careers, with some of them now settled in the international arena, in recent years other new filmmakers have managed to produce their first feature films, despite the financial difficulties aggravated by Hollywood’s supremacy in the country’s movie theatres, and to a large extent thanks to the support provided by local annual festivals such as those in Guadalajara and Morelia.

Unlike the auteur cinema produced from the 1960s to the present, which has been viewed and praised mainly by the middle classes, the more popular, industrial and melodramatic cinema (Golden Age films and successful genres of subsequent decades such as wrestler and fichera films) is very much cherished by a large part of Mexico’s population. Love of these older films has been fuelled by the state and by media companies that have promoted this film heritage through retrospectives, commercial DVD editions and constant TV reruns. In particular, Golden Age cinema has been widely celebrated by official discourse and the mass media as a key component of the nation’s cultural heritage, for instance through homages dedicated to directors and stars.

Mexico’s long tradition of preserving its film heritage is maintained at present by institutions like Cineteca Nacional (Education Ministry) and the Filmoteca UNAM (National Autonomous University), film studios (Estudios Churubusco) and private collectors; all of them have preserved not only the films themselves but also a wide range of still images, sound material and all sorts of objects related to cinematographic production.

Such preservation work has led to the creation of the National Museum of Cinema, a project sponsored by the Mexican Institute of Cinematography (IMCINE), the official entity in charge of promoting the development of the country’s cinematographic activities. President Felipe Calderón announced the creation of the museum in 2008 during the celebrations of the centennial of the birth of the cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. The document outlining the project highlights the cultural and educational function assigned to the museum, stating that it will be “a dynamic and interactive space that will illustrate the history of our cinema and the contributions made by Mexican cinema’s images and filmmakers to both our culture and our collective imaginings”. The document also envisages that the museum will take part in the reconfiguration of the national identity, stating that the project aims “to draw the new generations to the cultural referents of our cinema in the process of constructing our national identity for the 21st century”.

The initial stage of the project has involved the formation of a multidisciplinary working group that includes film scholars, collectors, museographers, scriptwriters, architects and visual artists. This group is currently working on the museum’s inaugural exhibition, entitled Cinema and the Mexican Revolution, which will open in the second half of 2010 at the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso during the commemoration of the centenary of the beginning of the Revolution. Conceived as the official “letter of presentation” of the museum, the exhibition will explore how cinema, both national and foreign, documentary and fiction, has represented the Mexican Revolution from the outbreak of that war to the present day.

Housed in nine rooms, the exhibition will treat the following themes: the sociopolitical and cultural context of pre-revolutionary Mexico; the documentaries produced during the Revolution; the representation of the revolutionary leaders (caudillos) in fiction films; the genealogy of the representation of the Revolution in Mexico’s visual culture in the 1920s and 1930s; the construction of natural and artificial spaces in the mise-en-scène of the films; the representation of the physical and social mobilizations caused by the civil war; the characterization of violence and death during the war; the construction of gender identities in fiction films; and finally, the representation of the Revolution in Hollywood and European cinema. The design of these rooms will be based on both the research carried out by film historians and the proposals made by museographers and artists. In addition, there will be outdoor public exhibitions that will include installations and activities such as film screenings, a collective book with research articles that will be based on the exhibition; and a television series produced by TV UNAM using some of the research findings.

The creation of this museum is inscribed within a long tradition of administrating cultural heritage that was implemented in Mexico from the beginning of the post-revolutionary period. Given the nationalist orientation of its post-revolutionary policy, Mexico has invested a great deal in both preserving its cultural heritage and integrating it into an extensive system of museums, more than any other country in Latin America. As UAM anthropology professor Néstor García Canclini indicates in Culturas híbridas. Estrategias para entrar y salir de la modernidad (México: Grijalbo, 1990), museums have constituted the scene for the classification and assessment of cultural goods in Mexico along with schooling and the mass media.

