More than eight decades since its release, Dos monjes (1934) continues to invite reappraisals, as much for its expressionist style—exceptional within Mexican cinema—as for its nonlinear narrative and for the creative contributions of the filmmaking team assembled by its young director, Juan Bustillo Oro.
The film was made during a time of expansion for the Mexican film industry that was kicked off by the box-office success of Santa (1932), one of the first Mexican productions to make use of optical sound. Producers and dreamers took notice, thereby increasing the number of features produced in Mexico from a half dozen in 1932 to twenty-three in 1934. Among the latter are gems created in spectacular natural settings, like Carlos Navarro’s Janitzio, based on a Purépecha legend; and Redes, a true poem-on-film that involved some of the most prominent cultural figures of the decade—including photographer Paul Strand and composer Silvestre Revueltas—in an ode to collective work that denounces social injustice. On the other end of the range of films made that year were comedies and melodramas with clearly commercial intent, shot in studios and set in precolonial, colonial, or revolutionary Mexico, along with contemporary stories from a cosmopolitan Mexico City. The national cinema was in search of its identity, wrenched in opposite directions by the popular—meant in the sense of originating from the popular traditions, folklore, language, and music of the Mexican people—and the modern, which was linked to technological and industrial advances.
The son of the director of Mexico City’s Teatro Colón, Bustillo Oro was immersed from childhood in the worlds of opera, zarzuela, and variety shows. After earning a law degree from the Universidad Nacional de México, he cofounded the independent theater group Teatro de Ahora, which produced plays he authored that contributed to the renewal of the national stage by exploring political and social themes in rural settings. A lover of good cinema, he drew inspiration from the German expressionists and their Danish contemporaries. In his 1984 memoir, Vida cinematográfica, Bustillo Oro writes of the great impression the early American horror film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) made on him. This first film adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel featured a sinister atmosphere, strange decor, and high-contrast, unfocused photography: “There was something there that was more than just a story. It was an indictment of the indomitable strength of the spirit, to which anyone can fall victim. This was something that would later continue slipping into the films of [Robert] Wiene, [Stellan] Rye, [F. W.] Murnau, [Fritz] Lang, and [Paul] Leni.”
Under the influence of those filmmakers, Bustillo Oro made his debut as a film director in 1927 with the silent Yo soy tu padre, followed by Tiburón (1933), a financial failure that he codirected with Ramón Peón. Unable to find a producer who would allow him to direct El compadre Mendoza (1934) from his own magnificent screenplay, Bustillo Oro handed the baton to the better-established Fernando de Fuentes, with the condition that he serve as codirector. From the start of filming, de Fuentes worked in close consultation with Bustillo Oro, and that respectful attitude fostered a great friendship between them. The resulting film is considered one of the most significant in Mexican cinema for its critique of the Mexican Revolution. Bustillo Oro and de Fuentes subsequently collaborated on the script for The Phantom of the Convent (1934), one of the first horror movies to be filmed in Mexico, in which a hint of expressionism can already be glimpsed.
In mid-September of that same year, Bustillo Oro took up the megaphone at Estudios México Films to direct Dos monjes. The lead actors were Carlos Villatoro and Victor Urruchúa, both known for their work on the silent screen; and stage ingenue Magda Haller, who had made her film debut in Abismos (a.k.a. Náufragos de la vida, 1931). José Manuel Cordero’s screenplay hinges on a quarrel between Brother Javier (Villatoro) and Juan (Urruchúa), two monks whose meeting in a convent triggers the flashbacks that make up the bulk of the film. Each tells a different version of the story of their past, when both of them loved a young woman named Anita (Haller), who died tragically.
“The director takes creative license from Javier’s insanity to develop an intricate play of opposites: madness-lucidity, evil-goodness, sin-redemption.”
“Political changes were underway that would take Mexican cinema even further away from what Bustillo Oro had aimed to accomplish in Dos monjes.”
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