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Mexican Cinematography: the Latin Hollywood

Mexican Cinematography began its development in the 1920s. The first films were mainly documentary newsreels called noticiarios (notices), which showed everyday life in Mexico. Unfortunately, many of these films have been lost or destroyed.

It was not long before the production of feature films was to commence. Most of them were melodramas, comedies and adventure films produced by Salvador Toscano Barragan, the Alva brothers and Ezequiel Carrasco following in the fashion of Hollywood and Italian productions. It was at this time when the first Mexican film stars appeared: Dolores del Rio, Lupe Velez and Mimi Derba. After getting their careers started in Mexico they all, eventually, emigrated to the United States to continue their careers. The most important film studio of that time was Azteca Studios which was founded by Mimi Derba.

The 1930s saw a change in the cinematic landscape of Mexico. The most spectacular herald of these changes appeared to be the visit of the leading Soviet film director, Sergei Eisenstein, who was in Mexico to shoot his film Que Viva Mexico! (1930). Eisenstein’s tour had a significant effect on the Mexican filmmakers employed to work in this production. Inspired by their co-operation with one of the greatest directors of the time they were able to transfer the experiences they had learned and utilised them in their native ground.

At the same time, the relationship between Latin America and Hollywood grew stronger which resulted in an increasing number of Spanish-language productions with Latin film cast, which also included Mexican stars. These films were orientated toward the Latin audience. In 1931 first Mexican sound film, Santa was produced. It was shot by Antonio Moreno, and the story was based on the novel of Federico Gamboa. At this point in Mexico, as in many other countries, together with a sound many new film companies were founded, i.e. Produciones Artisticas de Peliculas or Hispano Continental Films.

The 1940s are called “the golden era” of Mexican cinematography. Mexico went on to become the biggest film producer amongst the Latin American countries, ousting even the Hollywood productions of the home market. The directors of this new generation started to take over and their films were breaking popularity records across the country. At the time there were two currents that were prevalent over others: on the one side there was the cinema which was socially engaged and looking at the problems of modern Mexico and the other there was the commercial productions. The most famous films of that period were: Flor Silvestre (1942) and Maria Candelaria (1943) directed by Emilio Fernandez and the Ismael Rodriguez trilogy, Nosotros Los pobres, Ustedes, Los Ricos and Pepe El Toro made in 1953. Among the biggest Mexican stars of the day one should mention in the first place the comedian Mario Moreno, known as Cantiflas,  also referred to as the “Mexican Charlie Chaplin”, Maria Felix (“La Dona”) and the German Valdes, the legendary “Tin-Tan”, who made the „Spanglish” dialect famous. Great popularity was also achieved by the musical films, called Rumberas films, in which both Mexican and Cuban dancers were cast. The leading producer of such movies was Juan Orol, who was also famous for producing the crime stories patterned upon the American film noir (e.g. Gangsters contra charros 1948).

The 1940’s and ’50s was highlighted by the career of  Luis Bunuel’s, who had immigrated to Mexico from Spain. During this time he produced the most important of his films: Los Olvidados (1950), Ensayo de un crimen (1955), Nazarin (1958), Viridiana (1961).

By the 1960’s new currents in the Mexican cinematography had emerged. A whole new generation of the directors such as Arturo Ripstein (El castillo de la pureza 1973), Luis Alcoriza (Fe, esperanza y Caridad 1974), Felipe Cazals (Las poquianchis and El Apando both from 1976) and Jorge Fons (Los cachorros 1973) were creating the New Wave („de la nueva ola”). The majority of these filmmakers were fashioned by working alongside Bunuel, who had a great impact on them. The formation of the  Film Centre under, the auspices of Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in 1963, is regarded as having no less an impact on the change in the Mexican cinema. Along with the Third Cinema appeared the tendency to draw from the traditions of magic realism in order to get to the roots of Latin civilization and culture. Experimental films on the borderland of many arts were created during this time, with the most famous of Mexican experimentalists being Alejandro Jodorowsky. This artist, born in Chile in the 1960s, settled in Mexico where the most important of his films were created. His avant-garde works combining experiments taken from many different arts such as the theatre, mime shows and film resulted in the surreal productions Fando y Lis (1968), El Topo (1970) and Santa Sangre (1989).

