Thursday, June 11, 2015

A History of Mexican Cinema

Every week for the past two years at Hibbleton Gallery, Steve Elkins and I have hosted movie nights.  Our goal is to shine a light on international films, art films, and great directors.  Every month, we choose a theme, and then Steve usually curates a series of films.  We have explored the films of countries like Iran, Mongolia, and India.  We've curated months around great directors like Andrei Tarkovsky, Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard, and Werner Herzog.  Sometimes I feel like we are running a little film school.  For the next couple months, we are going to focus on the cinema of Mexico.  To prepare for this, I've just finished reading a very informative book called Mexican Cinema: Reflections of a Society by Carl J. Mora, which gives a fairly comprehensive history of Mexico's cinema.  As I read, I jotted down the names of films and directors to check out.  By the time I finished the book, this list encompassed over 100 films, spanning over a century.  Mexican cinema is a very deep gold mine, with lots of treasures to be found.  Unfortunately, most of these films are not well-known outside Mexico and Latin America.  And so, in the interest of shining a light on the cinematic history of our neighbor to the south, I have decided to share all of the films I learned about, with a little information about each.  Now that we have this list as a kind of road-map, Steve and I are in the process of finding, screening, and selecting which films to screen for our Mexican Cinema series in July and August.  I have included links which give more information on these films and directors.  So here it is...a history of Mexican cinema!  Enjoy, amigos!

The Silent Era (1896-1929)

Two early pioneers of Mexican cinema were Salvador Toscana Barragon and Enrique Rosas, who opened “salons” in Mexico City where early foreign movies were shown.  Both men also made films of their own, and laid the groundwork for the success of later filmmakers and theaters.  The relative peace in Mexico at the beginning of the twentieth century was shattered by the Mexican Revolutioin, which began in 1910, and continued until about 1920.  It was a bloody civil war that claimed millions of lives and deeply upset the economy, and fledgling film industry of Mexico.  Toscana used his film equipment to document some of the important events of the Revolution, and his daughter eventually compiled her father’s footage into a stunning documentary called Memorias de un Mexicano (Memories of a Mexican).  The Mexican Revoution, a conflict not well-understood by most Americans, would become a recurring theme of many later Mexican films.

1.) Memorias de un Mexicano (Memories of a Mexican) directed by Salvador Toscana Barragon (compiled in 1950).  Documentary footage shot by early filmmaker Toscano, mainly dealing with the Mexican Revolution.  

2.) El Grito de Dolores (The Cry of Dolores) directed by Felipe de Jesus Haro (1908).  Early fictional depiction of the struggle for Mexican independence.

3.) Sangre Hermana (Blood of Brothers).  1914.  Documentary about Zapatista Revolutionary struggle.

4.) 1810 o Los Libertadores de Mexico (1810, or The Liberators of Mexico).  1916.  About Mexican independence.

5.) En Defensa Propia (In Self Defense) directed by Joaquin Coss (1917).  Fictional romantic drama.

6.) La Luz (The Light) directed by Ezequiel Carrasco (1917).  Upper class drama.

7.) La Banda del Automovil Gris (The Gray Car Gang) directed by Enrique Rosas (1919).  Best film of the silent era, about a real car gang in Mexico City.  

The First Sound Films (1930-1939)

Probably the most important filmmaker of the early sound era was Fernando de Fuentes, whose Revolution Trilogy is the most comprehensive and insightful cinematic portrayal of all sides of the Mexican Revolution.  Because the country was still recovering from the Revolution, not a lot of films were made in the 1930s.  De Fuentes’ trilogy is the most significant of the period.  Also significant was Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein's unfinished film Que Viva Mexico which focused on the beauty of the lives of ordinary Mexicans.  Eisenstein had made a name for himself in the 1920s with the Soviet films Battleship Potemkin and Strike.  In 1930, he traveled to Mexico, hung out with artists like Diego Rivera, and began shooting his film, which was never officially completed.  However, many years later, Eisenstein's assistant compiled the footage into a film, which was released in 1979.

8.) Santa directed by Antonio Moreno (1931).  Dramatic tragedy about a woman’s fall from grace. 