Since the heritage to be exhibited is film, the National Museum of Cinema could prove to be at once advantageous and sensitive, as it will be maneuvering a corpus of cultural goods that hold a special place in the collective imagination. In this sense, it will be interesting to see how the museum addresses the visitor as a citizen in relation to his/her country’s history of filmmaking. In “Muralism and the People: Culture, Popular Citizenship, and Government in Post-Revolutionary Mexico” (The Communication Review, 5:7-38, 2002.), Dartmouth College art history professor Mary K. Coffey describes the museum visitor as a “‘citizen-addressee’ who is hailed by the museum as a subject and offered ‘a position in history and a relationship to that history’ ”. In addition to noting this function, we will also witness to what extent the museum mobilizes a discourse regarding its potential contribution to a process of reconfiguring the national identity, as the document presenting the project suggests.

In displaying the history of the film representation of the Revolution, the exhibition will allow the viewer to see how this representation has changed over time, in accordance with discursive formations and the political necessities of the various historical periods. The exhibition will carry out a conceptual and spatial organization of film materials that will guide, in one way or another, the interpretations of the visitor/citizen about cinema’s construction of the Revolution. In the context of Coffey’s analysis, this is related to the fact that the meaning of any visual culture is always contingent upon contextualization; an idea that can be developed further through the following questions: where is the piece of visual culture located? What are the rituals governing interpretation in that site? How is it framed or positioned?

Through this exhibition and subsequent ones, the National Museum of Cinema will provide novel and unique ways of displaying and socializing Mexico’s film culture. This will allow the public to reflect upon the significance of this crucial aspect of the country’s cultural history and, consequently, also on the role of audiovisual culture in the construction of collective imaginings and identities.

Claudia Arroyo Quiroz holds a doctorate in Latin American Studies from the Birkbeck College (University of London) and is a research professor at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana-Cuajimalpa in Mexico City. Her research has focused on Mexico’s cultural history of 19th and 20th centuries; she has published articles on nationalist and identity discourses in Mexican literature and film.

See also: Mexico, Culture, Film

Oscars for Mexican Filmmakers

The image depicts a scene from El Rancho Grande. Photo courtesy of Filmoteca UNAM Collection

But Where Are the Mexican Films?

By Humberto Delgado

A couple of years ago, in 2007, the so-called Three Amigos (the filmmakers Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu) went up on stage for the 79th Oscar Awards presentations. Their three films (Children of Men, Pan’s Labyrinth and Babel, respectively) garnered a total of sixteen nominations for the golden statuette (ten of them for people born in Mexico). Together, they won four of the Oscars handed over that night and a contract with Universal for $100 million dollars to produce five movies, one or two of them in Spanish.

On the other side of the border, the event was much celebrated and publicized. This national triumph had great symbolic value for Mexico. These directors and other Mexican artists had managed to realize the American dream by directing Robert de Niro, acting alongside of Brad Pitt, and working as photography directors for Tim Burton or the Coen brothers. Film criticism in Mexico, sometimes excessively condescending, at other times extremely harsh, was polarized between critics who unabashedly praised the filmmakers for displaying high technical expertise and notable aesthetic quality in these multimillion dollar projects, and commentators who considered these films to be mere “popcorn movies,” commercial factory piecework that erased national identity and eclipsed true Mexican films with cultural values that defined the country or that had taken risks to create formal avant garde experiments. Regardless of this polemic (impossible to resolve in this space), the night of the 2007 Oscars could also be said to demonstrate a historic inertia of cinematography in a country which had been capable of generating its own export-quality movies. In this, the relations between Mexico and the United States have played a fundamental role that is responsible for the present situation—not only cinematographic, but also the economic, political, social and cultural. Let us use the flashback technique to explain some of the background that led to the night when the Three Amigos took each other’s hands and greeted the audience in the movie awards ceremony seen throughout the world.

The initial point of departure for any discussion of Mexican film is its so-called Golden Age, whose exact dates are defined differently by different commentators. In “El cine nacional,” for example, Carlos Monsiváis places the era from 1930 to 1954, while Rafael Aviña and Gustavo García situate its beginning in 1936, the year of the legendary film Allá en el Rancho Grande. In any case, the period encompassed a little less than thirty years and managed to dominate the film industry in Latin America, with the exception of Argentina. Mexico made the most widely seen films in Spanish on the continent, including in Brazil and the United States; here, in 1950, 300 movie houses showed Spanish-language films, mainly Mexican movies.