The 1990s finally saw Mexican cinematography gain international acclaim. Nuevo Cine Mexicano is the generation of filmmakers that have been awarded in many film festivals across the globe and has created a wealth of film talent. This new breed of filmmakers have gained the recognition of a mass audience and have been successfully making films around the world. Amongst the most famous ones are two Alfonsos’: Arau and his Como agua para chocolate 1992, A Walk In The Clouds 1995 and Zapata – El Sueno del Heroe 2004 and Alfonso Cuaron, the director of Solo con tu pareja 1991, Cronos 1993, Great Expectations 1998, Y tu mama tambien (2001) and the third instalment of the Harry Potter series – Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Azkaban in 2004. Other great filmmakers within the modern Mexican cinema are: Luis Mandoki’s Gaby: A True Story 1987, White Palace 1990 and Trapped 2002 along with Arturo Ripstein, a student of Bunuel and the author of the masterful screen adaptations of Latin prose such as: Principio y Fin, 1993 or El coronel no tiene quien le escriba, 1999 and Jorge Fons, whose film El Callejon de los Milagros, 1995 is doubtlessly one of the essential films in the whole history of Mexican cinematography.

The first decade of the 21st century has belonged to two names: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Guillermo del Toro.

Inarritu, together with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, has created three films, all very highly rated and frequently awarded at different festivals all over the world: Amores Perros, 2000, 21 Grams, 2003 and Babel, 2006.

Del Toro, a specialist in horror and fantasy films, is well known for creating very vivid and visually dazzling imaginary worlds. His adaptation of the comic book series Hellboy, 2004 was only a prelude to his best picture so far El Laberinto del Fauno, 2006. This story set during the time of General Franco’s dictatorship, interwoven with fantastical threads; it was nominated for the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film. The second Hellboy film: Hellboy II: The Golden Army, 2008 and the horror film El Orfanato, 2007, produced by del Toro and directed by the Spaniard Juan Antonio Bayona established del Toro is a true visionary. It was perhaps the main reason that he was chosen to direct. Probably the most anticipated film of the near future: The Hobbit.

Apart from the above without a doubt worthy of mention are also the black humour comedy Nicotina, 2002 by Hugo Rodriguez; the historical drama set in the times of Indian rebellions El Violin, 2005 by Francisco Vargas and Fernando Eimbcke’s Lake Tahoe, 2008, the metaphorical story of a young Mexican boy’s ordinary day.

The most prominent stars, of the modern era, to have hailed from Mexico are Salma Hayek, Gael Garcia Bernal and Benicio del Toro. Hayek, a star of Robert Rodriguez’ films Desperado, 1995 and From Dusk Till Dawn, 1996 starred in Julie Taymor’s Frida in 2002. The title role of Frida Kahlo in the movie produced by herself brought her many awards and her only nomination so far for the Oscar. Gael Garcia Bernal started as a favourite actor of A.G. Inarritu who cast him in Amores Perros, which started Bernal’s international career and in Babel. In the meantime, he was cast by the biggest directors of our time such as Pedro Almodovar (La mala educacion, 2004), Walter Salles (Diarios de motocicleta, 2004) or Fernando Meirelles (Blindness, 2008). Benicio del Toro, born in Puerto Rico is frequently associated with Mexican cinematography and the parts of charismatic Latin Americans. He established this status by starring in: Traffic, 2000 and Che-El argentino, 2008 both by Steven Soderbergh, Snatch, 2000, by Guy Ritchie, and Inarritu’s 21 Grams, 2003.

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