9.) Que Viva Mexico! directed by Sergei Eisenstein (1930s).  Unfinished film—historical scenes from rural Mexico shot by important Russian filmmaker.  

10.) The Revolution Trilogy of Fernando de Fuentes (1933-1935): El Prisonero Trece (Prisoner 13), El Compadre Mendoza (Father Mendoza), Vamonos con Pancho Villa! (Let’s Go With Pancho Villa!).  Best cinematic depiction of the Mexican Revolution. 

11.) Alla en el Rancho Grande (On the Big Ranch) directed by Fernando de Fuentes (1936).  First “charro” (singing cowboy) film starring Tito Guizar.  

12.) La Mujer de Nadie (Nobody’s Woman) directed by Adela Sequeyro (1937).  First Mexican film directed by a woman.

The "Golden Age" Part 1: The 1940s

The 1940s and 1950s are generally considered the "Golden Age" of Mexican cinema.  Throughout the 20th century, Mexico has suffered various political and economic crises, but ironically during World War II, Mexico's economy saw a boon, and this helped the growing film industry.  Notable actors from the 1940s were comedian Cantinflas (Mario Moreno), singing cowboy ("charro") Jorge Negrete, and Dolores Del Rio, who also became famous in Hollywood.  Notable directors include Juan Bustillo Oro, Alejandro Galindo, Emilio Fernandez, Julio Bracho, and Miguel M. Delgado.

13.) Ay, que Tiempos, Señor Don Simon! (Oh, What Times, Mr. Don Simon!) directed by Julio Bracho (1941).  Musical.

14.) Ahi Esta el Detalle (There is the Detail) directed by Juan Bustillo Oro (1940).  First comedy starring Cantinflas.

15.) Ni Sangre Ni Arena (Neither Blood Nor Sand) directed by Alejandro Galindo (1941).  Cantinflas’ second film.  

16.) El Gendarme Desconocido (The Unknown Policeman) directed by Miguel M. Delgado (1941).  Cantinflas’ third film.  

17.) Cuando Los Hijos Se Van (When the Children Leave) directed by Juan Bustillo Oro (1941).  Family drama.

18.) Ay, Jalisco no the Rajes! (Oh, Jalisco, Don’t Back Down) directed by Joselito Rodriguez (1941).  Famous “charro” Jorge Negrete’s first film.  

19.) La Isla de la Pasion (The Island of Passion) directed by Emilio “El Indio” Fernandez (1941).  Historical drama dealing with natives of Mexico.

20.) Flor Silvestre (Wild Flower) directed by Emilio Fernandez (1943).  Drama starring Dolores del Rio about a woman's recollections of the Mexican Revolution.  

21.) Maria Candelaria directed by Emilio Fernandez (1943).  Romantic tragedy starring Dolores del Rio.  First Mexican film to be screened at the Cannes film festival, where it won the grand prize.  

22.) Distinto Amanecer (A Different Sunrise) directed by Julio Bracho (1943).  Urban film noir/thriller.  

23.) Dona Barbara directed by Fernando de Fuentes (1943).  Drama about power struggle between a female landowner and her male rival starring Maria Felix.  

24.) Mexico de Mis Recuerdos (Mexico of my Memories) directed by Juan Bustillo Oro (1943).  Nostalgic depiction of the days of pre-Revolutionary Mexico under Porfirio Diaz.

25.) La Barraca (The Cottage) directed by Roberto Gavaldon (1944).  Historical drama about hardships of a rural family.

26.) Mexican Disney Cartoons: Saludos Amigos (1943) and The Three Caballeros (1945).  

27.) Rio Escondido (Hidden River) directed by Emilio Fernandez (1947).  Drama/social commentary about a strong-willed woman who must repel the advances of a small town's tyrannical sheriff.

28.) Enamorada (Woman in Love) directed by Emilio Fernandez (1947).  Adaptation of William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew set during the Mexican Revolution.

29.) Nosotros Los Pobres (We the Poor) directed by Ismael Rodriguez (1947). Social realism/musical about poverty in Mexico.  

30.) El Muchacho Alegre (The Cheerful Lad) directed by Alejandro Galindo (1947).  Rural drama.

31.) Esquina Bajan! (Corner, Getting Off!) directed by Alejandro Galindo (1948).  Drama about unionized workers.

