We’re all familiar with the great Mexican visual artists of the 20th century: Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco, Gabriel Figueroa. Yeah, Gabriel Figueroa… the cinematographer. No? Well, we won’t tell anyone, but if you’re around New York this month you need to do yourself a favor and head over to Film Forum to catch part of a two week retrospective on his work, co-presented with Fundación Televisa, El Museo del Barrio, Cinema Tropical, and the Mexican Cultural Institute of New York.
In the meantime, we’ll spare you a trip to Wikipedia and point out that Figueroa shot more than 200 films over the course of his 90-year lifetime, many of which went on to win prizes at Cannes, Berlin, Venice, and a handful of Academy Awards. But don’t think we’re merely talking about a “good” cinematographer. No, we’re talking about one of the greatest visual artists in the history of world cinema, and the spiritual godfather of a line of world-renowned Mexican cinematographers that stretches down to undisputed modern masters like Emmanuel Lubezki and Rodrigo Prieto.
This is the man who essentially defined the moody, tenebrous look of the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema through his extensive work with director Emilio “El Indio” Fernández, in addition to groundbreaking collaborations with the likes of Luis Buñuel, John Ford and John Huston. His highly personal visual stamp can be found on films considered masterpieces of the art form, including Los Olvidados, El ángel exterminador, and Macario; and this month New Yorkers will be graced with an unprecedented look back at some of his most important films at one of the city’s most emblematic independent theaters.
While you should honestly just take these two weeks off from work and set up a tent outside of Film Forum, we’ve put together a list of top picks for those of you who might not have the luxury of a non-stop two week film binge.
The two-week, 19-film retrospective of cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa’s work will run at Film Forum from June 5 – 18, 2015.
One of director John Ford’s most abstract and self-consciously ‘artsy’ films, The Fugitive follows the travails of a Catholic priest desperately avoiding execution in an unnamed Latin American country where religion is outlawed. While considered a difficult film for fans of Ford’s more straightforward work, it was one of the director’s personal favorites and cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa contributed immensely to the film’s powerful visual style.
The first Mexican film to be nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Macario tells the story of an impoverished peasant who befriends Death only to betray his confidence by selling a miraculous healing water Death had gifted to him.
Winner of the Best Director Award at the 1951 Cannes Film Festival, Los Olvidados is considered one of the most important films of all time for its unapologetically gritty, neo-realist take on the life of delinquent Mexico City street kids. Also worthy of note is its potent mixture of realism with oneiric sequences drawing from Luis Buñuel’s surrealist background.
The first collaboration of many between renowned Mexican director Emilio “el Indio” Fernández and Félix, Enamorada features Félix in the role of a wealthy young daughter from one of Cholula’s most elite families. When Mexican revolutionaries come to shake up the status quo, Félix’s character, headstrong Beatriz Peñafiel, feels nothing but revulsion toward the revolutionaries who challenge her way of life and thought. But the revolutionary leader José Juan Reyes, played by Pedro Armendáriz, falls hard for Beatriz and fights hard to win her. She fights right back, and Félix lets loose a funnier, feisty style in this film which takes The Taming of the Shrew as a classical comedic inspiration.
Félix takes on a mistress role here with a twist—that is, as a schoolmistress–and a noble one she is at that. She’s such a rock star in her pedagogical profession that the president of the country, recognizing her talent, invites her to take it on the road and educate the small pueblo of Río Escondido. Mexico’s then presiding president, Alemán, even has a cameo role, lest anyone miss the point that the government was big on bringing a modicum of education and a whole lot of indoctrination to the masses during this period. Watch this one to see politics and the film industry in bed together, big time.
Víctimas del pecado
One of Cuban vedette Ninón Sevilla’s greatest films, Víctimas del pecado was one of over 20 collaborations between cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa and director Emilio Fernández. In this tragic, mambo-driven melodrama, Sevilla plays a Cuban cabaret dancer who finds herself at odds with her violent pimp and club owner when she adopts an abandoned baby. Left to fend for herself, she is eventually taken in by a rival club proprietor who marries her and raises the child as his own. Figueroa’s shadowy style was a perfect match for the sordid world of Mexico City cabarets portrayed in this film.
Night of the Iguana
The film that earned cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa his only Academy Award nomination, Night of the Iguana was a filmed adaptation of a 1961 Tennessee Williams play of the same name. Richard Burton plays a fallen Episcopal priest working as a tour guide for a religious group vacationing in Puerto Vallarta. Along the way, his taste for alcohol and women lead him to suffer a nervous breakdown and he is tended to by an itinerate painter named Hannah.