Three Mexican silents

The Cineteca Nacional after the fire

On 24 March 1982 fire broke out in Mexico’s national film archive, the Cineteca Nacional. Smoke was reported as coming out of all four vaults (one of which held nitrate film) and the fire brigade was called. People were told to evacuate the building, but a screening was going on the the archive’s main theatre. The director went to stop the screening:

I was asking the audience to leave at once because there was an emergency: I asked them to do it calmly. The doors were opened and everybody seemed to cooperate … There was a group of youngsters left behind; they were claiming their money back. Then there came the eruption, and a big flame coming out of the screen reached us. I saw the ceiling fall down. I threw myself to the floor …

There were three explosions, and the fire was to rage for fourteen hours. Five people died, maybe more. The effect on Mexican film heritage was devasting: the exact figures are unclear, but perhaps as much as 99% of the archive film collection was lost, some 5,000 films (other sources say 6,500), of which around half were feature films and short subjects. The archive’s library and public records on film production were also lost. Although the fire was apparently caused by overheating of electrical wiring but what made it so devastating was the nitrate cellulose – highly flammable, indeed explosive, and able to continue burning without oxygen, so making it resistant to all the usual means of containing fires.

This sobering tale – the greatest disaster ever to visit a national film archive in terms of percentage of films lost (a greater number of films overall was probably lost in the Cinémathèque Française fire of 1980) – is worth recalling when we consider films from Mexico’s silent era. Feature films got underway in Mexico in 1917 (after the revolution) when a drop in foreign films owing to the First World War encouraged local producers to fill the gap. But after a flurry of activity production was constrained during the 1920s, as Hollywood competition returned. Producers struggled to get films made and shown, and the greatest and most prolific period of Mexican cinema would not come until the 1940s-50s.

Therefore there were few Mexican silent feature films made, and so few survive today. Those that do exist, however, are championed not simply because their fortunate survival, but because of their quality and distinctive style. Some have made it to festivals and retrospectives and it is very pleasing to be able to report that another Mexican archive, the Filmoteca CINE UNAM, has just made three Mexican silent feature films freely available on its website, streamed in high quality.

Tepeyac (1917), from http://www.filmoteca.unam.mx/cinema

Tepeyac was made in 1917 by José Manuel Ramos, Carlos E. González, and Fernando Sáyago. Its subject is the miraculous appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe to Juan Diego (a Mexican Indian) in 1531. The opening sequences take in the present, where the heroine (played by Pilar Cotta with a touch of the Italian diva about her), distraught at her lover having been drowned at sea, reads a book about the Virgin of Guadalupe whereupon the film takes us back to the sixteenth century and the conflict between the Spaniards and the native peoples. The technique is faltering, but the film’s ambition and distinctive style are noteworthy. It uses national history, myth, location and religion to carve out an idea of a cinema that was distrinctively Mexican. Rudimentary though it may be, its very difference is what appeals. The film is presented in six parts, 47 mins in total, with modern Spanish titles replacing lost originals. It is also shown silent, as with the other two films on the Filmoteca UNAM site.

El tren fantasma (1927), from http://www.filmoteca.unam.mx/cinema

The other two films were made by Mexico’s leading filmmaker of the silent era, Gabriel García Moreno. The first is El tren fantasma (The Ghost Train) (1927), a marvellous thriller about a bandit gang sabotaging a railway line. It is filled with chases, fights (including bullights) and hair’s breadth escapes – and the actors performed all their own stunts. Fast-moving, technically adventurous and ably performed, El tren fantasma is the sort of silent film to which you point people to demonstrate just how much silent films can be. The 70 minute film is presented silent, with Spanish and English intertitles.

The morphine injection scene from El puño de hierro (1927), from http://www.filmoteca.unam.mx/cinema

And then there is El puño de hierro (The Iron Fist) (1927), the most remarkable of the three. Again directed by Gabriel García Moreno, this was a quite different work to the populist adventures of El tren fantasma. It is an extraordinary tale, sadly with striking modern-day resonance, of drug addiction and criminal gangs in Mexico. It portrays in often delirious fashion a dark underside of Mexican life not previously shown on the screen, and is strongly reminiscent of Louis Feuillade’s serials of crime and mystery, Fantomas and Les Vampires, with its Bat gang of hooded criminals and its surrealist imaginings of fantastical happenings in realistic settings. It was all a bit too much for Mexican film audiences, who rejected the film out of hand, bringing about the end of Moreno’s career as a director, alas. But two masterpieces in one year is quite a cinematic legacy, and El puño de hierro is undoubtedly a film to see. It runs for 77 minutes in five parts and is shown silent, with Spanish and English subtitles.

Grateful thanks must go to the Filmoteca CINE UNAM for making the films available to all, and congratulations are to it on its 50th birthday. It had its own fire in 1977, but though some original nitrate films were lost, almost all had been copied onto modern stock, so actual losses were few). Its sister archive, the Cineteca Nacional, was rebuilt in 1984, and flourishes once more under far better management, it is good to report.

Information on the Cineteca Nacional fire comes from Roger Smither, This Film is Dangerous:a Celebration of Nitrate Film (2002). For information on Gabriel García Moreno I recommend the essay ‘El Puño de Hierro, a Mexican Silent Film Classic‘ by William M. Drew and Esperanza Vázquez Bernal (originally published in the FIAF Journal of FIlm Preservation). For information on Mexican silent cinema in general, see Thomas Böhnke’s Der Stummfilm in Lateinamerika, which is in German but is the first place to go for information on Latin American silent cinema. And, just in case you missed the link, the three films can be found at www.filmoteca.unam.mx/cinema.

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