32.) Una Familia de Tantas (An Average Family) directed by Alejandro Galindo (1948).  Family drama/social commentary.

33.) The films of Tin-Tan (German Valdez): Hay Muertos que no Hacen Ruido (1946), Calabacitas Tiernas (Tender Little Pumpkins) (1948), El Rey del Barrio (The King of the Neighborhood) (1949).  Comedies about a "Pachuco" (zoot suit wearing Mexican hipster) with /social commentary.

The "Golden Age" Part 2: The 1950s

The 1950s saw the decline of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, as the country faced further economic, political, and social difficulties.  Probably the most interesting director of the 1950s and early 1960s was Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel, who made a series of films in Mexico before returning to Europe.  Bunuel is known for his early film collaboration with artist Salvador Dali "Un Chien Andalou" (The Andalusian Dog), which brought surrealism to cinema.  Bunuel would continue to incorporate surrealistic elements in his Mexican films.  

34.) Espaldas Mojadas (Wetbacks) directed by Alejandro Galindo (1953).  Social commentary about illegal immigration to the US.

35.) Los Fernandez de Peralvillo (The Fernandezes of Peralvillo) directed by Alejandro Galindo (1953).  Social drama about encroachment of American commercial products into Mexico.

36.) Los Olvidados (The Young and the Damned) directed by Luis Bunuel (1950).  About the brutal lives of slum children in Mexico city.

37.) Ensayo de un Crimen (The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz) directed by Luis Bunuel (1955).  Surreal satire of bourgeois social conventions.  

38.) Raices (Roots) directed by Benito Alazraki (1953).  Based on four stories about rural life in Mexico and anthropology.

39.) Nazarin (The Nazarene) directed by Luis Bunuel (1958).  About the crises of a small-town parish priest.  

The 1960s

As in other countries around the world (including the United States), the 1960s were a time of great political and social change in Mexico.  This was perhaps best (and infamously) represented by the massive student movement in Mexico, which was violently suppressed by the government in the Tlatelolco Massacre, in which government forces killed hundreds of student protestors.  Ironically, 1968 was also the year Mexico City hosted the Olympic Games.  Luis Bunuel continued to make surreal films in the early 1960s.  Other important directors who came on the scene in the 60s were Luis Alcoriza, Garia Ascot, Ruben GamezAlberto Isaac, and Roberto Gavaldon.

40.) Macario directed by Roberto Gavaldon (1960).  First Mexican film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.  Rural drama about celebrating the Day of the Dead in colonial Mexico.

41.) Los Jovenes (The Youths) directed by Luis Alcoriza (1961).  Drama about rebellious middle class youths.

42.) En El Balcon Vacio (On the Empty Balcony) directed by Garia Ascot (1961).  About a woman’s memories of the Spanish Civil War. 

43.) Viridiana directed by Luis Bunuel (1961).  Surrealist satire of borgeouis and catholic social conventions.  

44.) Tlayucan directed by Luis Alcoriza (1961).  Comedy about small-town life.  Nominated for Academy Award.

45.) El Angel Exterminador (The Exterminating Angel) directed by Luis Bunuel (1962).  About a surreal dinner party in which no one can leave.  

46.) Tiburoneros (Shark Fishermen) directed by Luis Alcoriza (1962).  Drama about a businessman who becomes a shark fisherman.

47.) Simon Del Desierto (Simon of the Desert) directed by Luis Bunuel (1965).  Religious farce.  

48.) La Formula Secreta (The Secret Formula) directed by Ruben Gamez (1965).  Dark comedy about Mexican identity.  

49.) En Este Pueblo No Hay Ladrones (In This Town There are No Thieves) directed by Alberto Isaac (1965).  Based on a short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

50.) Olimpiada en Mexico (Olympiad in Mexico) directed by Alberto Isaac (1968).  Documentary about the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

51.) El Grito (The Cry) directed by Leobardo Lopez Aretche (1968).  Documentary about student movement in Mexico, and the government’s violent response.

