Cinenerds the world over know that Mexican cinema has been killing it for the last couple of decades. Starting at the turn of the millennium with now-household names like Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu, a new generation has since taken the tricolor to the global stage with daring and visionary filmmakers like Carlos Reygadas, Amat Escalante, and Michel Franco all but dominating the Cannes Film Festival over the last few years. But, as anyone who’s put in a VCR session with the abuelos can attest, Mexico’s cinematic culture is not a new development. In fact, Mexico was one of the earliest countries to adopt film technology, with a young Tapatío impresario named Salvador Toscano bringing the nation its first moving images as early as 1898.
But it wasn’t until the late 1930s that Mexican cinema truly came into its own as one of the world’s great industries. By 1939, a fortuitous mix of historical circumstances along with an ever-increasing quality of subject matter and elaboration allowed for Mexican cinema to overtake its counterparts in Hollywood and Europe as the world’s most productive movie industry. Naturally that date coincides with the outbreak of World War II, which rapidly shifted the industrial priorities of the world’s economies away from leisurely pursuits like filmmaking and toward more practical things like bombs and warplanes. In the midst of this upheaval, Mexico’s big studios were able to fill the void and counteract the glut of patriotic, pro-war film production with their characteristic mix of melodrama, music, and intrigue.
The earliest films credited to this so-called “Golden Age” of Mexican cinema actually pre-date World War II by several years, and it is generally accepted that Veracruzano director Fernando de Fuentes kicked open the door with his 1936 features Allá en el rancho grande, and ¡Vamonos con Pancho Villa!. Both films set the foundation for what would become two of the defining genres of this Golden Age, namely the romantic drama and revolutionary drama, and incredibly, nearly a century later these films are still considered by critics as two of the greatest Mexican films ever made. ¡Vamonos con Pancho Villa! in particular is noteworthy for its dark, unheroic vision of the Mexican Revolution, in which de Fuentes portrayed Pancho Villa as a marauding bandido and eschewed Hollywood’s typical “happy ending” for something much more dramatically powerful.
Taking on de Fuentes’ mantle a decade later, Emilio “El Indio” Fernández is without a doubt the most critically lauded director to come out of Mexico’s Golden Age. Inspired by genius Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s cinematic sojourn in Mexico — recorded in the never-completed feature ¡Qué viva méxico! — Fernández moved back to Mexico after a time living in L.A. and found work on de Fuentes’ 1934 film Cruz Diablo. By 1941, he made his directorial debut with La isla de la pasión, in which he began to explore the mexicanista aesthetic that would define his work for the rest of his career.
Over his prolific 38-years in the industry, “El Indio” made several dozen classic films, won himself a Cannes Palme D’or, and delved into just about every genre that characterized Mexico’s Golden Age studio system. Notably, he worked with a close-knit group of collaborators who contributed to his singular vision, including the illustrious cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa (El Chivo didn’t come out of nowhere, mi gente), and actors Dolores del Río and Pedro Armendáriz; but it was with María Félix that he made what many consider his greatest film, 1946’s Enamorada.
Still, “El Indio” wasn’t by any means the only industrial auteur cranking out historically significant films down in Mexico City’s Estudios Churubusco. Directors like Alberto Gout, Alejandro Galindo, Julio Bracho, and Juan Bustillo Oro also had a hand in defining the screwball comedies, cabaret melodramas, and rural and urban dramas that made Mexico’s industry truly one-of-a-kind on the world stage.
Unfortunately, by the 1950s a little box called the “television” started making its way into middle-class homes across the globe and would eventually spell the end of filmmaking as the world knew it. While Hollywood quickly adapted to the changing landscape with new bells and whistles like Panavision and Cinemascope, Mexican film studios were slow to adjust. Meanwhile, across the pond a new generation of radical innovators was starting to change our whole conception of filmmaking with movements like Italian Neo-Realism and The French New Wave. The times were changing, and Mexico’s monopolistic studio system had become bloated and corrupt. By 1957, when Pedro Infante died in a tragic plane crash, studios like Tepeyac, Clasa Films, and Azteca had already started to close shop — and with Infante went the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema.
Production on low-budget B-movies known as “Cine de Ficheras” continued into the 1960s and 70s with familiar titles like the El Santo films or Mauricio Garcés’ sexy comedies, but Mexican cinema was never able to recuperate the industrial grandeur of its Golden Age.
Here’s a list of a few must-see films.
¡Vamonos con Pancho Villa!
Director: Fernando de Fuentes
In contrast to Hollywood’s glossy, heroic vision of history, Fernando de Fuentes made a resounding cinematic statement with ¡Vamonos con Pancho Villa! Relating the fictional story of a group of small town friends recruited in Villa’s Division del Norte in the midst of the Mexican Revolution, de Fuentes shows the Revolution as an epic arc of senseless misery, death, and tragedy. Far from the heroic general of revolutionary hagiography, Pancho Villa is shown as a heartless monster exploiting the poor in the name of a selfish war. ¡Vamonos con Pancho Villa! is considered by most Mexican film critics to be the greatest Mexican film ever made.
Director: Alberto Gout
This cabaret melodrama has all the musical asides and mid-century star power that make this genre so delightful, but underneath the spectacle Gout spins a sordid story of betrayal, manipulation, and murder. Young Elena is forced to find work in Ciudad Juárez after her father kills her mother in a fit of jealous rage. There she falls in with a handsome galán named Lucio who betrays her trust and sells her into prostitution.
Ahí está el detalle
Juan Bustillo Oro
Golden Age Mexican cinema, of course, wasn’t all singing, dancing, revolution, and betrayal. One of the most culturally transcendent figures to emerge from this period was undoubtedly the ingenious comedian and unparalleled verbal acrobat Cantinflas. Appearing in nearly four dozen films over 45 years, the comedian’s greatest cinematic feat came in the early years of his illustrious career with Ahí está el detalle. In this superbly executive comedy of errors, Cantinflas plays a mooch who gets caught up in an absurd chain of confusions stemming from a bothersome dog who happens to have the same name as a notorious gangster.
Director: Emilio “El Indio” Fernández
Another drama set against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution, Enamorada depicts the triumphant march of Zapatista forces on the conservative city of Cholula, Puebla. While confiscating the belongings of the city’s wealthy residents, general Juan José Reyes falls in love with the daughter of a local aristocrat, who initially rejects his advances before submitting to a true and passionate romance.
Nosotros los pobres
Director: Ismael Rodríguez
A masterful example of the Golden Age slum melodramas that imbued Mexico’s urban poor with nobility and grace, Nosotros los pobres tells the story of a humble but cheerful carpenter played by Pedro Infante who unites with his supportive neighbors and friends to fight institutional injustice when he is accused of a murder he did not commit.