L'Atalante a la Mexicana
Curtis Allan | Seattle, WA | 12/06/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"La Mujer del Puerto (1934, Mexico), directed by Russian émigré Arcady Boytler Rososky, is a rough gem of Mexico's preclassic talkie cinematic era (1932-1942). Set in the port city of Veracruz, it deals with the ill-fated life of a young woman, portrayed by Andrea Palma. Palma, born in Durango (the sister of acclaimed director Julio Bracho), did not have the looks to immediately win attention. But she was a very competent actress and her outfits and poses in later scenes are quite remarkable and completely classic. Set roughly in three acts over 80 minutes, the first introduces us to Palma's character and her predicament, the next to the sailor (Domingo Soler) whom she would meet, and final act traces their time together.
A wise person once said you can't really judge a film until watching it three times, something about the variability of your mood, setting, and temperament. The first time I watched this (on this cheaper DVD version La Mujer del Puerto) I was bothered by some of the same things that other reviewers mentioned: a somewhat choppy mix of silent-like scenes with closer staged scenes of early talkie dialogue. The acting and story also didn't impress me too much upon first view. None of those things bothered me on watching La Mujer del Puerto for the second time on this newer Cinematica DVD version. I think watching a lot of early talkies makes a difference in your ability to appreciate such things.
In fact, viewing this new DVD version I almost had to control my superlatives as I really thought it was outstanding. The eight minutes of the carnival/funeral procession scene (chapter 4 on this DVD) are as perfect as anything that has been set to film before or since. It is pure visual brilliance, reminiscent of many late silent films where the art of storytelling through images had become so refined as to make intertitles almost superfluous. Whether it was only Boytler's imitation of Eisentein or the mark of a wider Russian influence in Mexico I do not know. But there is no question that those silhouetted shots of the one-mule procession leading up the hill would be emulated later by Fernandez/ Figueroa in the epoca dorada, and they certainly predate the dark imagery of film noir by several years. The man in the dark hat following behind the procession foreshadows the outstandingly perverse feel of Eisenstein's own later Ivan the Terrible films. It was just wonderful. And the irony of the situation throughout that scene is remarkably powerful. For those 8 minutes alone this film deserves praise.
As for the talking sequences, the only one that seemed too stagy to me was early on with the gossiping old women, which reminded me of later hammy Ismael Rodriguez films. But even that conveyed an important purpose in showing part of the culture of Mexico before and now. The more one knows of Mexico the more obvious it is that this whole story is in fact a simple yet powerful morality tale that transcends the time and place in which it is set. This story could be relevant if it were set in the days of the Olmecs or modern day Monterrey or Santa Fe. And while the story, pacing, and dialogue certainly do not match the sophistication of It Happened One Night, Boytler deals with the experience of sailors and port women in an astonishingly blatant and almost psychedelic fashion, as women are passed around the bar while drinks flow and reality blurs, culminating with a brief nude shot. As others have commented, the ending did feel just a bit cut off, I am not sure if that was intentional of if the film's stock was damaged there (as we do not even see a "fin" shoot up to close the film).
Director Arcady Boytler is a bit of a mystery to me; he hardly worked at all after the 1930s despite living in Mexico until his death in the 60s. Most of his other work I have seen is not really remarkable (although the comedy Aguila O Sol is highly regarded in Mexico).
Regarding the Cinematica DVD, I highly recommend it. The image is not perfect but never impedes a proper enjoyment of the film (with the possible exception of the ending as mentioned above). The subtitles (English only) are easy to read and seemed an accurate representation of the Spanish dialogue. The special features consist only of some stills + the trailers for both this and a later (1940s) remake of the film. This was also remade by Arturo Ripstein in the 90s; I haven't seen either of those later versions. The films Danzon (1991) and El Callejon De Los Milagros (Midaq Alley)(1995), while not remakes, also paid some form of tribute to La Mujer del Puerto and are highly recommended as well.