Commercial success led to thematic richness in the film industry. Producers made movies of an expressionist nature such as Dos monjes (1934), political-historical films such as ¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa! (1935) or films dissecting specific sectors of the society such as the family in Una familia de tantas (1934) or immigrants to the United States in Espaldas mojadas(1953). Only a strong film industry could receive exiled Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel and help revive his career, or let a terribly bad filmmaker, Juan Orol (the local Ed Wood), write, direct, produce, act in and compose the music for a movie in which Mexican charros—a type of Mexican cowboy—defend the national sovereignty when threatened by the Chicago Mafia (Gángsters contra charros, 1947). This peculiar and weird film demonstrates the good health and diversity of a cinematography capable of making 108 movies in 1949 and 150 in 1950, in contrast to the harsh and sad reality of the end of the century, when only thirteen movies were made in 1997.

In this entire Mexican Belle Époque, Mexico-United States relations were notably important. The first factor that should be mentioned—a commonplace for all references regarding this period—was Mexico’s northern neighbor’s entry into World War II. The U.S. film industry needed to ration its production of celluloid (the material for making film) and to concentrate its movie production on war-related movies and propaganda. Thus, although it continued to be the dominant industry in the world, it had to cede a bit of room to its neighbors. In addition, European film, the second dominant market in Latin America, directly suffered the effects of the war. Mexico took advantage of the situation when it declared itself an ally of the United States against the German-Italian-Japanese axis. Its Spanish-language film competitors fell behind: Spain was recuperating from a civil war, and Argentina was trapped in its relationship with Germany and Italy. Hence the Mexican movie industry flourished and expanded throughout the continent.

In addition to the factor of the war, the Golden Age of movies in Mexico was strengthened by closeness to Hollywood. The proximity of the border allowed many Mexican technicians and film artists to develop their skills in the United States and to learn from Hollywood the difficult art of making movies. The most notable case—because of its importance and because it serves as a microcosm of the relationship between the two neighbors—is that of the group made up of Emilio Fernández (director), Gabriel Figueroa (cinematographer) and Dolores del Río (actress). This group is unanimously considered by critics as the crew that brought film aesthetics of Mexico to its highest point during the Golden Age in the middle of the 20th century, a status that even today no one has been able to attain. All three had been in Hollywood under different circumstances, and each one was representative of the diverse strata of Mexican society.

First, there is Emilio Fernández, the wetback who worked his way up to learning how to make movies after laboring as bricklayer, longshoreman and waiter in Chicago and Los Angeles. He then became an apprentice in several movies, where he learned a bit of everything and was a specialist in nothing. Later, thanks to his athletic figure, he was hired as a double and an extra in movies, including a few for Douglas Fairbanks. The “Indio” —the Indian—(a nickname he wore with honor) is even said to have been the model who posed for the Oscar statuette, an unlikely tale but indicative of his striking looks. Fernández arrived in Hollywood in the 1920s, when the cinematographic development of silent films had reached its peak after its institutionalization with films such as Intolerance in the previous decade. It was also in California where “El Indio” learned of an unfinished film that affected him deeply: Sergei Eisenstein’s ¡Que viva México!, about which he declares, “This is where I learned the pain of the people, the land, the strike, the struggle for freedom and social justice. It was wonderful.” This statement is in and of itself an aesthetic declaration that Emilio Fernández would abide by to the end.

The inspiring mix of the North American film and the Soviet director would influence Fernández significantly after he returned to Mexico and became the author of Flor Silvestre, Enamorada, Río Escondido, María Candelaria and Salón México, among his most significant films. As does Almodóvar today, Fernández stylized melodrama in such a fashion as to give it a tragic aspect and transform it into something greater that could effectively transmit the values of a post-revolutionary Mexico. The idealization and exaltation as a way to construct the identity of the country led the director to create diverse mythic figures that have survived in the local imaginary (the Peasant, the Motherland, the Mother, Providence, all with capital letters). He is, without a doubt, the most nationalist among nationalist filmmakers and this turned him, for better or worse, into one of the few Mexican film directors, perhaps the only one, that has made it to a select pantheon known as authors’ films. The grandfather of the Three Amigos returned from the United States to his country of origin, not to reencounter but to reinvent it and this was somethg he never would have been able to accomplish without the experience of living in the United States, distanced from his home country.

