“Bring it!” These are the words that you can imagine María Félix, a.k.a. la Doña saying to herself just before she stepped onto a film’s soundstage (well ok, maybe, “¡Traigalo!” since it’s rumored la Doña never felt the need to master English.) Félix is known as the fierce first lady of Mexican cinema, and considering Mexican cinema’s dominance during its so-called Época de Oro, the first lady of Latin American Cinema, period. Given her renown, she was also featured in French, Spanish, and Italian films working with top-caliber directors such as Jean Renoir and Luis Buñuel in the films French Can-Can and La Ambiciosa, respectively. Her personal life was no less fantabulous, counting as husbands and lovers such luminaries as composer Agustín Lara, actor Jorge Negrete, and artist Diego Rivera and indulging in such high-rolling hobbies as collecting rare antiques and prize racehorses. For a grand tour of the grande dame, here are our suggested Mexican cinema stops.
Jaw-dropping dialogue, gorgeous cinematography, and Félix’s fierce portrayal of an unabashedly domineering woman make this your best first foray into Félixland.
This is the one that gave rise to the legend, first earning María Félix her famous moniker La Doña. Based on the novel by Venezuelan author Rómulo Gallegos, Félix perfectly embodies the hardened lady cacique who rules her South American hacienda and cattle-trading business with an iron glove. Her hatred toward men knows no bounds ever since her brutal rape and the murder of her first love, and she exacts revenge in the form of supreme land-grabbing and cattle-dealing. The power over and obliteration of male rivals is her sole focus, that is, until a powerful and handsome lawyer arrives on the scene to sell off his family land.
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.
Another “woman wronged + exacting vengeance” story in the style of the original “doña” film, Doña Bárbara, Doña Diabla features Félix vamping it up as Ángela (what’s in a name, you say?), a well-to-do woman wronged by her husband, but not for long. With claps of thunder punctuating her contemptuous dialogue, a Cruella De Vil-like bolt of silver supercharging her glossy black mane, and a way with a cigarette that shows how well she can make, er, anything crumple, Doña Diabla is pure Doña Dominitrix payoff, no strings attached. Gilded, guilty pleasure for wicked ladies and those who (can’t help but) love them.
Watch this one to see the glory of la Doña in glorious color, and witness the transposition of master cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa’s richly contrasted black-and-white photography for which he is best known to the key of saturated color film, resulting in chromatic delight. Yes, it’s another grand love in the midst of revolution themes, but wow, visually you feel like you are running through the Met or El Prado at times; not since the times of Manet or Velasquez has black ever looked so rich and multifaceted, and a woman’s face so multidimensionally depicted. Seriously, get out your arty-est, visual literacy-est, celluloid-party-est ya-ya’s and thank the gods that color film had a glorious heydey with Félix and Figueroa in its midst. Just for tonight, say “Shove it, hi-def!”