The five films you need to see at TIFF’s Mexican series

Curated by Diana Sanchez and Guillermo del Toro, TIFF's month-long survey of Mexican cinema includes rarities and works by renowned auteurs


SUI GENERIS: AN ALTERNATIVE HISTORY OF MEXICAN CINEMA at the TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King West), from Thursday (February 28) to April 6. $10-$14. tiff.net. Rating: NNNN


Curated by longtime TIFF programmer Diana Sanchez and filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, this wide-ranging survey bills itself as “An Alternative History of Mexican Cinema.” But alternative to what? Wildly audacious while frequently boasting meticulous craftsmanship and entertainment value, Mexico’s is among the most woefully neglected national cinemas – so any history is indispensable. 

Several established masterpieces by internationally renowned auteurs and many intriguing rarities that provide a broad overview of distinctly Mexican cinematic sensibilities and cultural transitions spanning the 1930s to the 1990s. Be sure to check tiff.net for schedule updates as, alas, a handful of films have been cancelled. 

What follows are five essential titles listed in chronological order. 

Cronos, part of TIFF's Mexican Cinema series

Federico Luppi is out for blood in Cronos, co-curator Guillermo del Toro’s assured feature debut.

WHAT’S GOOD 

The Woman Of The Port

Bracing, brutal and beautiful, this 1933 melodrama about a coffin-maker’s daughter (Andrea Palma, channeling Marlene Dietrich) propelled into sex work by tragedy and destitution is sensuous, risqué and arrestingly cosmopolitan. Based on a story by French author Guy de Maupassant, helmed by Russian-born director Arcady Boytler and shot by Ontario-born cinematographer Alex Phillips, the film beguiles with elegant camera choreography, evocative location work, expressionistic flourishes and protracted dissolves akin to Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante – which, as it happens, also screens at the Lightbox as part of a different series in April. (April 2, 6:30 pm)

Los Olvidados

Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel enjoyed his most prolific – and least appreciated – period in Mexico. You might argue that The Exterminating Angel, also playing in this series, is Buñuel’s Mexican masterpiece, but less frequently screened and more distinctly Mexican is this gripping 1950 drama about street youth traipsing the shantytowns of Mexico City. Photographed by the legendary Gabriel Figueroa, the film’s few eruptions of surrealism are only heightened by its dominant realism, while its dearth of sentimentality ultimately renders it that much more harrowing. (March 1, 6:45 pm)

The Skeleton Of Mrs. Morales

Adapted by frequent Buñuel collaborator Luis Alcoriza from a story by Welsh master of the fantastical Arthur Machen, this macabre, wickedly satirical, deftly plotted morality tale chronicles an unhappy marriage between a bon vivant taxidermist and his chastising, religiously pious wife. Our sympathies sway from one character to another until we begin to detect the corruption underlying every last one of them and the institutions they represent. (March 16, 8:45 pm)

The Castle Of Purity

Veteran director Arturo Ripstein’s most chillingly exquisite film examines patriarchy under threat through the story of a rat poison manufacturer and peddler Gabriel Lima (Claudio Brook), a character based on Rafael Pérez Hernández, who served 18 years for his crimes. Lima keeps his wife and children confined to their home, where they’re put to work, subjected to a strict regimen of calisthenics, bland food and bad education, and placed in a tiny cell if they misbehave. An obvious model for Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth, 1973’s The Castle Of Purity is brilliantly controlled, from its spare sound design to its performances that can slip from deadpan to hysterics at any moment. The creepiest thing about the film is how its bizarre premise gradually comes to feel perversely normal – and the shadow version of the similarly themed A Family Like Many Others (which screens April 6). Ripstein will introduce the film and participate in a post-screening Q&A. (March 2, 5:45 pm)

Cronos

Guillermo Del Toro’s feature debut remains his smartest, most playful, least fussy and all-round most delightful film. The story of an aging antiques dealer (the great Federico Luppi) who becomes rejuvenated and bloodthirsty after a fateful encounter with a 16th-century mechanical beetle, Cronos pays homage to Mexico’s rich history of horror films, depicting an existential battle between modernity and the phantasmagorical colonialist past. It also features wonderful supporting turns from Claudio Brook and del Toro’s (hell)boy Ron Perlman. The screening will feature an introduction by Sanchez. (February 28, 6:30 pm)

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD

There’s little point itemizing snubs in a series that takes on a theme as broad and ambitious as an entire country’s cinematic history (though Roberto Gavaldón’s Oscar-nominated, death-draped Macario was surely deserving of inclusion in the program). In any case, the combination of bureaucracy and lack of resources devoted to film preservation in Mexico would vex any programmer. I mostly just wish that this survey extended into the 21st century, which has seen a surge of innovative films from a new wave of filmmakers, among them Carlos Reygadas and Nicolás Pereda. More reason to hope we get a Volume Two. 

@chiminomatic 

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