Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on November 13, 2016
FilmStruck subscribers should take special note of the opportunity to acquaint themselves with one of the masters of Mexican cinema: Arturo Ripstein. Chances are that even ardent supporters of local arthouse cinemas are only familiar with Deep Crimson (1996), as that film got decent press and a solid release by New Yorker Films here in the U.S. back in the mid-nineties. Otherwise, and unless you happened to luck into a retrospective at the Harvard Film Archive three years ago or similar special event, only a handful of his films have gotten the circulation they deserve. This is an incredible oversight for a director with over 30 features under his belt and who can easily claim to be the cinematic heir of Luis Buñuel.
His IMDB biography says he began his career as an unbilled assistant director on Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962), although Haden Guest, in his intro to the H.F.A. show, asserts that this is “a stubborn myth”. Guest, however, does not refute that “Ripstein boldly embraced a certain Buñuellian iconoclasm and irreverent black humor” along with his having a “long friendship with Luis Buñuel who became an intellectual and spiritual mentor to the aspiring filmmaker.” Arturo Ripstein was born in 1943 in Mexico City, is still very active and last year released Bleak Street, a crime drama about elderly prostitutes who unintentionally kill twin wrestling dwarfs. He studied filmmaking at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), but was given a more hands-on experience thanks to his father, Alredo Ripstein Jr., a film producer. His film debut, Tiempo de morir (A Time to Die, 1965) was based on a script by Gabriel Garcia Márquez featuring a story of a man trying, but unable, to escape his destiny–a theme that would continue to be pivotal to much of Ripstein’s work.
In the late sixties and early seventies, Ripstein had some ambitious but disappointing forays which inspired him to take a small break. During this time he helped form the Cine Independiente de México group to champion experimental works, but he returned to commercial films with El castillo de la pureza (The Castle of Purity, 1972), which is the first film– going chronologically by year of release–available in the FilmStruck package devoted to Ripstein. The Castle of Purity is based on a real-life story of a man who imprisons his wife and children. The set was built by Manuel Fontanals, a Spanish exile whose set designs for the Churubusco studio were of top-notch caliber. Exhibit A would be Fontanals set for The Castle of Purity that “remained standing for three years, during which time it was used, with variations and additions, in several more films.” (Tomás Pérez Turrent, The Studios; Mexican Cinema, p. 144.) I realize that the topic might seem rather dour, but this is a stunning film with many gothic and haunting images tinged with a bit of the surreal.
It is fitting that is should star Buñuel regular Claudio Brook as the stern patriarch who tries to build an unreal utopia, only to see it all unravel when reality intrudes. Foxtrot (aka: The Far Side of Paradise, 1975) concerns a Romanian count, wife and servants who try to escape WWII atrocities by living on a deserted island, only to find that it impossible to escape violence. This Mexico-UK-Switzerland co-production stars Max von Sydow, Peter O’Toole and Charlotte Rampling. This stellar cast may have caused high expectations on behalf of critics, who originally lashed out with unkind reviews. La viuda negra (The Black Widow, 1977) was a project offered up to Ripstein by the state after the original director, Felipe Cazals, was dismissed for adding political elements. “Ripstein also had difficulties with the poor quality of the script and improvised as he filmed. As a result, the supposedly serious story of the scandalous sexual relationship between a priest and his unbalanced house-keeper became a malicious comedy that was banned by the censors for seven years.” (Leonardo Garcia Tsoa, One-Generation – Four Filmmakers: Cazals, Hermosillo, Leduc and Ripstein; Mexican Cinema, p. 214).
The next two titles, El Lugar Sin Limites (The Place Without Limits, 1977) and Cadena perpetua (Life Sentence,1978), are widely considered among Ripstein’s masterworks. The Place Without Limits marked a milestone in Mexican cinema in regards to its frank depictions of homosexuality and homophobia. Life Sentence employs a flashback structure to tell the story of a crook who tries to get on the straight and narrow only to find himself being screwed by pretty much everyone. It has crisp color and is shot on the streets of Mexico City kicking off the proceedings with a startling assassination that sets up a tone for the unforgiving fatalism to come. Rastro de Muerte (1981) is a period piece set in the 1930s involving corrupt government officials in a remote Mexican state. Billed as a thriller it’s more of a state-sponsored melodrama that doesn’t represent Ripstein’s true talents which, thankfully, come back into full evidence with the last two Ripstein films being offered up on FilmStruck: Imperio de la Fortuna (The Realm of Fortune, 1985) and Deep Crimson (1996). The Realm of Fortune marks the first time Ripstein worked from a script by his future partner, Paz Alicia Garcíadiego, based on a short story by Mexican author Juan Rulfo.
The Realm of Fortune is the second movie adaptation to come out of Rulfo’s story, the first was El gallo de oro (The Golden Cock, 1964), directed by Roberto Gavaldón. Ripstein and Garciadiego create something altogether epic and mythic. The action centers around cockfights, card games, and a woman with a beautiful voice who will come to rue her decisions. Lastly, and among the more recent Ripstein offerings by FilmStruck, is Deep Crimson (1996), a film loosely based on the true story of a fat nurse and a gigolo who committed crimes against lonely women in the late ‘40s. Deep Crimson won three awards at the Venice Film Festival and earned accolades at Sundance. The notorious lonely hearts killers first got on the big screen in François Truffaut’s favorite American film, Leonard Kastle’s The Honeymoon Killers (1970). Pablo Kjolseth
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