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Varied themes in Mexican cinema

October 02, 2003|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

The American Cinematheque's four-day series on new Mexican cinema offers further proof of that nation's revitalized film industry. Thanks to the international acclaim accorded to such films as "Amores Perros," "Y Tu Mama Tambien" and "Japon," the films of the third annual Contemporary Mexican Film Series, which begins today at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, are coming to town at a moment of heightened interest in Mexico's cinematic output, and these entries do not disappoint, especially in their variety and diversity of themes.

Among the most fully realized of the recent films showing is "El Tigre de Santa Julia" (2002) (The Tiger of Santa Julia), directed and co-written by Alejandro Gamboa. The film stars Miguel Rodarte (who can also be seen in the current John Sayles picture "Casa De Los Babys") as Jose de Jesus Negrete, a young man who inadvertently earns the heroic nickname "El Tigre" for his dashing and daring exploits as a Robin Hood-style bandit. Set against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution, it is part swashbuckling action film, part sly political commentary and part "Candide"-like picaresque, as El Tigre is neither particularly interested in his career as a criminal nor as a man of the people. His main concern is women, and his actions are largely the results of his inability to say no to the opposite sex.

"Francisca," the second feature from director Eva Lopez-Sanchez, is a remarkably taut political thriller. Set during the turbulent 1970s, the film concerns a former member of the East German secret police who, traveling under a French passport, is trying to start a new life as a teacher. Picked up by the Mexican police, he is given a choice -- use his skills to bust up radical protesters or be sent back home.

Reluctantly agreeing to resume his former line of work, things get even more complicated when he becomes romantically entangled with one of the activists he agrees to track. German actor Ulrich Noethen gives a strong performance (in Spanish), which anchors this story of the enduring and seemingly inescapable cycle a life of violence creates.

The series also includes two additional features, "El Misterio del Trinidad" (The Mystery of Trinidad -- see review in Screening Room, Page 12), from director Jose Luis Garcia Agraz, a family melodrama, and "Vera," directed by Francisco Athie, a hybrid experimental film/science-fiction fantasy, following the journey of a man trapped in a cave. Perhaps on his way to safety, or in the process of his own death, he is led along by a mysterious creature. Full of fantastic imagery and hypnotically paced, the film doesn't quite hold up at feature length.

In an offbeat salute to the rich history of filmmaking in Mexico, the series features a double-bill of horror films from 1957. Both "El Ataud del Vampiro" (The Vampire's Coffin) and "La Momia Azteca Contral el Robot Humano" (Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy) are veritable models for the joys of low-budget genre movies, which often falter on such conventional criteria as production values, pacing or narrative logic, but are instead ruled by an enthusiasm and commitment which their more upscale counterparts often fail to match.

"The Vampire's Coffin," a sequel to the successful "The Vampire," is most notable for the spooky, shoestring atmospherics created by director Fernando Mendez and cinematographer Victor Herrera. As played by German Robles, Count Lavud the Vampire is a stylish and distinguished creep, creating zombie henchmen as he trolls the night for fresh prey. One chase late in the film is particularly well done, a beautiful web of light and shadow as Lavud's next victim runs the darkened city streets, his presence looming ever-larger. Abel Salazar (better known for his later role as "The Brainiac") and Ariadne Welter also return from the original.

"Robot Vs. The Aztec Mummy," itself part of a series of "Aztec Mummy" pictures, is no less joyous, if less skillful. An ancient Aztec mummy is awakened after the antiquities he guards are taken.

At the same time, a mad scientist (played by Luis Aceves Castaneda in a delightfully twisted, over-the-top performance) is finishing work on a robot designed to do his evil bidding. The final showdown between a thing of the past and the monster of the future is right good fun, and the robot costume -- something like a bread box stuck on top of an air conditioner -- is a case study in the "so bad it's good" aesthetic of true B-movie pleasures. Not for nothing was this film an early target of the legendary movie-parody show "Mystery Science Theater 3000."

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