Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 3

Dos monjes: Expressionism a la Mexicana

<span class="Italic"><em>Dos monjes</em>: </span><span class="Italic">Expressionism <em>a la Mexicana</em></span>

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.”

On the set of Dos monjes

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.”

As Bustillo Oro recalled in his memoirs, he considered Cordero’s story unremarkable. He transformed it into a nonlinear narrative constructed through the use of flashbacks that depict the same events twice, “with changes that reflect what each character could only himself know,” he explained. “In an attempt to redeem” the two versions “from banality, they would be situated in a surreal setting that would place them in an Expressionist context . . . And I would yield to the influence that those old Germans had sealed in my imagination.”

The director takes creative license from Javier’s insanity to develop an intricate play of opposites: madness-lucidity, evil-goodness, sin-redemption. Thus, in Javier’s version, he is dressed in light-colored clothing and Juan is dressed in dark clothing. In Juan’s version, the colors are reversed. Juan’s account is shot using more traditional camera angles, whereas Javier’s makes use of Dutch tilt, intense lighting, dramatic chiaroscuro, and lenses that warp or enlarge objects in order to emphasize his madness. This extreme stylization extends to the locations, furnishings, and music. The monumental scale and intentional distortion of sets like the monastery—which Bustillo Oro described as “purely imaginary and dreamlike”—and the nineteenth-century house where Javier lives reflect the psychological complexity of the characters. Even the notes of the Romantic melody Javier plays on the piano in the opening sequences become discordant sounds by the end of the film.

Given the fundamentally visual nature of the story, Bustillo Oro entrusted the photography to a former schoolmate, Agustín Jiménez. Although he had little filmmaking experience, Jiménez was a rising star as professor and official photographer at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. An exceptionally talented photographer, Jiménez constructed his own visual grammar that emanated from elements found in classical painting, graphic design, and cutting-edge trends in visual art. He professed admiration for Edward Weston and Tina Modotti, two prominent representatives of avant-garde photography in Mexico at the time, and their influence is visible in his use of foreshortening, fragmentary compositions, careful study of light, and extreme close-ups. Jiménez’s singular style earned the admiration of important figures in visual art and cinema, including Sergei Eisenstein, who invited him to watch the shooting of his influential Mexican production ¡Que viva México!  Jiménez was the only Mexican photographer to have direct contact with Eisenstein and his cinematographer, Eduard Tisse. Shortly thereafter, the young Jiménez formally joined the budding film industry as a still photographer on the aforementioned de Fuentes films.

For the set design, Bustillo Oro selected another talented schoolmate new to the film industry, the painter Carlos Toussaint. He also added to the team Germán Cueto, a sculptor who had taken part in experimental theater productions and participated in Stridentism, a multidisciplinary art movement that explored urban and cosmopolitan themes related to technological advances and modernity in the wake of the Mexican Revolution. Since masks were a central element of Cueto’s work, Bustillo Oro entrusted him with the design and production of the ones that the monastery brothers wear in the final sequences of Dos monjes.

The good relations among the crew and the creative freedom that the director gave his team are evident in the results. In his feature debut as cinematographer, Jiménez was already in command of his craft, introducing dramatic lighting and violent angles, using shadow as a compositional element to underscore the story, and distorting images to visualize Javier’s mental instability. In his eagerness to achieve unusual shots, Bustillo Oro had also tasked production supervisor and engineer Manuel San Vicente, producer José San Vincente’s brother, with building a crane to elevate the camera for high-angle shots never before realized by Mexican filmmakers. Along with the lighting and set design, this expressive camera work contributed to a mastery of mise-en-scène without precedent in the national cinema.

Although the film suffers from poor pacing, it has no lack of memorable sequences. When Javier looks through his window and into the house across the street where Anita lives, where three people are having a heated argument, Bustillo Oro’s staging makes deft use of backlighting and subjective camera. In the scene of Javier’s madness at the end of the film, shapes and characters are liberated of all logical connection and proportion in a fantastical and unsettling way. The set design is maximized, and the monks transform into creatures with grotesque masks that expand to fill up half the screen, one after the other, creating a dizzying, extraordinary optical illusion.