The director would not have accomplished much without the help of another notable artist: the cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, who also had his own experience in Hollywood. If Emilio Fernández crossed the border as a wetback, Figueroa did so through networking among producers. Figueroa received a scholarship in 1935 from the Mexican film company CLASA to study with the legendary Gregg Toland, who later would become the cameraman for Citizen Kane and also would take charge of teaching Orson Wells about the language of film. Just as Eisenstein was important for Fernández, Toland’s style would mark Figueroa and through him the entire Mexican film industry, with the use of deep focus in which the depth of field is increased and the cinematographic space is expanded. The “Indio” and Figueroa learned to optimize this resource to capture the Mexican landscape, imbuing it with a lyrical essence. Through Figueroa, Mexican photography turned into a school with a certain prestige in the world, to the degree that today, fifty years later, there are at least five Mexican cameramen filming in Hollywood and winning Oscars for which Figueroa was nominated, but did not win.

Last but not least is Dolores del Río, who arrived in Hollywood in a very different manner. Unlike Figueroa and Fernández, the future star of the Golden Age was a member of Mexico’s wealthy upper class and emigrated to California—to the circles of the jet set—after the upheaval of the Mexican Revolution. Del Río became an actress in silent films and made about 30 movies, many of them very successful and of the highest quality. She worked with highly regarded directors such as Raoul Walsh, King Vidor and Busby Berkeley, and in 1928 even managed to make a hit as a singer on the soundtrack of the silent film Ramona. Although she contributed to the promotion of the Latin stereotype, her elegant and aristocratic beauty, together with a true dramatic talent, made her a diva in her time; while a minor diva alongside some of the great divas of the period, she achieved greater fame than contemporary Mexican actresses like Salma Hayek, who has not managed to achieve a high-quality role in her North American experience. Unlike other non-English-speaking actors, Dolores del Río made an easy transition from silent film to the talkies and managed to continue her career in the United States. In 1942, getting close to 40 and knowing that Hollywood tended to put older actresses out to pasture, she decided to return to Mexico. There she met with intellectuals and artists, among whom was “Indio” Fernández. The director offered her the lead role in Flor Silvestre and this would begin the second act of her career, the face of love and feminine anguish of Mexican melodrama.

The director, the photographer, the actress. The wetback, the exchange student, the aristocrat. All the cinematographic sectors and the social strata of Mexico were enriched through this experience. U.S. cinematography gave them the technical expertise and allowed them to encounter their own cultural values that they later developed on returning to their native land. There are also other examples, such as Gonzalo Gavira, the first Mexican to win an Oscar; his award was for the sound effects in The Exorcist. Gavira managed to create peculiar sounds with ordinary objects, such as the possessed girl’s famous turn of the head, a sound that he made with a comb. Another success story is that of Luis Mandoki, the first true filmmaker of this new bevy of directors at the end of the 20th century. Mandoki emigrated to California as a result of the Mexican economic crisis and achieved a certain prestige in Hollywood; years later, in a curious reversal, he returned to Mexico to support the causes of the Mexican and Central American left, making leftist, politically committed films.

