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La Bandida
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La Bandida

Released in 1963, Roberto Rodriguez's melodrama La Bandida represents the last vestiges of Mexico's Golden Age of Cinema. The genre, the stars, the passionate love story set against the backdrop of the Revolution, and the grandeur of the glossy color cinematography reflect the characteristics of the Golden Age, which was all but over by the early 1960s. Under pressure from U.S. imports and competition from television, the Mexican film industry was in decline and Golden Age stars and directors at the end of their careers. Despite the context of industry decline, La Bandida sparkles with the star power of its four leads and the colorful cinematography of Gabriel Figueroa.

La Bandida offers a late example of the Mexican melodrama, one of the genres absorbed from Hollywood and adapted to a Mexican social and cultural identity during the Golden Age. Like all melodramas, the Mexican version offers a story of romantic complications among archetypal characters who express larger-than-life emotions as they suffer life's misfortunes on behalf of the viewers. The melodrama has always been popular with Mexican audiences, who have embraced the genre in radio serials, popular songs, and political cartoons in newspapers. Even the tone and tragic style of grandiose mural paintings has similarities to the heightened emotions of melodrama.

The Mexican melodrama featured archetypal characters familiar to Latin audiences-hot-tempered seductresses, rural peasants, revolutionary heroes, and saintly women, among others. Narratives revolved around the pleasures and hardships of traditional rural life, the Mexican Revolution, and the corruption of the city, etc. Unique to the Mexican melodrama is the use of music. Songs with lyrics that define the characters or comment on the storyline are an integral part of the narratives and can be heard throughout the movies, leading some reviewers outside Mexico to erroneously describe them as "musicals" or "musical hybrids."

Set in 1912 during a lull in the Mexican Revolution when Francisco Madero became President and attempted to implement land reforms, La Bandida pits two former revolutionaries against each other for the love of the same woman, Maria Mendoza. Roberto Herrera, an educated revolutionary who was less than dedicated to the cause, returns home to Maria, who is living on his ranch. Impatient and angry that Roberto had left her to fight in the Revolution, Maria was not faithful while her beloved was gone. Roberto's homecoming is ruined when he opens the door to his hacienda to find his lover in bed with another man. Roberto kills the young man and then leaves Maria, who returns to her life as a prostitute at a popular bordello operated by a cruel American madam. Maria is dubbed "La Bandida" because she steals the hearts of the men who pay for her favors. But, Maria and all the residents of the bordello suffer in their lonely, unsatisfying lives: Though experts in the art of sex, they are unable to sustain either love or romance. Maria is still in love with Roberto; her friend and fellow prostitute, Jarochita, longs for a normal life with a good husband and a family; the piano player sings love songs to Maria for whom he pines; another prostitute's love for the piano player goes unrequited. As the piano player croons "little by little, I'm getting closer to you," the yearning of the bordello residents for something they cannot have is almost palpable. Maria decides their only recourse is to open their own bordello in San Miguel so that they can be free of the American and she can be close to Roberto.

The arrival of Epigmenio Gomez into San Miguel stirs up the dismal situation and alters their lives. An ardent supporter of the revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata, Epigmenio comes from the same rural peasant stock as Zapata. His rural peasant background is evident from his dark Indian features and his sentimental attachment to a rooster that he carries with him on his travels. The rivalry between Roberto and Epigmenio, which had begun after the last battle of the Revolution, heats up again. At first, it takes the form of cockfighting, with Epigmenio pitting his pet rooster against several of Roberto's chickens. When Maria and Jarochita walk into one of the cockfights, the two men's rivalry escalates, and they begin to compete for the attention of Maria. While the background tune discloses that "two brave men have been made rivals," Maria intentionally fans the flames of Roberto's jealousy and Epigmenio's desire. Ironically, Epigmenio and Roberto like each other, but machismo dictates that the two engage in competition to prove themselves as fighters, lovers, and as men.

La Bandida appealed to audiences of the era because of the actors, who were beloved stars of the Mexican film industry. Emilio Fernandez and Pedro Armendariz-long-time friends and colleagues-starred as Epigmenio and Roberto, with the legendary Maria Felix costarring as the object of their affections. Fernandez was close to 60 years old when he appeared in La Bandida, while Felix was around 50. Armendariz, too, was about 50 years old. Within six months, he would be dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound after learning he had cancer. The stars may have been well past their youth, but as icons of the Golden Age, their box-office popularity was assured. To add a youthful note to the cast, Katy Jurado-looking much younger than her 38 years-played Maria's best friend, Jarochita .

La Bandida proved the perfect vehicle for Maria Felix, because it suited her star image as the strong woman driven by her sexual passion and desire for love; she's also someone whose independence threatened the code of machismo. With her long, dark hair, full red lips, and voluptuous figure, she excelled at playing the smoldering temptress too beautiful to be faithful to one man. In her films, the rivalry her characters cause among male suitors, who are bound by the code of machismo to prove themselves, threatens the stability and social order of her village or environment. The deadly competition her character Maria Mendoza instigates between Roberto and Epigmenio not only results in tragedy for her but also wreaks havoc on those around her. By the end, all the characters, even the secondary ones, are either dead or destroyed, which sets a tragic stage for the re-igniting of the Revolution.

A seminal director as well as a major star, Emilio Fernandez was arguably the most important figure from the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema. He was the son of a Spanish-Mexican father and Indian mother, which earned him the lifelong nickname El Indio. Fernandez grew up during the turbulent Mexican Revolution between 1910 and 1920 and then participated in the ill-fated De la Huerta rebellion of 1923-1924. When the rebellion failed, he and the other De la Huerta supporters were forced into political exile, with Fernandez winding up in Los Angeles. El Indio did odd jobs around Hollywood where he hung around the studios, working as an extra and watching the production of movies. He reportedly observed the editing of Sergei Eisenstein's ill-fated American venture Que Viva Mexico! (1932), a film that would prove inspirational to many future Mexican filmmakers.

In 1934, the political climate changed, and Fernandez returned home to begin work in the movies as a screenwriter and actor. With his Indian features, El Indio was often cast as bandits, charros (cowboys), or revolutionaries. Fernandez began developing screenplays that he hoped to direct to fulfill his agenda for a nationalistic cinema of Mexican imagery, stories, and characters. In 1941-1942, El Indio directed his first feature, La Isla de la Pasion, which launched an extremely successful career. He directed a string of beautifully crafted Mexican features during the 1940s, including Soy Puro Mexicano (1942), Flor Silvestre (1943), Rio Escondido (1948), and his masterpiece, Maria Candelaria (1944). The films not only fulfilled Fernandez's intent to create a cinema that followed his nationalist ideas but also drew international attention to the artistry of Mexican filmmaking. Maria Candelaria, which won the Grand Prize at the Cannes International Film Festival, was Fernandez's ode to Mexico's Indian culture-and his mother's culture. The Fernandez film most known in America is mostly likely La Perla, or The Pearl (1947), which was based on John Steinbeck's novella.

Like many great directors, Fernandez had a stock company of actors and crew members that he liked to work with. Beginning with La Isla de la Pasion, Pedro Armendariz appeared in over a dozen of the director's films, including the leads in La Perla and Maria Candelaria. During his career, Armendariz crossed and recrossed the border to appear in both Mexican and Hollywood films, including those by John Ford (Fort Apache, Three Godfathers, both 1948). In Hollywood, Armendariz was used as a character actor to play Latin types mainly in westerns, but in his native country, he became one of the most popular male stars of the Golden Age. Mexican directors like Fernandez in the 1940s and Luis Bunuel in the 1950s made the most of Armendariz's virile personality to develop strong protagonists. Director-producer Ismael Rodriguez, who produced La Bandida, gave the popular actor the role of a lifetime when he cast him as national hero Pancho Villa in his Villa trilogy of 1957-1960.

By the late 1950s, Fernandez had stopped directing and returned to acting, where he often found himself sharing the screen with Armendariz. In a story about the rivalry between two very different men, La Bandida makes use of the actors' opposing appearances and star images. Armendariz, the son of a Mexican father and American mother, was college educated and urban bred. His light skin and refined air contrasted to El Indio's darker complexion and rural background. The contrast in appearance and image helped define Roberto Herrera as a middle-class land-owner and Epigmenio Gomez as a poor peasant. The two characters also symbolized the various participants and the diverse positions that made up the complex ten-year event known as the Mexican Revolution.

However, Emilio Fernandez's most important collaborator or peer was not an actor but a cinematographer named Gabriel Figueroa. The visual style that Figueroa and Fernandez developed in their string of 25 films during the 1940s and early 1950s defined the style of Mexican cinema during its Golden Age. It also influenced the Mexican films of Luis Bunuel and the westerns of several Hollywood directors and cinematographers from the 1950s and 1960s. Figueroa had begun working behind the camera as far back as 1932 when he actually assisted on Eisenstein's Que Viva Mexico!. In 1935, while working for a Mexican studio, he was sent to Hollywood to learn more about his craft. There he studied under Gregg Toland, Hollywood's greatest cinematographer and still unmatched for innovating and advancing the classic Hollywood style without fundamentally altering it. Figueroa returned to Mexico in 1936, where he worked as cinematographer on over 100 films, including La Bandida.

The style created by Figueroa and Fernandez was one of epic grandeur, often utilizing carefully composed, stationary long shots of the Mexican landscape. Influenced by Que Viva Mexico! all those years before, Figueroa built on Eisenstein's depiction of landscape and glorified it. Muralist David Siqueiros called Figueroa's cinematography "murals that travel." The art of Mexican cinema was identified with the style of Figueroa and Fernandez, and its beauty helped inspire in Mexican audiences a sense of collective identity.

During the 1950s, after the careers of Figueroa and Fernandez went in separate directions, Figueroa became Bunuel's cinematographer. By the 1960s, he was working regularly for producers like Ismael Rodriguez, and was adept at capturing the rugged landscapes, decaying villages, and vivid skies of his beloved Mexico in glossy color and in widescreen.

For those unfamiliar with Mexican cinema, La Bandida may seem little more than a formulaic melodrama with archetypal characters expressing overwrought emotions. But, the cast and crew bring a history to their roles and contributions, which adds depth and meaning to the material.

Producer: Ismael Rodriguez for Peliculas Rodriguez
Director: Roberto Rodriguez
Screenplay: Rafael Garcia Travesi and Roberto Rodriguez
Cinematography: Gabriel Figueroa
Editor: Jose W. Bustos
Art Director: Roberto Silva
Music: Jose Alfredo Jimenez and Raul Lavista
Cast: Maria Mendoza (Maria Felix), Epigmenio Gomez (Emilio Fernandez), Roberto Herrera (Pedro Armendariz), Jarochita (Katy Jurado), Anselmo (Ignacio Lopez Tarso).
C-110m.

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