Dos monjes premiered on November 28, 1934, and critics immediately took notice. Reviewers praised Bustillo Oro’s formal audacity and hailed Jiménez as a valuable new asset to Mexican cinema. “Anyone who has seen Dos monjes must have been impressed by the particular quality of the photography and its three-dimensional nature,” noted one review. “Never until now have figures in shadow emerged from the screen so completely as to seem palpable.”

“Political changes were underway that would take Mexican cinema even further away from what Bustillo Oro had aimed to accomplish in Dos monjes.

In spite of this warm reception, audiences proved unready for the kind of film Bustillo Oro had set out to make. The director later wrote, “Expressionism was not, could not, be popular. It was difficult to understand, and it stirred up too many frightful things from the depths of the conscience.” Furthermore, political changes were underway that would take Mexican cinema even further away from what he had aimed to accomplish in Dos monjes.

Two days after the film’s premiere, General Lázaro Cárdenas took office as president of Mexico. From the outset, his administration set itself apart by devoting attention to the most defenseless social sectors. Cárdenas’s resolute policies included the land reform of 1934, which broke up the old hacienda system and distributed land among campesinos. He also promoted nationalism through cultural programs and sought to preserve the values of diverse ethnic groups. Influenced by Leninist ideas, which saw documentary film and news reports as unparalleled means for public education and consciousness-raising, Cárdenas stimulated this type of filmmaking in order to promote his campaign against illiteracy and the advances he had made in infrastructure, as well as tourist sites, natural wonders, and regional customs across the country.

In 1935, Cárdenas mandated that the federal government had an obligation to support the national film industry, and decreed a tax cut for Mexican producers. That same year, the production company Cinematográfica Latinoamericana S.A. (CLASA) was founded. Their first picture, de Fuentes’s Let’s Go with Pancho Villa (1936), received government support, including military advisers, a train, horses, and troops.

In spite of what was in vogue, Bustillo Oro took a risk once again and reassembled the same team (Jiménez, Toussaint, and Cueto) to make The Mystery of the Ghastly Face (1935), from a screenplay by the director about a mad scientist. This film displayed its expressionist influences even more openly. Between Jiménez’s photography and Toussaint’s art deco set design, production values were high, but the film was a complete and utter financial failure.

By contrast, the traditionalist trend in film reached its peak in 1936, when de Fuentes—with whom Bustillo Oro had collaborated so much—premiered Allá en el Rancho Grande, a warm-hearted vision of land reform. The film, set to ranchera music and shot among bucolic landscapes, depicted a conventional love story populated by stereotypes: the noble and handsome cowboy, the virginal india bonita (attractive Indigenous girl), the rich villain. It was a surprise hit with the public, and its box-office success was repeated in foreign markets. The film was the first in Mexican cinema to win a major international prize, for Gabriel Figueroa’s cinematography, at the 1938 Venice Film Festival.

In the years that followed, dozens of producers copied de Fuentes’s formula, repeating it to death, and indirectly canceling out the possibility of an experimental cinema as proposed by Bustillo Oro, whose early films went down in Mexican film history as singular, isolated examples of expressionism without successors. Disappointed, the director changed course, turning to more conventional genres like melodrama and comedy. In subsequent years, he became recognized as an important director thanks to the quality of his plots, and to the fact that he catapulted comedian Mario Moreno to fame as Cantinflas in 1940’s You’re Missing the Point. He accumulated a filmography of sixty titles, eventually returning to his expressionist style one last time with The Man Without a Face (1950), and passed away in 1989.

Bustillo Oro’s original collaborators also broke out. Jiménez found fame and a long career, in which two collaborations with Luis Buñuel stand out: Wuthering Heights (1954) and The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955). Toussaint continued to work as a set designer before graduating to directing in the early forties. For his part, Cueto developed an abundant body of work in the visual arts, continuing his investigations into the visual possibilities of masks. He never worked on another film.

Dos monjes remained forgotten until the seventies, when it was rescued by critics and intellectuals such as José de la Colina, Emilio García Riera, and Carlos Monsiváis. For its thematic and aesthetic originality, Dos monjes today stands out as an exemplar of the avant-garde, a precursor to an experimental cinema that was never given adequate space to develop. And Bustillo Oro can now be seen as a pioneer in Mexico of what would later come to be known as auteur cinema.

Translated from the Spanish by Deborah Wassertzug

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