Given this history, it is not surprising to see the Three Amigos on stage for the 79th Oscar ceremony. González Iñárritu, Cuarón and del Toro are products of the Mexican film industry, which, even in crisis, still maintains the infrastructure forged in the years of splendor, enabling it to develop quality movies within the scope offered by the commercial and political relations with its northern neighbor. In spite of this history of being good neighbors in the film industry, there are elements that have negatively affected the Mexican film industry, bringing about its present crisis. The free market strategy, especially through NAFTA, has constrained cinematography south of the Bravo River and has permitted U.S. monopolies to dominate the Mexican movie houses. For example, in 2000, 84.2% of films shown in Mexico were from the United States, while 8.3% were Mexican, according to cultural critic Néstor García Canclini. The vicious cycle this produces is evident: if Mexican films do not profit from or recoup their investment, movie production is cut back and thus fewer local films are shown. In response, the Mexican filmaking community has often protested, including a 1998 international symposium that was called Los que no somos Hollywood (“Those of Us Who Are Not Hollywood”). These protests resulted in an effort to implement a law to protect the Mexican cinematographic market, a law that was completely rejected by Jack Valenti, director of the Motion Picture Association of America and by the U.S. government itself. The law, of course, never went into effect. Despite these problems, thanks to new digital technologies and the participation of the Mexican government, 70 movies were made in 2008, but only 46 of them were ever shown, and as a result the audience for local movies decreased dramatically. The artificial lifeline that the Mexican state has granted to the movie industry will not help if there is no fair competition within the local market and the Mexican film industry will continue to be in crisis for at least the next few years. This problem can be seen as a microcosm of what has happened in other areas—economic, social, cultural and political—of U.S.-Mexico relations. On one hand, the strong U.S. filmindustry has directly permitted the strengthening of the Mexican industry, but at the same time, power of the former diminishes the latter. But one should not forget the fact that in its turn, México dominated the Latin American film industry in the middle of the last century and hindered cinematographic development in other Latin American countries as a result of the inevitable spiral of the big fish gobbling up the smaller ones. The strengthening of national film industries is not possible without strengthening the economy and public policy in each country; at the same time, a robust film industry reflects the autonomy and strength of an economically healthy and democratic country (film in totalitarian governments should be considered as a separate, distinct case). The best way to guarantee that many more “Tres Amigos” will emerge and that new artistic talents will be developed in other Latin American nations is to guarantee the economic and social health of those nations. Utopia is still desirable—and still possible.

Humberto Delgado is a third-year doctoral student of Latin American literature in Harvard’s Departament de Romance Languages and Literatures. He studied Latin American literature at the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México (UAEM) and later film directing at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), where he also received a Master’s in Communications Studies.

Algunos aspectos de las relaciones cinematográficas entre México y los Estados Unidos (Spanish version)

By Humberto Delgado

Hace poco tiempo, en el año 2007, los llamados Three Amigos (los cinerealizadores mexicanos Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro y Alejandro González Iñárritu) subieron al escenario de la 79ª premiación del Óscar. En total, sus tres películas (Children of Men, Pan’s Labyrinth y Babel, respectivamente) alcanzarían dieciséis nominaciones a la estatuilla dorada (diez de ellas para gente nacida en México). Conjuntamente ganarían cuatro de los Óscares entregados esa noche y un contrato con Universal por cien millones de dólares para producir cinco películas, una o dos de ellas en español.

Del otro lado de la frontera el asunto fue muy celebrado y difundido. Este triunfo nacional mucho tenía de simbólico para el país. Estos artistas emigrantes habían logrado cumplir el sueño americano y eran capaces de dirigir a Robert de Niro, actuar al lado de Brad Pitt o ser directores de fotografía de Tim Burton o los hermanos Coen. La crítica cinematográfica en México, a veces excesivamente condescendiente y otras radicalmente dura, se polarizó entre quienes alababan la entereza con que estos cineastas asumían con éxito proyectos de millones de dólares, con un dominio técnico y estético notable, mientras otros consideraban esas mismas películas meros popcorn movies, maquila comercial que borra las huellas de la identidad nacional y eclipsa las verdaderas películas mexicanas, aquellas con valores culturales que definen al país o que bien han corrido los difíciles riesgos de crear las experimentaciones formales del avant-garde fílmico local. A pesar de esta polémica (imposible de resolver en este espacio) la noche de los Óscares del 2007 es, efectivamente, el resultado de una inercia histórica en un país que fue capaz de generar un cine propio con calidad de exportación. En todo esto, las relaciones entre México y Estados Unidos han jugado un papel fundamental que mucho ayudan a entender este presente –no sólo cinematográfico- sino también económico, político, social y cultural. Por todo lo anterior, es conveniente hacer un flash back que explique algunos antecedentes previos que han originado esa noche en que los Three Amigos se tomaban de la mano y saludaban a la audiencia de la ceremonia cinematográfica más vista en todo el mundo.

