The Festival Internacional de Cine en Guadalajara (Web Exclusive)
by Dennis West

Soccer great Diego Maradona playing up to the Press in Emir Kusturica's  Maradona by Kusturica

Soccer great Diego Maradona playing up to the Press in Emir Kusturica's Maradona by Kusturica

In 1986 in Mexico’s University of Guadalajara, cinephiles and filmmakers such as Guillermo del Toro and Jaime Humberto Hermosillo decided to get together to figure out a way to bring contemporary Mexican cinema to town for all to see. The result was the first modest Muestra de Cine Mexicano (Showcase of Mexican Cinema) en Guadalajara, an annual springtime cultural event that over the years has grown dramatically in stature. I attended several editions of this event in the late l980s and the 1990s; it was an efficient and hospitable way for a foreign critic to keep abreast of Mexican production. Looking over my copy of the 1992 festival catalogue now has reminded me just how modest those early events were. That puny publication of 100 half-pages fits easily into a hip pocket, along with a folded handkerchief. The 1992 edition, represented, in hindsight, a stellar year: Dana Rotberg’s beautiful and moving Angel de fuego, Alfonso Cuarón’s snappy and entertaining Sólo con tu pareja (the world’s first AIDS comedy?), and Alfonso Arau’s Like Water for Chocolate, which, incidentally, no one I encountered at that festival foresaw as a future box-office sensation in the United States.

Since the late 1990s I had not gotten back to Guadalajara until this year’s event, now known as the Festival Internacional de Cine en Guadalajara, shortened to the impossible tongue twister FICG. This 24th edition, which was held March 19-27, 2009, underscored just how much has changed since the 1990s. As the Havana Festival has declined in importance as a showcase for Latin American cinema, Guadalajara has taken up the slack; and it has now become one of the best places in the film festival galaxy to keep abreast of this production. Mexican cinema is still prominently screened, but the emphasis now clearly falls on what FICG labels “Ibero-American Cinema.” The term refers to productions from Portugal, Spain, and Latin America. For an attendee to get a quick symbolic and literal idea of the vast scope of this renamed festival one must merely acquire the catalogue—an oversized volume of 400 glossy pages that represents a prohibitively hefty commitment for an on-the-go critic to lug around in her/his book bag or knapsack. At Guadalajara now, there are no more pocketbook catalogues—or modestly sized festivals.

Along with this extraordinary growth have come glitter, glitz, and SHOW BUSINESS. Serbian maestro Emir Kusturica was not simply invited. Rather, he was invited as a major spectacle in an even bigger show. He appeared with his latest feature, the Spanish-French co-production Maradona by Kusturica—the filmmaker’s ultra-personal take on the rise and fall and Phoenix-like rise again of Argentine soccer idol Diego Maradona. The documentary might easily be re-titled Maradona and Kusturica, since it is at times almost as much about the Serbian cineaste as it is about the Argentine footballer. Kusturica also picked up a Guadalajara International Prize (the precise import of which escapes me) as well as the keys to the city. And in a loud and unequal exchange, he and his No Smoking Orchestra drummed up a public concert of his kind of music—widely characterized in the Mexican press as gypsy punk-rock—for literally thousands of his adoring fans apparently residing, unbeknownst to this naïve festivalgoer, in the greater Guadalajara area.

But the real super star in attendance was Colombian Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez, who, in spite of reportedly poor health, appeared on stage at the opening night ceremony. Writers and literature are in general highly regarded in Hispanic cultures, so García Márquez’ presence was greatly esteemed. And, after all, many literary critics believe that his One Hundred Years of Solitude is the greatest novel to appear in Spanish since Cervantes’ Don Quijote. Given that García Márquez—known, controversially, as a personal friend of Fidel Castro—had been a regular fixture in Havana in the early years of that festival, from 1979 through the 1980s, his appearance now in Guadalajara lends the Mexican festival considerable cachet.

As the above examples suggest, the Guadalajara event came off at a high level in terms of stars, show business, and “glamour.” And, of course, there was the celebrated tapatíohospitality. But I found in general that the overall quality of the films on offer tended toward the unexceptional. Most of the attention of press and public focused on the fifteen recent fiction features competing in the Ibero-American Competition.

The best feature in this competition was clearly, in my opinion, Chilean co-screenwriter and director Sebastián Silva’s La nana (The Maid), which captured the prestigious International Critics or FIPRESCI Prize. This is a small film which is very proficiently and concisely directed, photographed, and edited so that themes and style mesh seamlessly. There already exist, of course, indelible portraits of maids in the history of cinema—Jeanne Moreau’s boots-modeling-maid-for-foot-fetishist-employer (and director Luis Buñuel) in Diary of a Chambermaid springs instantly to mind. But Silva’s esthetic approach in this comedy is quite different, as he seeks to offer a realist emotional psychological portrait of an introverted live-in maid, Raquel, who initially overly identifies with the wealthy family that employs her. The narrative tracks her development and change when her think-only-in-the-box mentality is exposed to an uninhibited second maid who opens up new vistas through previously unimaginable actions—for instance, Raquel witnesses wide-eyed her co-worker doffing her clothes and relaxing poolside when she is inadvertently locked out of the house and must perforce await their mistress’ return. So Silva—bolstered by chubby lead actress Catalina Saavedra’s stolid, prune-faced performance—adds another memorable portrait to cinema’s gallery of maids, one which will presumably and lamentably seldom be seen outside of Chile and the international festival circuit.

