PRINT February 2017


Julio Bracho

Julio Bracho, Distinto amanecer (Another Dawn), 1943, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 106 minutes. Julieta (Andrea Palma).

THE FUTURE OF CINEMA STUDIES demands an expansion of the past. Take the case of Julio Bracho (1909–1978), who was reintroduced to the world with a seven-film tribute at last October’s Morelia Film Festival in Mexico. Once that country’s most esteemed director, Bracho is nearly unknown outside his native land. (None of his films seem to have been represented in the scores of clips on view in the recent “Mexique 1900–1950” show at Paris’s Grand Palais.)

Bracho’s reputation has been eclipsed in Mexico as well—not least because the many movies he directed during the last two decades of his career appear to have been mediocre at best. However, throughout the 1940s, a period when few European films were imported to Mexico, Bracho filled the void with a series of ambitious genre films and literary adaptations.

His strongest movies include an adaptation of a nineteenth-century novel anticipating Manoel de Oliveira and Raúl Ruiz in its deadpan irony, a comic exercise in Old Testament camp, and an antifascist thriller comparable and in some ways superior to Casablanca. These and Bracho’s other movies are distinguished less by the director’s personality than by the interest in filmed theatricality he shared with Jean Renoir, Douglas Sirk, and Orson Welles.

Not so much urban as urbane, Bracho was lighter on mexicanidad than his internationally acclaimed contemporary Emilio Fernández, although both frequently worked with the same cinematographer, the supremely pictorial Gabriel Figueroa. Bracho’s mise-en-scène is accomplished; his politics are difficult to parse. His enormously popular debut, ¡Ay qué tiempos señor don Simón! (Oh, Those Were the Days, Don Simon!, 1941), was drenched in reactionary nostalgia—or so it might seem. Distinto amanecer (Another Dawn, 1943), the movie generally considered Bracho’s finest, was a markedly progressive political noir. La sombra del caudillo (Shadow of the Caudillo, 1960), the director’s last significant film, turned a critical eye on Mexico’s post-revolutionary leadership.

Bracho was born in Durango to an artistically inclined family. (Cousins included two Hollywood stars, Dolores del Río and Ramón Novarro; his sister Andrea Palma was also an actor; his brother Jesús was a lithographer associated with the Mexican muralists.) Originally part of the cosmopolitan circle of modernist writers and artists known as the Contemporáneos, Bracho moved left during the ’30s, when he was active in workers’ as well as experimental theater; he was also involved in the preproduction of the government-sponsored, proto-Neorealist feature Redes (The Wave, 1936), initiated by Paul Strand. If ¡Ay qué tiempos señor don Simón! harks back to the prerevolutionary, turn-of-the-century dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, it nevertheless keeps its subject at arm’s length.

Don Simón! mocks the pretense and hypocrisy of genteel society even as it revels in that world’s accoutrements. Mainly, the movie is concerned with its own playfulness. Beginning with a cancan performance, part of a risqué production women are supposedly forbidden to attend, Bracho establishes a lively equivalence between stage and audience: Society is itself a form of theater in which people assume their roles and appearance is paramount. The movie’s tour de force sequence has Figueroa’s camera maneuvering around a fashionable tearoom as groups of fan-fluttering patrons join in singing the title song, slinging gossip at rival cliques across the room. The grand finale, which pivots on the premiere of a new Spanish operetta, is a total farce, mixing onstage and backstage shenanigans in a manner reminiscent of the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera (1935).

Bracho followed this success with another period piece, Historia de un gran amor (Story of a Great Love, 1942), adapted from a novel by nineteenth-century Spanish author Pedro Antonio de Alarcón. Transposing this convoluted tale of mad love to southern Mexico, Bracho stages a series of ritualistic, highly choreographed fiestas as though they were national pageants—or Diego Rivera canvases. The bold posturing extends to the central battle between macho obsession (embodied by the megalomaniacal charro Jorge Negrete) and Catholic theology.