El referente inicial de cualquier discusión de cine mexicano se establece en su llamada Época de Oro cuyas fechas fluctúan entre los distintos autores que se refieren a ello. Carlos Monsiváis, por ejemplo, la ubica en el periodo que va de 1930 a 1954, mientras otros, como Rafael Aviña y Gustavo García, la sitúan en 1936, año del estreno de la mítica Allá en el Rancho Grande. En todos los casos se piensa que fueron poco menos de treinta años de una industria dominante en toda Latinoamérica (con la excepción de Argentina), siendo la cinematografía en español más vista en el continente, incluso en Brasil y Estado Unidos; en este último país, como dato curioso, en 1950 había en Nueva York 300 salas dedicadas al cine en lengua española que principalmente exhibían películas mexicanas. El éxito de mercado ocasionó una riqueza temática en la filmografía del país. Se podían realizar películas de corte expresionista como Dos monjes, histórico-políticas como ¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa! o diseccionar sectores específicos de la sociedad, como en Una familia de tantas o en Espaldas mojadas. Sólo una industria cinematográfica tan fuerte fue capaz de asilar y revivir al español Luis Buñuel o de permitirle a un cineasta terriblemente malo como Juan Orol (el Ed Wood local) escribir, dirigir, producir, actuar y componer la música para una película en donde los charros mexicanos defienden la soberanía nacional amenazada por la mafia de Chicago (Gángsters contra charros, 1947). Este último dato, además de divertido, demuestra la buena salud y variedad de una cinematografía capaz de realizar 108 películas en 1949 y 150 en 1950, en contraste con la dura y triste crisis del fin de siglo mexicano, en donde, por ejemplo, sólo se pudieron filmar 13 en 1997.

En toda esta Belle Époque, las relaciones México-Estados Unidos tuvieron una importancia notable. El primer aspecto que debe mencionarse –y como lugar común en todas las referencias respecto a este periodo- se encuentra la entrada a la Segunda Guerra Mundial del vecino del norte. La industria cinematográfica americana se vio en la necesidad de racionar su producción de celulosa (con la que se fabrica la película) y concentrar un buen número de su filmografía a temas de guerra y propaganda. Además, a pesar de que este país continuó siendo la industria dominante en el mundo, tuvo que ceder en algunas de sus habituales políticas de expansión con sus vecinos. Por otro lado, el cine europeo, segundo mercado dominante en Latinoamérica, sufría en carne propia los estragos de la guerra. México aprovechó muy bien la situación al declararse parte de los Aliados que combatían contra el Eje Alemania-Italia-Japón. No sucedió lo mismo con sus más cercanos competidores de habla hispana (España y Argentina, el primero recuperándose de una guerra civil, el segundo atrapado en sus relaciones con Alemania e Italia), por lo que el florecimiento y expansión del cine mexicano comenzó a germinar por todo el continente.

Además del factor de la guerra, la Época Dorada del cine en México se vio fortalecida por otro aspecto de esta cercanía con Hollywood. La proximidad de las fronteras hizo que muchos técnicos y artistas mexicanos se desarrollaran en los Estados Unidos y aprendieran en esa industria el duro arte de hacer cine. El caso más notable –por su importancia y porque encierra el microcosmos de esta relación entre vecinos- es la del grupo conformado por Emilio Fernández (director), Gabriel Figueroa (cinefotógrafo) y Dolores del Río (actriz). Este grupo es considerado unánimemente por toda la crítica como el crew que llevó la estética fílmica de ese país a su punto más alto durante ese periodo dorado de la mitad de siglo XX, circunstancia que, hasta el día de hoy nadie ha podido alcanzar. Cada uno de estos tres personajes de la vida mexicana estuvieron en Hollywood bajo circunstancias diferentes y muy representativas de los diversos estratos de su sociedad.

En primer lugar, está el caso de Emilio Fernández, el wet back que aprende a hacer cine desde abajo, personaje que antes de ser director fue albañil, estibador y mesero en Chicago y los Ángeles para luego participar en varias películas como aprendiz de todo y especialista en nada. Posteriormente, gracias a su figura atlética se convierte en doble y extra de cine, entre otros para Douglas Fairbanks. El “Indio” (sobrenombre que llevaba con orgullo) incluso presumía haber sido el modelo que posó para la estatuilla de los Óscares, leyenda improbable pero significativa de su personalidad. Fernández llega al Hollywood de los años 20´s, en los cuales el lenguaje cinematográfico silente alcanzaba su esplendor luego de su institucionalización por medio de filmes de finales los años 10´s, como Intolerance. Es también en California en donde “El Indio” conoce una obra que lo marcaría profundamente: la inacabada ¡Que viva México!, de Sergei Eisenstein, de la cual señala: “This is what I learned the pain of the people, the land, the strike, the struggle for freedom and social justice. It was wonderful”. Esta declaración es en sí misma un pronunciamiento estético que Emilio Fernández llevará hasta sus últimas consecuencias.