The 1970s

The 1970s saw the continuation of two interesting strands of Mexican filmmaking: surrealism and stinging social commentary.  Alejandro Jodorowsky continued the surrealist vein with trippy religious epics like El Topo (The Mole) and The Holy Mountain (easily one of the strangest films ever made).  Directors dealing with the complex socio-political problems that continued to plague Mexico include Alfredo Joskowic, Gustavo Alatriste, Alberto Isaac, Luis Alcoriza, Jesus Salvador Trevino, and Felipe Cazals (a director whose films are, frustratingly, unavailable in the US).  The 1970s also saw the continuation of the Chicano Movement in the United States, and some Mexican films reflected this emerging consciousness.  Films of the 1970s, as in previous and later decades, also dealt with the complex issue of Mexican immigration to the US.

51.) El Topo (The Mole) directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky (1970).  Surrealist western.

52.) Crates directed by Alfredo Joskowic (1970).  About the aftermath of the 1968 student movement.

53.) Medicana Nacional (National Mechamics) directed by Luis Alcoriza (1971).  Satire about urban lower middle class.

54.) La Montana Sagrada (The Holy Mountain) directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky (1973).  Surrealist religious epic.

55.) El Juicio de Martin Cortes (The Trial of Martin Cortes) directed by Alejandro Galindo (1973).  About the illegitimate son of conquistador Hernando Cortes.

56.) Ante El Cadaver de un Lider (Before the Corpse of a Leader) directed by Alejandro Galindo (1973).  Dark comedy.

57.) De Sangre Chicana (Of Chicano Blood) directed by Pepito Romay (1973).  Film about Mexican-American “Chicanos”.

58.) Mexico, Mexico, Ra, Ra, Ra directed by Gustavo Alatriste (1974).  Satire.

59.)  Tivoli directed by Alberto Isaac (1974).  About redevelopment in Mexico City, and the closing of an old burlesque theater.

60.) Canoa directed by Felipe Cazals (1975).  About violence in the village San Miguel Canoa.

61.) El Apando (Solitary Confinement) directed by Felipe Cazals (1975).  About prison life.

62.) Raices de Sangre (Roots of Blood) directed by Jesus Salvador Trevino (1976).  About the efforts of factory workers along US/Mexico border to unionize.

63.) La Casta Divina (The Divine Caste) directed by Julian Pastor (1977).  About Mexican aristocracy on the eve of the 1910 Revolution.

64.) El Ano de la Peste (The Year of the Plague) directed by Felipe Cazals (1978).  Science fiction dystopia about a plague.

65.) Llamame Mike (Call Me Mike) directed by Alfredo Gurrola (1979).  Private eye film.

66.) Dias de Combate (Days of Combat) directed by Alfredo Gurrola (1979).  Private eye film.

The 1980s

The 1980s saw the rise of new directors, each dealing with the problems of Mexican society in their own ways.  Notable newcomers included Jaime Humberto Hermosillo, Mexico's first openly gay film director, whose films explored sexuality in open and controversial ways.  Director Paul Leduc directed the first biopic of Mexican artist Frida Khalo.  Felipe Cazals continued making films with powerful social commentary.  In a similar vein Alejandro Pelayo made a trilogy of films dealing with social problems in Mexico.  Along with these "serious" films, there also appeared popular comedies, action, and romance films.

67.) Cosa Facil (Easy Thing) directed by Alfredo Gurrola (1982).  Private eye film.

68.) Maria de Me Corazon (Maria, My Love) directed by Jaime Humberto Hermosillo (1982).  Based on a short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

69.) El Die Que Murio Pedro Infante (The Day Pedro Infante Died) directed by Claudio Isaac (1982).  About the frustrations of a young writer.

70.) Nocaut (Knockout) directed by Jose Luis Garcia Agraz (1982).  Drama about a boxer.

71.) Vidas Errantes (Wandering Lives) directed by Juan de la Riva (1983).  About a wandering film showcase.

72.) Frida, Naturaleza Viva (Frida, Still Life) directed by Paul Leduc (1985).  Biopic of Frida Khalo.

73.) Dona Herlinda y Su Hijo (Dona Herlinda and Her Son) directed by Jaime Humberto Hermosillo (1985).  Gay drama.

74.) Lola la Trailera (Lola the Truck Driver) directed by Raul Fernandez (1985).  Lowbrow action comedy.