Certainly the most delightful film in the Ibero-American Competition was Portuguese co-screenwriter and director Miguel Gomes’ Our Beloved Month of August, which might merit the Pirandelloesque subtitle Or, a Film Crew in Search of a Movie. Tongue-in-cheekishly self-reflexive and narratively sly, this playful project blends fiction and documentary techniques to serve up a lilting yet offbeat hymn to the radiant month of August in Portugal in the countryside—where foreign tourists swarm, forest fires ignite, boars are hunted, contagious Portuguese popular music and dance erupt in remote villages, racism and immigration are hot topics, romance and perhaps incest are in the air, foxes raid chicken coops, and such. In private conversation with me, Gomes admitted that he ran out of money part way through this project—hence its unusual, to say the least, style and structure. He has certainly made the most of this drawback, however, since he succeeds in developing an unusual tension in his film: spectators are kept esthetically off balance wondering just what sort of genre of intentionally or unintentionally half-baked project they are being exposed to, while all the while they are becoming more and more engrossed in the provocative development of the film’s themes—be they fictional, non-fictional, or half-and-half. In fact, a second subtitle could be appended:Viewers Too Go in Search of a MovieThe Beloved Month of August, then, is a wonderful example of film as an engrossing game for those cinephiles eager to play.

Crime, violence, and corruption were the dominant themes of many of the works I screened in the showcase of recent Mexican fiction features. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton officially visited Mexico during the festival, and she was frequently on message with the nation’s press to the effect that “Mexico is not a failed state.” But the Mexican films I saw powerfully suggest just the opposite, given their pessimistic visions of society. Diego Muñoz Vega’s ponderous and truculent police drama Bala mordida (bitingly, literally, and frighteningly translated in the festival catalogue as Bitten Bullet!) sketches such an unrelenting vision of ingrained corruption in the Mexico City police force that a foreigner may be left wondering just how that nation’s levels of bureaucracy function and co-exist. Here we have one government agency, the Mexican National Film Institute (Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografia), a co-producer of this major feature film, using its funding to relentlessly criticize another government agency, a municipal police force. Both entities live in each other’s shadow in the same city.

The best Mexican fiction feature I came upon was the young screenwriter-director Humberto Hinojosa Oscariz’s rural drama Black Sheep, set deep in the contemporary—and violence-prone—Mexican countryside. Many of the elements of this narrative hark back to musty Mexican melodramas and ranch comedies from the 1940s: the brutal and authoritarian hacendado (big landowner); his pampered son, a Mexican macho, who as a matter of course runs amuck; the thoroughly exploited peons who everlastingly toil on the ranch; and, of course, the inevitable class conflict in its many manifestations—from rustled sheep to affairs of the heart. Perhaps Hinojosa Oscariz’s principal achievement is to creatively mix comedy and tragedy in order to make these characters well rounded yet unpredictable, and, even, human. The village priest, for instance, is not some sort of predictable stereotype. He routinely purloins funds destined for the poor to straightforwardly satisfy his selfish and all-too-human desire to buy himself the very latest model TV. In an unusual turn of events as far as the awarding of prizes at international film festivals goes, Black Sheep captured both the FIPRESCI Prize for the best Mexican opera prima and also the Prize of the Public. Seldom do the general admission ticket holders and the supposedly sophisticated international critics make identical artistic decisions.

I was unable to screen all the new Mexican fiction features on offer. Most of the ones I did catch up to were certainly not as exciting as their aforementioned predecessors from that stellar year 1992. But if this year’s edition of FICG was not so memorable for us jaded critics seeking rare artistic gems, there certainly was on tap other, non-esthetic, excitement. And it did involve alleged crime and corruption. The invited French-Spanish cantautor Manu Chao repeatedly made headlines for wondering aloud in public about the legalities of an infamous and murky police operation conducted in the Guadalajara area in 2006. Widely disseminated press reports had federal authorities allegedly scrutinizing the star’s immigration status with an eye towards possible deportation because of unauthorized meddling in Mexican internal affairs. In full-house press conferences and in their other public pronouncements, FICG’s top representatives strongly backed the honored guest and his right to free speech. Finally, with much fanfare, Chao outright cancelled his long awaited public concert contending that at such an event he would fear for his safety and the safety of his fans and the public in general were the police to appear in an attempt to forcibly spirit him away—a violent confrontation might ensue.

As a foreign observer, it was comforting to me to realize that this major cultural event was also having a significant socio-political impact beyond the cultural sphere. After all, a good film festival is not only about movies.

Dennis West teaches in the Department of Theatre and Film at the University of Idaho.

Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXIV, No. 3