La mezcla explosiva entre el cine norteamericano y el director soviético influirán en Fernández notablemente y lo llevarán a regresar a México para convertirse en el autor de Flor Silvestre, Enamorada, Río Escondido, María Candelaria y Salón México, entre sus más destacados filmes. Como Almodóvar en la actualidad, el melodrama es el género que estiliza hasta darle visos trágicos y convertirlo en algo más, en el medio eficaz para transmitir los valores del México postrevolucionario. La idealización y exaltación como medio para construir la identidad de su país lo lleva a crear diversas figuras míticas que han pervivido en el imaginario local (el Campesino, la Patria, la Madre, la Provincia, así, con mayúsculas). Es, sin duda, el más nacionalista entre los cineastas nacionalistas y eso lo convierte, para bien o para mal, en uno de los pocos directores mexicanos, tal vez el único en verdad, que ha llegado a ese difícil panteón conocido como cine de autor. El abuelo de los Three Amigos regresaba de los Estados Unido a su lugar de origen, no para reencontrarse con su país sino para reinventárselo.

Este director nada hubiera logrado sin la ayuda de otro artista notable: el cinefotógrafo Gabriel Figueroa, también con su propia experiencia en Hollywood. Si Emilio Fernández cruza la frontera como mojado, Figueroa lo hace a través de las relaciones entre productoras. Figueroa es becado en 1935 por la compañía de cine mexicana CLASA para estudiar con el mítico Gregg Toland, quien tiempo después sería el fotógrafo de Citizen Kane y también se encargaría de enseñarle el lenguaje fílmico a Orson Welles. Si Eisenstein fue importante para Fernández, el estilo de Toland marcaría a Figueroa y con ello al cine mexicano por medio del uso del pan focus en el que la profundidad de campo se incrementa y el espacio cinematográfico se expande. El “Indio” y Figueroa aprendieron a optimizar este recurso para capturar el paisaje mexicano hasta darle alcances líricos. A partir de él, la fotografía mexicana se convertirá en una escuela con cierto prestigio en el mundo, al grado de que hoy en día, cincuenta años después, hay al menos cinco cinefotógrafos mexicanos filmando en Hollywood y ganando el Óscar al que años atrás Figueroa estuvo nominado pero no ganó.

Last, but not least, debe hacerse mención de Dolores del Río, quien llega a Hollywood de manera muy diferente a Figueroa y Fernández. A diferencia de ellos, la futura estrella de la Época de Oro pertenecía a las clases altas de su país y emigra hacia las esferas del jet set californiano debido a las consecuencias que la Revolución Mexicana provoca en ciertos sectores adinerados de la sociedad local. Del Río se convierte en actriz del cine mudo estadounidense, filma aproximadamente 30 películas, muchas de ellas con enorme éxito y calidad. Trabaja con directores de la talla de King Vidor o Busby Berkeley e incluso alcanza en 1928 un hit como cantante con el soundtrack del film silente Ramona. A pesar de que contribuye a promover el estereotipo latino, su belleza elegante y aristocrática, sumada a un verdadero talento dramático la convirtió en una diva de la época, si bien menor al lado de las grandes divas de ese periodo, pero lo cierto es que en su momento alcanzó mayor notoriedad en Hollywood que actrices mexicanas contemporáneas como Salma Hayek, quien, a pesar de su fama, jamás ha logrado concretar una interpretación de buena calidad en su experiencia norteamericana.

A diferencia de otros actores de habla no inglesa, a Dolores del Río le fue fácil su transición del cine mudo al sonoro y logra continuar su carrera en los Estados Unidos. En 1942, ya próxima a los 40 años de edad y sabiendo que en Hollywood eso le restaría trabajo, la actriz regresa a México. Allí se reúne con intelectuales y artistas entre los que conoce al “Indio” Fernández. El director le ofrece su primer protagónico en Flor Silvestre y comenzaría allí un segundo aire en su carrera, transformándose en el rostro del amor y dolor femenino del melodrama mexicano.