Leaving the past, Bracho switched gears with Distinto amanecer. Based on a play by the Spanish exile (and Buñuel buddy) Max Aub and resembling Casablanca (which opened in Mexico in March 1943, eight months before Bracho’s film’s premiere) in its politically fraught love triangle, Distinto amanecer is a socially committed policier with intimations of French poetic realism. During the course of a single night of narrow escapes, shocking murders, and surreal interludes, an unhappily married woman (Andrea Palma) encounters her old flame, a union organizer (Pedro Armendáriz) who is being tracked down by the minions of a corrupt politician. Tense and hyperbolic, making skillful use of Mexico City locations even as it takes a triumphant detour into the realm of the dance-hall musical, or cabaretera, the movie signals its quasi-autobiographical subtext when the organizer ducks into a cinema to avoid an assassin and reconnects with his lost love. Both the danger and the coincidence are underscored by the fact that what is being projected on the screen at this key moment is the group sing-along from Don Simón!

Some Mexican critics have taken Distinto amanecer as a generational statement expressing the disillusionment of those, like Bracho, who came of age amid the postrevolutionary cultural ferment associated with Minister of Public Education José Vasconcelos, and whose hopes for a progressive flowering of the arts were subsequently dashed. The same has been said for the moody psychological thriller Crepúsculo (Twilight, 1945). This noirish melodrama has a surplus of artistic aspiration: The lighting is expressionist, the decor modernist, and a prominent consulting credit is given to the celebrity criminal psychologist Dr. José Quevedo.

In Crepúsculo, Argentine actor Arturo de Córdova plays a distinguished Mexico City surgeon in thrall to a femme fatale whom he first glimpses modeling nude (Gloria Marín, the impassive beauty of Historia de un gran amor). She marries his best friend out of spite, even as he involves himself with the fatal woman’s innocent sister. Self-destructive urges are constant; medical melodrama peaks in the scene in which the doctor is forced to operate on his friend—a montage of mega-close-ups, every face half-concealed behind a white surgical mask.

Between his two urban dramas, Bracho made La corte de faraón (The Pharaoh’s Court,1944). Based on an early-twentieth-century zarzuela by Miguel de Palacios and Guillermo Perrín that had the distinction of being banned in Spain for blasphemy during the Franco regime, the movie replays the Old Testament story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife as arty sex farce, filled with comic anachronisms and an abundance of wittily faux-Egyptian dances. (La corte also has the distinction of being the only movie choreographed by the titan of the “radical dance movement,” Anna Sokolow.)

Although verging on theater of the ridiculous, the movie, intended as a commercial project, seems analogous to the middlebrow sophistication and classical travesty of contemporary Broadway shows like The Boys from Syracuse (1940) and One Touch of Venus (1943). The jaw-dropping spectacle left French cineast Pierre Rissient, a guest in Morelia, stunned (or, as he put it, making an appropriately classical reference, médusé).

Bracho’s best-loved movie is, unsurprisingly, far more conventional. Rosenda (1948), based on a novel by José Rúben Romero, is set in the late ’30s in rural Michoacán. An avuncular shopkeeper and bourgeois pillar of local society marries an abandoned peasant girl and then must defend her against the revolutionary bandit who jilted her. (It is the presence of this unsympathetic character that most distinguishes Rosenda from the Mexico of Emilio Fernández.) Crowd-pleasing as it is, the film builds up to a powerfully bittersweet ending that Bracho seems to have been compelled to sentimentalize.

With that compromise, Bracho declined as a director, although he made another fifteen films—mainly melodramas—over the next decade. La sombra del caudillo, which he began in the late ’50s, working from a roman à clef written in exile by the revolutionary journalist Martín Luis Guzmán, was a dream project concerning the clash of postrevolutionary warlords during the ’20s. Starting as satire, with showgirls singing about the upcoming election, the movie pivots into something more serious, delineating the complex power struggle between rival generals. With a sort of hypnotized despair, Bracho chronicles a story of torture, murder, and multiple betrayals that, as a political thriller, is comparable to Costa-Gavras if not Francesco Rosi.

It’s ironic that Bracho’s attempt to rejuvenate his career by returning to the period of his youth effectively ended it. La sombra del caudillo premiered at the 1960 Karlovy Vary film festival, where it received an honorable mention; then, as several of the movie’s prototypes were still alive and powerful, the film was shelved until 1990, twelve years after Bracho’s death.

“Between Twilight and Dawn: Julio Bracho and the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema,” organized by Dave Kehr, will be on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Mar. 1–9.

J. Hoberman is a frequent contributor to Artforum.