From the late 1970s until 1990, some 300 movie screens in America showed Spanish-language films from Latin America.
"Pacific and Metropolitan theaters were the leaders in Spanish-language exhibition," says Peter Marai, producer of DVDs of classic films from Latin America. "All of the downtown [Los Angeles] theaters were Spanish-language movies. The Criterion on Third Street in Santa Monica showed everything coming out of Mexico."
But with the emergence of the VCR, audiences started renting Latin American films on video. "That somehow killed the [movie] industry, as the quality of the films wasn't as good," says Marai.
Thanks to the international success of such Mexican directors as Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro and actors such as Gael Garcia Bernal, there has been a renaissance of Latin American films. Still, a lot of new films -- as well as the classics -- rarely are shown theatrically in the U.S. So the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's latest festival, "Latin American Cinema: A Weekend Celebration," is a rare opportunity to catch vintage and current films from south of the border.
The celebration is being held in conjunction with the exhibition "The Arts in Latin America: 1492-1820." All screenings will be free.
Among the nine films in the festival is one of the most popular melodramas of the 1930s, "The Woman of the Port," as well as the 2007 drama "The Violin," written and directed by Francisco Vargas. Special guests include filmmakers Fina Torres, who will discuss her 1985 film "Oriana," and the prolific Arturo Ripstein, who will participate in a Q&A after the screening of his 1978 drama "The Place Without Limits."
Marai supplied the vintage titles in the festival, including the 1951 erotic drama "Susana," from director Luis Buñuel, and the 1950 film "Victims of Sin," about a cabaret dancer who attempts to escape her hot-tempered pimp.
"There is a list of 100 top Mexican films, and this is in the top 10, I believe," says Marai of "Victims." "It's a huge melodrama that borders on the edge of comedy, it's so over-the-top."
Alejandro Pelayo Rangel, the consul for cultural affairs at the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles, admires "The Violin," which kicks off the festival Friday night. "It is a very socially committed film," says Rangel, who also teaches Mexican film at UCLA. "It's very personal. It's not a big film."
Mexican film, says Rangel, came into its own with the country's first talkie, 1931's "Santa." "In the silent era," he says, "we had some good films, but the best films are the documentaries about the Mexican revolution."
The country's so-called golden age of cinema took place in the 1940s. "All the countries during the second World War were not producing enough films," says Rangel. "And the films they were making were oriented toward propaganda."
Mexico, he says, beefed up production and began importing movies to Latin America. "They were producing more than 100 films every year, and maybe 10 or 15 were of very good quality." Simultaneously, Mexicans began to move from the rural areas to the big cities. "Cinema became the most important entertainment product in the cities," he says.
But the quality began to fade after the end of the war.
"When the U.S., France and Italy started producing films again, Mexican producers, instead of competing with more quality, they lowered the quality of the films because they wanted to lower costs."
Rangel says that the current renaissance in Mexican cinema is quite different than the golden age because it is far more international, with the filmmakers and actors working in America, Europe and Asia. "In the golden age, it was more of a national situation," he says. "They were producing more for a Mexican market and exporting films [with] Mexican producers and Mexican directors and Mexican subjects."
'Latin American Cinema: A Weekend Celebration'
Where: Leo S. Bing Theater, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd.
When: Friday through next Sunday
Contact: (323) 857-6010 or www.lacma.org
Schedule (all times p.m.)
Friday: "The Violin," 7:30; "Memories of Underdevelopment," 9:30
Saturday: "Susana," 2; "Rosaura at 10 O'Clock," 3:40; "Oriana," 5:30; "The Place Without Limits," 7:30; "Si sos Brujo: A Story of Tango," 10:15
Next Sunday: "The Woman! of the Port," 1:30; "Victims of! Sin," 3