Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Facets brings out its third classic-era Mexican film by Fernando de Fuentes, the director of Vamanos con Pancho Villa! and
El Compadre Mendoza. All three are ironic tales of the Mexican revolution. Vamonos! is the story of an idealistic group of friends that join Pancho Villa's army, only to be ingloriously killed one by one. Mendoza is about a wealthy landowner who plays both sides of the political fence, and eventually betrays a true friend. Made first, Prisoner 13 is the most ironic of the three. The sins of a ruthless and corrupt Federal officer come back to haunt him in an almost diabolically cruel way.
Army officer Julián Carrasco (Alfredo del Diestro) drives his wife Marta (Adela Sequeyro) away by his irresponsible drinking. He swears to find her for the purpose of reclaiming his son Juan. Seventeen years later Juan (Arturo Campoamor) is a young man and Carrasco, now a Colonel, is a bitter commander engaged in rounding up suspected revolutionaries. An army sweep brings in eighteen radicals, mostly young men. Number 13 is Felipe Martinez, who happens to be the son of a wealthy woman, Margarita Ramos (Emma Roldán). She and Felipe's sister Gloria (Adela Jaloma) successfully spring him from jail by selling their ranch for a fraction of its value; Carrasco takes the bribe and also makes plans to 'meet the sister later.' But the governor has ordered that all eighteen captives be executed, so Carrasco gives his captain strict orders: Find any young man on the street who looks like Martinez. Arrest him and assign him the Number 13.
Prisoner 13 is reminiscent of the cuentos de la revolucíon that the mysterious author B. Traven wove into the fabric of his book The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, daring tales about rebel bandits, cruel killings and Adelita the camp follower. Sometimes the moral would be obvious, and at other times the only lesson imparted is that fate laughs at those that expect justice in the world. The revolution is a circus of death and sacrifice.
Fernando de Fuentes' movie is a straightforward telling of a fairly grim tale. Carrasco is a cruel and unfaithful husband who wants to kill his wife and keep his son, and he doesn't care what's best for the boy. The wife runs away and raises the tot into a sweet and innocent young man who loves his mother and cares deeply for his girlfriend Lola (Alicia Bolaños). Felipe loiters for hours talking at Lola's window, her reputation protected by iron bars.
The story explains Carrasco's villainy as the result of drink and bitterness over his lost family. He still drinks and womanizes. His only friend is the lecherous scoundrel Zertuche (Luis G. Barrreiro, incorrectly called Certucci in the subtitles) who joins with him in squeezing a bribe out of a mother desperate to save her son from a firing squad. Carrasco is thinking only of his profit when he gives the order to find an innocent man to be arrested and shot in Felipe's stead.
As with the other two films, Prisoner 13 was made only a few years after the events of the revolution and is packed with authentic cultural details both in costumes and customs. De Fuentes shows the cruel excesses of the Federales but doesn't extoll the revolutionaries as martyrs. They are honorable men who care about putting on a brave front as they face the firing squad. One of them kills himself, leaving a note apologizing for his actions. The story seems to say that a harsh government will always inspire rebels, and that rebels shouldn't expect to live a long life.
Without going into detail the film ends with a surprise flourish right out of a Luis Borges story. Director Fuentes' ending scenes are tense, but not particularly suspenseful. Although the drama has the bite of a Mexican version of The Informer, Fuentes isn't quite a "Mexican John Ford" as proclaimed by the New York Times - his visuals lack Ford's expressive poetry.
Young Felipe Martinez, Carrasco's son, finds himself among the rebels, and they immediately know he's neither a spy nor a revolutionary. The story carries the cultural inference that, without a father's hand, Felipe has grown into a Mama's boy. "Real" men need to be tough and need to fight.
Facets and Cinemateca's DVD of Prisoner 13 is a great improvement over their previous Fuentes releases, as the source element is an intact print in reasonable shape. Although it has no production credits save for a cast list (which omits the name of the actor playing Felipe), the print does not appear to be broken. Most of the dialogue is clear, although the soundtrack seems to be a 16mm dupe.
The DVD includes no extras. The English subtitles are removable.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Prisoner 13 rates:
Movie: Very Good +
Video: Good -
Sound: Good -
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 17, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson