The Conquest of Mexico City – It has all the spectacle, drama and historic implications to be one of the defining moments of Western civilization, but the story of Cortés and his assault on the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan has not figured very prominently in the filmography of Mexico, or of Hollywood for that matter.
In fact, the confrontation and eventual blending of the indigenous culture of Mexico and that of Spain is not a favored theme of Mexican cinema in general. It must have something to do with the complex emotions that this epic encounter provokes in the Mexican spirit, at once something horrid and regretable, but at the same time so inherent to the national character that it must inevitably be embraced and, if not celebrated, at least cultivated and nurtured. No one can really give an exact expression of how they feel about this, it is too close to be seen with any kind of sweeping, judgemental vision. For that reason, I suppose, screenwriters and directors have been loathe to try to represent it with any success in a simple 90 minute film.
In 2009, the beautiful and rich museum of anthropology in Paris, the Musée du Quai Branly, held an exhibition of artifacts from Teotihuacan. In conjunction with the exhibition, a series of lectures were given in October, 2009 entitled, “The Imaginary Pre-Hispanic in Mexican Cinema.” The lectures were conducted by Professor Angel Miguel, Faculty of Arts of the Autonomous University of the State of Morelos (Mexico).
Mexican art at Quai Branly
Professor Angel Miguel gave an idea of the difficulty of discussing the issue of native culture during much of Mexico’s recent history. He spoke of milestone events such as the archeological work of Manuel Gamio at Teotihuacan in 1917, the Mexican pariticipation in early World’s Fairs, such as that of 1922 in Rio de Janeiro, and the 1922 beauty competition “La India Bonita,” held by the newspaper El Universal, and culminating in the publication in 1992 of Los Grandes Momentos del Indigenismo en México, by the philosopher Luis Villoro.
And then he spoke about films. Here is a chronological list of the films that he considered significant in the slow development of a body of work depicting the indigenous history and struggles of Mexico.
Tabaré, by Luis Lezama, 1918. Based on the romantic poem about the son of an Indian chief who falls in love with a beautiful española.
Cuauhtémoc, Manuel de la Bandera, 1919. This was the last Aztec emperor, nephew of Moctezuma II.
Zitari, by Miguel Contreras Torres, 1931. One of the last silent films, about an Aztec princess in Teotihuacan.
Tribú, also by Miguel Contreras Torres, 1935. About conflicts arising in Southern Mexico between Spanish gold miners and an unsubdued tribe. Part of the dialog is in Zapoteco.
In 1931, Sergei Eisenstein shot up to 50 hours of footage for his project “Qué Viva Mexico.” Even in its raw version, the film had a great impact, by bringing to the screen a new attitude of respect for indigenous traditions and aesthetics. At that point, the project was halted by the Mexican Film Trust. The very restrictive contract that
Eisenstein had signed with the Film Trust called for an apolitical film that in no way cast post-revolutionary Mexico in a bad light. The footage has been used for a half dozen films in the 1930s and 40s, as well as a Russian adaptation created in 1979 by Eisenstein collaborator, Grigori Alexandrov. Nowadays, a 1998 version, compiled by Oleg Kovalov and known as Meksikanskaya Fantasiya, (Mexican Fantasy) is the most accessible version.
Janitzio, directed by Carlos Navarro in1934, and inspired by Eisenstein. Emilio Fernandez plays Zirahuén, a fisherman, resists the speculators who would destroy his livelihood (and steal his girlfriend, for good measure!). Janitzio is the island location in a lake.
Fernandez is known for his great talent as an actor and director and for his cultural nationalism known as “antimalinchismo” after Maliche, the Aztec woman who gave birth to the child of Cortes. In 1948 Fernández revisited this locale and this type of story as a director, in the film Maclovia, starring Maria Felix. Same Janitzio locale in Lake Pátzcuaro in Michoacan, and a similar story about ill-fated lovers suffering the arrival of outsiders. It stars the famous actress María Félix as Maclovia.
Tizoc, by Ismael Rodriguez, 1957 with the most famous Mexican actor of that period, Pedro Infante and María Félix.
Tarahumara, (Cada Vez Más Lejos) English title Always Further On, directed by Luis Alcoriza, 1965.
Raíces, directed by Benito Alazraki, 1955. Filmed in the style of Italian neo-realism and French nouvelle vague, breaks with the falseness of the past. It is made up of four short pieces each about the brutal clash between European and indigenous cultures.
Cascabel, English title: The Rattlesnake, 1977, directed by Raúl Araiza. A white documentary maker investigates the indigenous of Chiapas.
Return to Aztlán, directed by Juan Mora Catlett, 1991. This film takes place in Mexico before the Spanish conquest and tells of a group of priests who travel on pilgrimage to a holy site. It is filmed in the Aztec language, Nahuatl.
Bajo California, El Límite del Tiempo, 1998, directed by Carlos Bolado. Yes, that’s bajo with an “o.” The story of an emigrant’s search for his routes in Baja California. the film highlights the ancient rock art which had just recently been discovered there in 1994.
Apocalypto, directed by Mel Gibson, 2006. Gibson strives for authenticity in this Mayan story by Persian screenwriter Farhad Safinia. It uses the Mayan language and incorporates many authentic cultural practices. It was a big box office success at the Mexican box office, but it failed to impress Professor Angel Miguel.
The chronology ended here, which surprises me a bit, as it excludes the great 2007 film, The Other Conquest, directed by Salvador Carrasco, in Spanish and Nahuatl. But perhaps that will be for another time.
At Quai Branly by Dominic Ambrose is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.