Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Last year Facets Video and Cinemateca resurrected the classic 1936 Mexican movie Let's Go with Pancho Villa! Now comes El Compadre Mendoza, another famous epic about la revolucíon that concentrates on a wealthy landowner caught between conflicting armies. The drama centers on a powerful man who connives to remain neutral when everyone else in his society is forced to choose sides.
Big land boss Rosalío Mendoza (Alfredo del Diestro) carefully befriends military leaders on both sides in the revolution of 1910, greeting and feeding Zápatista and Federale army units as they pass. He buys arms for the rebels while proclaiming his loyalty to the government. His factor and aide Atenógenes (Luis G. Barreiro)'s main job is to see that the correct portrait is hanging in the hall when soldiers visit: Emiliano Zápata or General Huerta. Rosalío marries Dolores 'Lolita' Garcia (Carmen Guerrero), the daughter of a businessman in financial trouble. The Federales attend their wedding, but the reception is interrupted by Zápatistas who intend to hang Rosalío and rape Lolita. Among them is General Felipe Nieto (Antonio R. Frausto), Rosalío's friend; he defuses the situation and saves them both.
The years pass and the revolution continues, with Huerta replaced by General Carranza. Felipe Nieto visits the Mendoza hacienda whenever he can get away from the fighting, and becomes the Godfather of Rosalío and Lolita's little boy. Felipe obviously loves Lolita but has channeled his affection into doting on the child. The war again returns to Mendoza's valley, and Rosalío loses an entire year's crop to the rebels. Federale Colonel Martínez (Abraham Galán) offers a deal: He'll make good Rosalío's losses in exchange for the landowner's help in capturing General Felipe Nieto.
El Compadre Mendoza is a story of the effect of the Mexican revolution on the privileged class. What at first might seem to be a simple story of betrayal becomes a lament for human values abandoned in the tension of wartime, where revolutionary ideals always lose.
A beautiful woman marries a wealthy man but is attracted to a handsome rebel general. We expect a romantic triangle to form and be resolved like a soap opera. But the film instead criticizes the revolutionary process. Rosalío Mendoza plays a dangerous game, pretending to be allied with both sides at once. Maintaining neutrality is difficult in any civil war, even today in Iraq: Defenseless civilians are often slaughtered for choosing, or simply appearing to choose, the "wrong" camp. Rosalío is committed to the idea that he can fool both sides and come out of the war with his property intact. Always an opportunist, he marries the daughter of another businessman who appears to have lost his land to the revolutionaries. Lolita doesn't seem to be particularly attracted to Mendoza, the inference being that she has essentially been "purchased."
The relationship that builds around Rosalío, Lolita and Felipe surprises us, as the visiting General and Lolita never initiate an affair. They sublimate their feelings into affection for young Felipe, named after his Godfather. Mendoza owes his life to Felipe, and yet at heart he's still a wealthy man of property. When forced to pick between betraying a friend and losing his land, his choice is clear.
El Compadre Mendoza is really an object lesson about Mexican history and the Mexican character as formed by the revolution. Felipe believes that his sacrifice will bring justice to the country because the peasants will own the land. Mendoza indulges these sentiments with quiet patience. Nobody thinks to ask him what he expects to give up when the revolution succeeds. Rosalío knows that the economic power brokers will never give away the land, and that the revolution will be tamed into a few minor reforms. The heart of the country (Lolita) is powerless. The revolution (Felipe) will be betrayed, and the landowners will prevail as before. Made barely ten years after the end of hostilities, El Compadre Mendoza is a lament for lost ideals. There will be hope for the future only if Lolita can raise Little Felipe to appreciate his Godfather's sacrifice.
Director Fernando de Fuentes' simple shooting style cleverly sets up the complex contradictions within Rosalío Mendoza, superbly played by Alfredo del Diestro. The outwardly confident landowner must sleep with a six-gun hanging on the bedpost. He never knows if a knock at the door will be a visit by midnight executioners, so he's certainly not a coward. When Rosalío is forced to finally choose sides, De Fuentes frames him pacing back and forth under the critical gaze of the mute servant María, who functions as his silent conscience. The acting and staging is natural and unforced.
Lolita is played by the quietly sensual Carmen Guerrero, best known in America as "Lucia" in the Spanish-language version of Drácula. One has to read between the lines to realize the meaning of Lolita's marriage; Mendoza is a nice man and her father is in financial difficulties so her cooperation is a foregone conclusion. We're impressed by the integrity of both Lolita and Felipe, who carry on an unspoken yet meaningful romantic friendship. When tragedy prevents them from forming the "New Mexican Family," a shadow is cast over the future of the entire nation.
Fernando de Fuentes and writer Juan Bustillo de Oro made a number of classic Mexican films of the 1930s, including some little-seen horror tales of high repute, El fantasma del convento (The Phantom of the Convent) and Dos Monjes (Two Monks). The literate script for El Compadre Mendoza uses many colorful Spanish expressions. When Rosalío considers taking an amorous fling among the ladies of the city, he says he will "Echar canas al aire" -- "throw some white hairs to the wind."
Facets Video's DVD of Cinemateca's El Compadre Mendoza is a good transfer of what is possibly the only surviving copy of the film. The image varies from a few pristine moments (that show us the beauty of original prints) to sections that look as though they've been scoured with steel wool. The soundtrack is almost always weak, sometimes becoming difficult to decipher even for Spanish speakers. The removable English subtitles are a necessity.
It needs to be stressed how valuable a film this is. American movies with "Mexican banditos" (sic) lack authenticity -- here the rebels always look perfectly natural in their tremendous hats. Carmen Guerrero's period hairstyles are a vision in themselves -- tiny rows of parts and curls. It's the real Mexican experience. El Compadre Mendoza is also in much better shape than the earlier Let's Go with Pancho Villa! release - it's complete and intact.
The only extra is a short gallery of still images.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
El Compadre Mendoza rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: still gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 24, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson