January 23, 2022

5 films by Roberto Gavaldon

However low he has fallen, a man can still sink further; as terrible as his ordeal is, he could endure an even worse one.” (B.Traven)

Naturally flourishing Mexican cinematography

The postwar decade reinforces the heyday of the golden age of Mexican cinematography (1930-1955). A particularly fertile industry emerges under the preponderant influence of exiled Spanish filmmakers such as Luis Bunuel par excellence. From then on, its prodigious efflorescence traced its development on the model of the Hollywood dream factory while seeking to emancipate itself from it. In order to compete with their American counterparts, the Mexican studios initiate their own star-system according to a distinct iconography of female (Maria felix, Dolores del Rio) and male (Pedro Armendáriz, Arturo de Cordova) stars.

The Mexican film industry puts its own production to work, consolidating it with its values, its ethics and the affirmation of Mexicanness in a religious syncretism.

Roberto Gavaldon, cantor of passionate melodrama

Jack-of-all-trades in the film industry which he apprenticed, Roberto Gavaldon discovered a vocation on the job in Hollywood; ensuring his subsistence by making figures or as an assistant on Hispanic productions. He was incidentally a cabaret bouncer before returning home to try his luck in the suddenly flourishing Mexico City film industry.

He joined forces with a dissident Marxist writer, José Revueltas, who became his official screenwriter. Gavaldon’s cinema then flirts with the German expressionism of a Siodmak or a Von Sternberg. He adds a personal touch
of raw emotion and typically Iberian sensual passion in the outpouring of the heart.

Darkness and obsessive neuroses

In these passionate melodramas, darkness becomes a leitmotif. Broken souls are there just as deadly as the poison of love, and the path to hell is paved with malicious intentions as gloomy as the garb of seduction is alluring.

The best of his cinema is polarized on atypical protagonists with a dual character who suppress their untamed desires. Characters tormented by their old demons or new wanderings, they suffer from a characterized split of personality which cuts them off or excludes them from society while walling them up and them.
isolating in their obsessive neuroses.

Very inspired by the aesthetic codes of the American film noir of the 1940s without being a carbon copy of it, Roberto Gavaldon’s urban melodrama, a counterpart to Emilio Fernandez’s rural melodrama, stands out for what it borrows from lyrical tragedy and at the grand opera where the filmmaker would be the organizer and José Revueltas, the librettist. Constantly tormented in the grip of their self-destructive passion, the protagonists give
the impression of “falling into a spin” like an airplane out of control, under the weight of torment.

In Last night, Pedro Armendariz, often celebrated for his incarnation of the best of Mexican masculinity, finds an exact counter-use in this infamous role of a national Basque pelota celebrity; arrogant and unbearable with overt contempt. When he is not in the trinquets parading like a peacock and sending the ball back to the pediments with his chistera, he is proud of himself, has a pretty heart and excessively manipulates his feminine conquests. Become “fatal man” according to the principle erected by himself that “it is always better for a woman to be the fifth wheel of a manly man’s carriage than to accept everything from a weak man”. He will hasten his decline and will end up sinking into a toxic machismo and falling under the yoke of the local underworld to die at the hand of the one he gave birth and that he knowingly abandoned.

Excessive decor, exaggeration of feelings and eroticization of desire

Gavaldon feels a predilection for attraction and a marked preference for sanctuaries of large proportions: manors and stately homes, cabarets. He expressively imprints the fallen splendor of his characters in an outrageous form of excessiveness and exaggeration of feelings, extravagance of affects and eroticization of desire.

The tragic fatum of the protagonists is crushed under the pomp and pageantry of majestic vestibules where elaborate movements of apparatus are deployed which materialize their torments. So in Dual Identity, The kneeling goddess and Criminal hands, the kitsch decor imprisons the characters left to themselves in their obsessive wanderings. Its rowdy brilliance, far from stifling the drama, intensifies it to such an extent that the place turns into a funeral tomb.

In The kneeling goddess which echoes The Barefoot Countess of Joseph Mankiewicz, the assumed kitsch of the realization of Gavaldon is pushed to its paroxysm of inventiveness. Arturo de Cordoval is cornered in murder in order to resolve his extra-marital passion for the sex bomb that is Maria Felix, of which he has commissioned a sculptural nude in his effigy. From the cell where he was held for the alleged murder of his helpless wife, he learns too late that he has been exonerated. A guilty conscience and the fact of having swallowed a cyanide capsule got the better of his psychological shock. A past master in the portrait of men locked in their contradictions, Arturo
de Cordova finds herself in a dead end. Gavaldon superimposes the mounted piece of the wedding cake on the frighteningly kitsch statuary of his mistress who foreshadows his inevitable downfall.

Dual Identity refers to Siodmak’s “double enigma” through the criminal twinning that the film highlights, Dolores del Rio learns too late that she could have inherited the jackpot if she had played the game and knew how to keep her hand in “the game de bonneteau ”virtual that she saw fit to engage with her blood sister, her double in negative. In immense shadows cast from the bars of the prison where she is going to languish permanently for having suppressed her sister, the photo in dense chiaroscuro gives a definitive turn and seals her fate forever. Adorned to the point of overloading, the interiors turn against the protagonists who trap themselves in a relentless descent into hell.

In Criminal hands which mirrors The charlatan by Edmund Goulding, Arturo de Cordova, always him, exercises the activity of false medium. He officiates in his den thanks to the pipes of his accomplice reel, manicurist of his state. With her, he methodically sets up a scam to attract lonely old dowagers. The decor retains all the heavy strings and clichés of the false mage: the neon lights of his dispensary and the phrase “abracadabra”
recurrently inscribed in the circle of the zodiacal signs as if to underline the imposture. The seer who has nothing extra-lucid becomes in his turn the dupe of a femme fatale (Dolores del Rio). In doing so, he hastens his execution by “erecting his own gallows” while muttering incriminating words as he is led to identify a body at the morgue supposedly exonerating him of his supposed crime.

Gavaldon crushes his characters in search of redemption under the weight of guilt even when they are not responsible for the crimes attributed to them. He sweeps away their passionate destinies in sophisticated camera movements enhanced by the photography direction of Alex Phillips and Figueroa in
contrast with the claustrophobic and psychological universe that it depicts.

But it is certainly in Fall days that Gavaldon confines to the best of its production. In this psychological thriller, he autopsies, with the most tenuous palette of feelings possible, the mythomania of Luisa (Pina Pellicer), a credulous young provincial, led to migrate to find work in a bakery in Mexico City. She becomes infatuated with a
a man presenting all the appearances of probity; but who, already married, sadly abandons him to his fate on the threshold of marriage. To keep up appearances and maintain her dignity in this changing city that is Mexico City, she pretends to live as a couple and invents a pregnancy.

In the expert hands of artists resolutely south of the United States border such as Roberto Gavaldon and Emilio Fernandez, Hollywood conventions carry little weight. Roberto Gavaldon frees himself from it here to draw us into the “exquisite corpses” of his cold mystifications. To discover without moderation …

On display in this mini-cycle from December 15 in theaters: Double destinyThe kneeling goddessCriminal handsThe night goes onAutumn Days. (Camellia films)