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Alfredo Ripstein, 90; producer helped to shape Mexico's movie industry

January 27, 2007|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Alfredo Ripstein, a Mexican film producer whose prolific and influential career stretched from the country's cinematic Golden Age in the 1940s to the dawn of the 21st century, has died. He was 90.

Ripstein died of respiratory failure Jan. 20 at his home in Mexico City's Polanco district, his family said.

Ripstein died peacefully, shortly after he and his wife, Frieda, celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary, surrounded by their children and grandchildren.

"He didn't struggle. He didn't fight. So it's an ending of a film from the '40s that he would've liked very much," said his son, Arturo Ripstein, who followed his father into the movie business and is one of Mexico's most accomplished independent directors.

In his native country, Ripstein was widely regarded as the last surviving member of a group of powerful producers who helped shape Mexico's film industry into one of the world's most efficient and dynamic in the years before and after World War II.

He also gave exposure relatively early in their careers to some of Mexico's premier contemporary young actors, including Salma Hayek and Gael Garcia Bernal.

All told, Ripstein produced more than 100 films, from melodramas to serious films that explored the layers of corruption and contradiction in Mexican society. Among the latter category was Ripstein's final feature film, in 2001, "The Crime of Padre Amaro," which starred Garcia Bernal as a tormented young priest who impregnates a woman.

Based on a 19th century novel by Portuguese writer Jose Maria Eca de Queiros, the film's highly critical depiction of the Roman Catholic Church made it a succes de scandale in Mexico. Produced with Ripstein's grandson and partner, Daniel Birman, it was the country's official entry for the best foreign-language film Oscar, and it remains one of the top-grossing Mexican films ever.

"Padre Amaro" also cemented Ripstein's late-career comeback, beginning in the 1990s, after a period during which "he almost completely retired," said Arturo Ripstein, who collaborated with his father on several projects that reflected the elder Ripstein's literary bent, including a 1999 adaptation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel "No One Writes to the Colonel" and "The Beginning and the End," adapted from the novel by the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz.

Epstein was born Dec. 10, 1916, in Parral in the northern state of Chihuahua; his father was a merchant of Polish origin. At the time, his parents were running a small supply store whose biggest customer was the revolutionary army of Pancho Villa, which was then in the middle of its insurrectionary struggle against the federal government.

With her husband temporarily out of town, Ripstein's pregnant mother had to ask Villa for permission to briefly close the store so that she could give birth, Arturo Ripstein said. A few days later, Villa showed up to inspect the newborn Alfredo.

"So the first man that ever carried my father was Pancho Villa," Arturo Ripstein said.

Ripstein was 5 when his family moved to the Mexican capital. He later studied to be an accountant and began work in that capacity in the 1930s. He began his career in film production at Simon Wishnack's Filmex company, serving as a production manager and executive producer.

In 1950, having already produced some 50 films, he opened his own company, Alameda Films. During his long career, Ripstein worked with some of the biggest names in the business, including actors Emilio "Indio" Fernandez and Pedro Infante and the directors Alejandro Galindo, Jorge Fons and Chano Urueta.

During his career, Mexico's state-subsidized film industry helped to articulate the country's vision of itself as a modernizing nation moving from a primarily rural to a predominantly urban society. "It was the aspiration of Mexico. It was the idealization of what was really going on," said Arturo Ripstein.

From his figurative front-row seat, the elder Ripstein witnessed enormous changes in the Mexican film industry over the course of half a century. When his father began his career, his son Arturo said, the movie producer was the all-powerful boss of a team of screenwriters, actors and so on, as was his Hollywood counterpart.

But that system changed in the early 1970s, when Mexican President Luis Echeverria decided to increase the role of the state in film production, bypassing the old professional commercial film producers.

Ripstein bided his time until the political and economic winds shifted again in the early 1990s and the state began recruiting commercial producers. According to his son, rather than trying to repeat the formulas of the past, Ripstein told his colleagues, "OK, things have changed. Let's adapt to do films for mature audiences. Let's not be crass."

Some of Ripstein's movie reminiscences will soon be published in a book by Nelson Carro, "Churubusco-Babilonia," a fusion of the name of the legendary Mexico City movie studio complex and the Spanish word for Babylon.

As a father, Ripstein could be as tough and exacting as he was as a producer, presiding over a lively clan that, despite its European-Jewish roots, considered itself to be thoroughly Mexican, his son said.

In addition to his wife and son, Ripstein is survived by two daughters, Sylvia and Patricia, seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

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