El director, el fotógrafo, la actriz. El wet back, el estudiante de intercambio, la aristócrata. Todos los sectores cinematográficos y los estratos sociales de México se enriquecen por medio de esta experiencia. La industria cinematográfica americana les otorga un dominio técnico y les permite encontrar sus propios valores culturales que luego desarrollarían en su propio país. Existen también otros ejemplos, como el caso de Gonzalo Gavira, primer mexicano en ganar el Óscar, su premio fue por los efectos de sonido de The Exorcist. Gavira lograba hacer ruidos peculiares con objetos comunes, como el famoso giro de cabeza de la niña poseída, sonido que hizo con un peine. También debería mencionarse a Luis Mandoki, primer verdadero cineasta de esta nueva camada de directores de fin de siglo, Mandoki emigra a California ante la crisis económica mexicana y alcanza cierto prestigio en Hollywood; años después, en una curiosa reconversión, regresa a su país para apoyar las causas de la izquierda nacional y centroamericana, realizando películas comprometidas con su posición política.

Puede verse en todos los casos anteriores que no es casual esa noche en que los Three Amigos subieron al escenario de la premiación 79 del Óscar. Iñárritu, Cuarón y del Toro son producto de una industria mexicana, que si bien está en crisis, tiene al menos una infraestructura que sus años de esplendor forjó y que podría desarrollar un cine de calidad en tanto existieran condiciones distintas en las relaciones comerciales y políticas con su vecino del norte. A pesar de esta historia de buena vecindad cinematográfica, hay elementos negativos en esta relación que han afectado al cine mexicano. La crisis actual del cine mexicano se debe en parte a esto. La liberación de los mercados, en especial a través del NAFTA, ha constreñido la cinematografía del sur del río Bravo y ha permitido que los monopolios estadounidenses dominen las salas cinematográficas mexicanas. Por ejemplo, en el año 2000 se exhibieron 84.2% de películas estadounidenses en tierras aztecas y 8.3% de filmes mexicanos. El círculo vicioso que esto conlleva es evidente: si las películas nacionales no se exhiben no se recupera el dinero ni hay ganancia para los inversionistas, lo que provoca que la producción de cine se reduzca y como consecuencia haya poca exhibición de cine local. Ante esta grave crisis, la comunidad cinematográfica mexicana ha protestado constantemente, incluso por medio de un simposio internacional durante 1998 que nombraron Los que no somos Hollywood. El resultado de estas protestas ocasionó que se intentara implementar una ley para proteger el mercado cinematográfico mexicano, ley que es enteramente rechazada por Jack Valenti, director de la Motion Picture Association of America y por el mismo gobierno norteamericano. La ley, por supuesto, nunca entra en vigor. Este tipo de monopolios no sólo evita el desarrollo del cine mexicano sino incluso el propio desarrollo del cine independiente norteamericano.

A pesar de estos problemas, gracias a las nuevas tecnologías digitales y a la participación del gobierno mexicano, en el 2008, al igual que en el año anterior, se realizaron 70 filmes, pero sólo lograron ser exhibidos 46 y la audiencia para el cine local tuvo un decremento de 3 millones de personas. La vida artificial que el estado mexicano le otorga al cine en nada ayudará si no existe una competencia justa al interior del propio mercado local.

En todas estas experiencias, las relaciones entre estos dos países han sido estrechas y paradójicas. Por un lado, la fuerte industria estadounidense ha permitido fortalecer directamente la cinematografía mexicana, pero es esta misma fuerza la que logra empequeñecerla. El cine es una manifestación cultural de un país, un medio capaz de ayudar a la conformación de una identidad nacional. La apuesta segura para que haya más mexicanos (y gente de todo el mundo) recibiendo premios internacionales de cine sólo puede lograrse si se fortalecen las cinematografías locales. La inercia de la Época de oro del cine mexicano llevó a estos Three Amigos a filmar en Hollywood, el tiempo dirá si estas nuevas relaciones comerciales permitirán nuevas generaciones de artistas mexicanos de importación.

Humberto Delgado is a third-year doctoral student of Latin American literature in Harvard’s Departament de Romance Languages and Literatures. He studied Latin American literature at the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México (UAEM) and later film directing at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), where he also received a Master’s in Communications Studies.