75.) Ni de Aqui, Ni de Alla (From Neither Here nor There) directed by Maria Elena Velasco (1987).  Comedy starring “La India Maria”.

76.) Welcome Maria directed by Juan Lopez Moctezuma (1987).  About an illegal immigrant to the US.

77.) Esperanza (Hope) directed by Sergio Olhovich (1987).  Co-production with the USSR.

78.) Siete en La Mira II: La Furia de la Venganza (Seven in the Rifle Sight II: The Fury of Vengeance) directed by Pedro Galindo III  (1986).  Mad Max-inspired action movie.

79.) El Imperio de la Fortuna (The Realm of Fortune) directed by Arturo Ripstein (1986).  About cock fighting.

80.) Los Motivos de Luz (Luz’s Motives) directed by Felipe Cazals (1985).  Social commentary.

81.) El Tres de Copas (Three of Hearts) directed by Felipe Cazals (1986).  About the Mexican-American War.

82.) Trilogy of films by Alejandro Pelayo (1982-1990): La Vispera (The Prelude),  Dias Dificiles (Difficult Days), Morir en el Golfo (To Die in the Gulf).

83.) El Ultimo Tunel (The Last Tunnel) directed by Servando Gonzalez (1987).  About a father-son conflict.

84.) Lo Que Importa es Vivre (Living is What Matters) directed by Luis Alcoriza (1987).  Drama.

85.) Mariana, Mariana directed by Alberto Isaac (1987).  Coming of age story.

86.) Polvo de Luz (Dust of Light) directed by Cristian Gonzalez.  Drama.

87.) El Secreto de Romelia (Romelia’s Secret) directed by Busi Cortes (1988).  Drama.

88.) Rojo Amenecer (Red Dawn) directed by Jorge Fons (1989).  About the massacre of student protestors in Mexico City in 1968, the Tlatelolco Massacre.

The 1990s

In the 1990s, thanks to a new generation of directors, Mexican cinema began to reach a broader international audience.  Director Alfonso Arau's 1992 film Como Agua Para Chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate), a tale of passion, food, and desire set in pre-Revolutionary Mexico, was a massive international hit, and helped create inroads for other up-and-coming directors who would go on to achieve success of their own.  New directors of the 1990s included Guillermo del Toro, whose  horror/fantasy films like Cronos and The Devil's Backbone would ultimately land him in Hollywood, making blockbusters like Hellboy and Pacific Rim.  The 90s also saw the emergence of director Alfonso Cuaron, whose film Solo Con Tu Pareja became a hit, which he would follow with the international sensation Y Tu Mama Tambien.  Other notable directors of the 1990s include Jaime Humberto Hermosillo, Nicolas Echevarria, Dana Rotberg, Gabriel Retes, Maria Novaro, Juan Mora Catlett, Alejandro Pelayo, Jorge Fons, and Arturo Ripstein.

89.) La Tarea (Homework) directed by Jaime Humberto Hermosillo (1990).  Sex comedy by Mexico’s only openly gay director.

90.) Cabeza de Vaca directed by Nicolas Echevarria (1991).  About “conquistador” Cabeza de Vaca who lives among native Americans of the southwest.

91.) Solo Con To Pareja (Only With Your Partner) directed by Alfonso Cuaron (1991).  Sex comedy about Mexican “yuppies.”

92.) Angel de Fuego (Angel of Fire) directed by Dana Rotberg (1991).  Drama about circus performers on fringes of Mexico City.

93.) Cronos directed by Guillermo del Toro (1992).  Vampire movie.

94.) El Bulto (The Burden) directed by Gabriel Retes (1992).  Rip Van Winkle-style parable set in modern Mexico.

95.) Danzon directed by Maria Novaro (1991).  A woman’s journey of self-discovery involving dance.

96.) Retorno a Aztlan (Return to Aztlan) directed by Juan Mora Catlett (1992).  Set before the Spanish conquest of Mexico.

97.) Como Agua Para Chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate) directed by Alfonso Arau (1992).  Drama about food and sex set in pre-Revolutionary Mexico.

98.) Miroslava directed by Alejandro Pelayo (1992).  About the death of a famous Mexican actress.

