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SPECIAL SCREENINGS

Comedy Classic Kicks Off 'Classic Mexican Cinema'

October 21, 1993|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Classic Mexican Cinema: 1919-1964," the final phase in the UCLA Film Archive's comprehensive three-year survey of Mexican films, commences Friday at 7:30 p.m. in UCLA's Melnitz Theater with "Ahi Esta el Detalle" ("That's the Point"). This 1940 film established the late comedian Cantinflas' superstardom.

Mexican cinema historian Michael Donnelly, who co-curated the series with the Archive's Geoffrey Gilmore, took on the formidable task of subtitling this intensely verbal comedy chock-full of word-play and semantic confusion. With low-riding pants over a union suit and a funny narrow-brimmed hat, Cantinflas is delightful and mischievous as a layabout pressed into posing as the long-lost brother of a pompous, obtuse industrialist (Joaquin Pardave, who became Cantinflas' regular fall guy).

Director/co-writer Juan Bustillo Oro, a major figure in Mexican film comedy, piles on the plot absurdities and gags to the extent that it's hard to keep up with Donnelly's excellent subtitles. Even if you find "That's the Point" wearying, you can understand why it's considered a comedy classic.

Two landmarks in the Mexican cinema, both of which created scandals at the time of their release, screen on the weekend. Arcady Boytler's 1933 "Woman of the Port" (Saturday, 7:30 p.m.) possesses a sexual candor beyond what was generally attempted even in pre-Code Hollywood.

Considered the most important of the few films surviving from the silent era of Mexican cinema, Enrique Rosas' 1919 "The Grey Automobile" (Sunday, 7:30 p.m.) is both aesthetically and historically significant. What audiences found shocking about it is its realistic depiction of the robberies staged by an actual gang, disguised as soldiers, that terrorized Mexico City during the Revolution.

Written by Guz Aguila and several collaborators working from Tolstoy's "Natasha" and De Maupassant's "The Port," "Woman of the Port" tells of a beautiful young woman (Andrea Palma) betrayed by her philandering fiance and rendered penniless by her father's death. She finds herself driven from her native Cordoba to become a prostitute in Vera Cruz, where she meets a fate so melodramatically coincidental few filmmakers would attempt it today. It is far more like the fatalistic French films of the '30s than its Hollywood counterparts, but one cannot help but wonder what Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich might have made of it.

Boytler, a Russian emigre, had precisely the right poetic sensibility necessary to get away with "Woman of the Port." He had a strong assist in Max Urban's romantic score and even more from Manuel Esperon's haunting, candid theme song, "Vendo placer" ("I Sell Pleasure"); at all times the legendary Alex Phillips's cinematography is as luminous as Palma, who is as elegantly gowned as any Hollywood star.

"Woman of the Port" manages to combine social criticism, sexual candor and stark tragedy within an all-embracing romanticism. Both "Woman of the Port" and "The Grey Automobile" show that the Mexican cinema could produce films as sophisticated in style and theme, not to mention technical polish, as any being made anywhere in the world at the time.

"The Grey Automobile" came into being under the most unusual circumstances. Gen. Pablo Gonzales, commander of the forces of occupation during the Mexican Revolution, wanted to clear up any stain on his soldiers' reputations because of the Grey Automobile Bandits' disguises. To that end, Gonzales turned to Rosas, both an exhibitor and a documentary filmmaker, to make as authentic as possible a re-creation of the gang's widespread activities during the year 1915.

Rosas and his writers designed "The Grey Automobile" as a serial, but today it exists only in an 111-minute version with extremely few titles and with a score added in 1933. Rosas' use of authentic locales, in Puebla and elsewhere as well as Mexico City, and an essentially naturalistic acting style make "The Grey Automobile" closer to "Fantomas" than to "The Perils of Pauline."

The scope of the film is remarkable, for it unfolds against the political and military turmoil of the time. Since early silents tend to ramble, the many missing sequences of "The Grey Automobile" do little to stem its steady flow of striking images but wreak havoc on its continuity. It's tough going, but well worth the effort.

Information: (310) 206-FILM.

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