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Thursday, September 19, 2013

VIVA ZAPATA (1952)

This Elia Kazan/John Steinbeck film about the Mexican Peasant-Revolutionary of the 1910s fights itself to a draw. Unlike earlier Mexican historicals, say VIVA VILLA!/’34 or JUAREZ/’39 which function as pure Hollywood product (regardless of their success), changing tastes in the ‘50s left this with one foot stuck in studio conventions and the other gingerly stepping toward a grittier realism. And it’s a hard turn to make when you’re being lit like a religious icon; except for Anthony Quinn, commandingly comfortable as Zapata’s ‘id’ addled brother. Everyone else overcompensates, aware they're out of their element. Steinbeck can’t keep himself from speechifying on noble causes, trying to adopt the indigenous peoples as part of his Joad family. Even writing a final arioso for Marlon Brando’s Zapata to recite a la Tom Joad. (That comes after Brando fights a losing battle against the Quinn testosterone level, retaliating with more shirtless scenes than ever before.) The rest of the cast are right out of Group Theatre, especially Joseph Wiseman doing an Angel-of-Death routine. But Kazan, who always claimed to have learned the most about directing from John Ford, flexes some new muscles. True, he often strains for effect, but some of the troop movements along the river, and a couple of long fixed shots of battle-ready fields really do have a Fordian flavor. Come to think of it, Ford’s big Mexican drama, THE FUGITIVE/’47, is even more self-consciously artsy than Kazan’s.

DOUBLE-BILL: The natural partner should be M-G-M’s VIVA VILLA! about Zapata’s fighting ally up north. But its legendary production troubles left it untethered, even with a fascinating Ben Hecht script largely about PR and journalism.  OR: You could go authentic with an actual Mexican product, Fernando de Fuentes’ 'Revolutionary Trilogy' from the ‘30s. Hard to find and uneven, these early sound films, barely a generation removed from the events, are truly historic. OR: Then again, why not program like the ancient Greeks with a comic chaser to tragedy? Rouben Mamoulian’s gorgeous & larky Mexican farce THE GAY DESPERADO/’36, about a Mexican bandito who yearns to be just like the American gangsters he sees on the screen and dear Mischa Auer hiding under the world’s largest Mexican sombrero.

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