Too often when films are described as merging the personal and political, what’s really meant are films in which people speak very aggrievedly of their politics (invariably ranging from left of center to outright Maoist; no one would really dare to make a film with angry Pinochet defenders speaking vehemently). Fernando de Fuentes’ Mexican Revolution trilogy is ad hoc — the three films range from 1933 to 1936, and other films were made in between — but always truly about what happens when politics intrude in the lives of people who’d prefer to be left alone. Context is helpful but inessential; Fuentes himself had been an assistant to Venustiano Carranza, a revolutionary who split with Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata before becoming president in 1917, and was assassinated in 1920. That knowledge goes a long way to explaining the films’ tone, which is equally skeptical of revolutionaries and corrupt leaders, but it doesn’t really matter; one film’s a masterpiece, another’s close, and the third one’s far from an embarrassment.
1933’s Prisoner 13 is technically the crudest; executed with obviously primitive equipment, tracking shots strain to keep up with their protagonists and it’s always clear where the microphone is, though dissolves and overlays are almost as sophisticated as in contemporary Hollywood. For 15 minutes it’s drippy fare, as mother and son flee the hard-drinking Colonel Carrasco (Alfredo del Diestro). Years later, son Juan’s a handsome but banally romantic type, while mother stares into the distance as she fixes his tie. Things get a lot more interesting when the film stares across Juan’s sweetheart’s street, as one Felipe Martinez is arrested for revolutionary activities. Felipe’s mother and sister become the film’s true focus, setting out to bribe Felipe out of jail from that same Colonel, whose leering gaze at the sister’s legs (and her nonplussed exhibition of same) brings us into territory bawdier than Jean Harlow. Negotiations are frantic and corrupt, reuniting Carrasco (who’s still taking a shot every 90 seconds of screen time, providing automatic comedy) with his son under very dramatic last reel circumstances. Unable to credibly provide a happy ending, the film settles for one of the most outrageous fuck-the-censors non sequiturs since The Last Laugh.
Prisoner 13 is darkly comic, almost covering up the very real fears left over from recent memory: the depiction of orderly rows being marched to the firing line has a deadly slow verisimilitude and fussily pointless protocol that can’t be questioned. 1934’s My Buddy Mendoza is even darker and funnier. This time, fat and jolly del Diestro’s a farm mogul type who puts up a photo of Zapata whenever the rebels come for food and drink, and one of Victoriana Huerta for army functionaries who come for the same reason, covering himself from both ends. Whether Mendoza has any loyalties that aren’t for sale is impossible to answer for a long time; the film encourages us, by default, to mistrust him as an example of mendacity commercially, personally and sexually. His leering “courtship” of a bride, though, turns out to be a sincere gesture, as is his friendship with swaggeringly handsome Zapatista Felipe (Antonio R. Frausto); what’s even more remarkable, both sides know how he survives and don’t care much, respecting his space as a safe zone. Meanwhile, Mendoza’s bride and Felipe share an unconsummated attraction, something Mendoza’s (probably?) unaware of as he makes the brutal decision of whether or not to sacrifice his friend to the army in return for a financial bailout.
Mendoza plays like farce, all booze and revelry, even as the noose draws tighter. Here, Fuentes comes into full maturity. With the action confined to a few sets and technical standards higher, this is controlled on every level, with audacious eruptions; the most remarkable one is Mendoza’s son screaming his mindless devotion to the Zapatistas at visiting army forces, who just shrug it off, a succinct demonstration of how politics can warp even those who aren’t paying conscious attention. Life during wartime’s a constant negotiation between personal and business loyalties, framing a love triangle and forming the main impediment to friendships that would flourish otherwise. Or would they? Political turmoil obscures rather than clarifies the stakes.
Far less interesting than either of its predecessors, 1936’s Let’s Go With Pancho Villa! brings back Frausto as a steadily disillusioned army recruit. Context aside, this is standard antiwar fare, punctuated with symbolically scheduled deaths and standard bitter ironies. Technically assured, the super-production’s scale (bullets everywhere, extras falling across long fields) is impressive, but the morality’s mostly pat. It’s watchable enough, but the lack of nuance predicted Fuentes’ fate: making singing cowboy movies.