99.) Novia Que Te Vea (Bride to Be) directed by Guita Schyfter (1993).  Drama about Mexican Jews.

100.) El Jardin de Eden (The Garden of Eden) directed by Maria Novaro (1994).  Drama about lives around US/Mexico border.

101.) El Callejon de los Milagros (Midaq Alley) directed by Jorge Fons (1994).  About intersecting lives in Mexico City.

102.) Profundo Carmesi (Deep Crimson) directed by Arturo Ripstein (1996).  A Bonnie and Clyde type story.

103.) Santitos (Little Saints) directed by Alejandro Springall (1998).  Drama about a mother’s search for her lost daughter.

104.) La Ley de Herodes (Herod’s Law) directed by Luis Estrada (1999).  Political satire about local government corruption.

105.) Bajo California: El Limite del Tiempo (Below California: The Limitations of Time) directed by Carlos Bolado (1999).  A movie about a man who travels through Baja California in search of enlightenment.

The 2000s

In the 21st century, in an increasingly globalized world, Mexican cinema continues to make inroads to international audiences.  An interesting case of a 21st century Mexican director is Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose 2000 film Amores Perros was an international hit which got the attention of Hollywood.  Following Amores Perros, Inarritu stopped making Mexican films, and has gone on to make highly successful "art" films like Babel, 21 Grams, and most recently Birdman.  Inarritu's decision to leave his country and make English-language films parallels the careers of Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron, the latter of which made a Harry Potter film.  If Mexico's greatest talents leave Mexico, where does that leave the country's cinema?  This is an open-ended question, and of course not all successful Mexican filmmakers have left Mexico.  A notable example is Luis Estrada, whose films El Infierno and The Perfect Dictatorship continue to wrestle with questions of Mexican politics and social problems.  If the past century of Mexican cinema has demonstrated anything, it is the capacity of Mexican filmmakers to continue making interesting films despite the various hardships and struggles of their country.

106.) Amores Perros (Love’s a Bitch) directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (2000).  Drama about the lives of dogs and humans intersecting in Mexico City.  Big international hit.

107.) Por la Libre (By the Toll-Free Road) directed by Juan Carlos de la Llaca (2000).  Road movie/drama.

108.) Sin Dejar Huella (Without a Trace) directed by Maria Novaro (2000).  Road movie inspired by Thelma and Louise.

109.) Su Alteza Serenisima (His Most Serene Highness) directed by Felpe Cazals (2000).  Drama about general Santa Anna.

110.) Y Tu Mama También (And Your Mother Too) directed by Alfonso Cuaron (2001).  Road movie about sexual liberation/social commentary.

111.) El Espinazo del Diablo (The Devil’s Backbone) directed by Guillermo del Toro (2001).  Ghost story set during Spanish Civil War.

112.) El Crimen Del Padre Amaro (The Crime of Father Amaro) directed by Carlos Carrera (2002).  Drama about a sex scandal involving a catholic priest.

113.) Frida directed by Julie Taymor (2002).  Biopic of Frida Khalo starring Salma Hayek.

114.) Digna…Hasta el Ultimo Aliento (Digna…Worthy to Her Final Breath) directed by Felipe Cazals (2003).  About the death of Mexican human rights lawyer Digna Ochoa.

115.) Zapata: el Sueno del Heroe (Zapata: The Heroe’s Dream) directed by Alfonso Arau (2003).  About Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata.

116.) Lucia, Lucia directed by Antonio Serrano (2003).  About political corruption.

117.) El Infierno (Hell) directed by Luis Estrada (2010) Dark comedy about a Mexican man who is deported, and then gets involved in a powerful drug cartel.

I'm sure there are many more contemporary Mexican films that didn't make it on this list, and I continue to search for them...


  1. I'm trying to subscribe so I can post a comment.

  2. Hi Jesse,
    I can comment now. Just like to say this is a great Blog very informative. I'm living in Central Mexico in the state of Puebla and am originally from Canada. I've been collecting Mexican Lobby cards when I find them. Finding good information about the beginnings of Mexican Cinema to where we are today has not been so easy until I found your site. In the future I will check out more of your Blogs. I hope to find other sites with such great in depth information as your site.