Antonieta, 1982, directed by Carlos Saura, Mexico, Vanguard DVD
The film reaches its topic, the life of Mexican writer Antonieta Rivas Mercado (1900-1931) slowly and indirectly. It opens with a television cooking demonstration which becomes an on-screen suicide but then turns out to be a video tape being reviewed by a French psychologist, Hanna, researching a book on female suicide in the twentieth century. She discovers the case of Antonieta, who shot herself in Notre Dame in February of 1931, and heads to Mexico to investigate the case in greater depth. There she meets a poet who was once among Antonieta companions, and whom she persuades-over his initial refusal-to tell her about Antonieta. Most of the film, the part actually about Antonieta, is the visualization of what the poet tells Hanna. There some breaks during which the Hanna visits museums and picks up street ambiance, and one significant encounter with a modern Europeanized Mexican who cautions her about the version of past she is getting from the poet. The poet in his appearance and demeanor represents old Mexico. The film is warning us not to expect the truth, and there are several reasons for that.
The biographical part of the story, in the poet’s narration, briefly touches on the childhood of Antonieta to show her as part a small Europe-oriented elite. Her mother goes about the house reading Voltaire aloud in French. Her father, a famous architect, is working on a big government monument, and the president of Mexico, Porfirio Díaz, stops by to see how it is progressing. An assassination attempt on Díaz is included here to show the endemic violence and instability of the country.
We then get Antonieta as a young aesthete. She performs in avant-garde French plays that she has translated for salon audiences of the few people who were interested in such things. (The real Antonieta had more wide-ranging interests, translating Eugene O’Neill as well, but she also performed Jean Cocteau’s plays within a year of their appearance in France.) She meets Manuel Rodríguez Lozano, a painter just returned from Paris. He comments-ironically in view of the film’s production history-how Mexico is still imitating France, while in Paris everyone is copying Japanese art or even African ritual masks. He is married to Carmen Mondragón, the daughter of one of Porfirio Díaz’s generals, and she is described as “a dangerous woman” and shown to be jealously taking note of how Rodríguez Lozano takes up with Antonieta.
Antonieta begins an unrequited love affair with Rodríguez Lozano, and sends him letters (eventually published in a collection 87 Love Letters). Carmen is shown as a sort of mad woman, stalking about on the roof, refusing to speak, accused of drowning her child, and when the artist’s model Abraham Ángel falls to his death she is once again shown stalking the roof, with perhaps the suggestion that she was involved.
Antonieta, who we suddenly learn is married, tells her husband (a nameless, paunchy and middle-aged Mexican in the movie) that she no longer loves him and can’t go on living with him. He blames her books and burns them.
The facts seems rather more complicated and more interesting. Antonieta was brilliant and precocious, as a child preferring to be left alone to read. She is described as always restless and always interested in everything. She was an accomplished pianist, and wrote her first poem at the age of four. Her mother is reported to have been harsh, punishing her on any pretext. When Antonieta was twelve, her mother took the oldest daughter to Europe, abandoning the family, and leaving the household and younger children in the charge of Antonieta. Her bad relationship to her mother and closeness to her father is the first key to understanding her, but we only get half of that in the movie.
Antonieta Rivas Mercado by Manuel Rodriguez Lozano 1929
Rodríguez Lozano was known as a homosexual, and took his model, protege and lover Abraham Ángel on international tours, hence Rodríguez Lozano’s lack of interest in Antonieta and, contrary to the movie, the real reason for his estrangement from Carmen. They divorced. Ángel is thought to have committed suicide under the influence of cocaine. The poet-narrator in the film denies this.
Antonieta’s husband is reported to have been a Donald Blair, or Albert Blair. Some sources say he was an Englishman, others an American caught up in the romance of the Mexican revolution. (I found an Internet post by an American claiming to be his niece, which strengthens the second account.) Their divorce and the custody battle for their son (who is completely absent from the film version of her life) involved legal battles that went on for years.
Antonieta (back in the film) then takes up with a philosopher and educational reformer (a big promoter of state schools and official culture) José Vasconcelos. He is presented in the film as an idealist and reformer. Antonieta joins his political campaign and then starts an affair with him. Here the movie raises doubts, probably with the intent of putting him in the wrong vis-a-vis Antonieta. The US government sends an envoy to try to persuade Vasconcelos to join a coalition instead of pursuing confrontation via impossibly idealistic programs, because “Mexico is with difficulty emerging from twenty years of conflict, and what Mexico needs now is unity and not division.” Vasconcelos claims that the United States is “colonizing Mexico” by putting through a high tax on wine to facilitate the invasion of CocaCola. “What do you call that except colonization?”
Recall that this is the visualization of the old poet’s narration to the French psychologist. The film cuts directly to a continuation of the Hanna’s meeting with the modern Mexican critic of Vasconcelos, who calls Vasconcelos a “megalomaniac” who “proclaimed himself to be the only exception in a nation of fourteen million imbeciles.” “He was vain, confused, contradictory. He boasted of having Indian blood, but the Indians frightened him greatly.” “He talked about Plato in his speeches, was a great pamphleteer with an acute sense for insult.”
In the poet’s recollection the election was stolen from Vasconcelos through massive fraud, armed attacks, and arrests of his supporters. His assistants urge Vasconcelos to attempt a coup, but he refuses because having spoken out against revolutionary violence it is too late to change his tune. In fact he got about 5% of the vote, so without fraud he would still have been the clear looser.
Vasconcelos and Antonieta flee to France, where in the filmed version he becomes absorbed in revising his metaphysics book for publication. Antonieta, feeling unneeded and useless, commits suicide.
The real Vasconcelos was a well known womanizer, and Antonieta knew this when she got involved with him. Her younger sister blamed the suicide on Antonieta’s involvement in politics and with Vasconcelos. Her sudden immersion in Vasconcelos’s utopian politics ended in absolute defeat. When she went on ahead to Europe Vasconcelos showed up three months later than he had promised. Then they set about a writing program to expose the truth about Mexico and the election. The election was in 1929 and suicide in February of 1931.
Another major part of the film is Mexican revolutionary history. When Hanna arrives in Mexico she is given an historical overview of Antonieta’s era, compete with old news film. This covers Mexico under Porfirio Díaz, his ouster, the subsequent civil war with Zapata (still revered by the left) rising up in the south and the terrorist Pancho Villa in the north. The coming to power of the revolutionaries solved nothing. Several revolutionary leaders were assassinated during a period of factional fighting among the revolutionaries.
The poet also narrates the revolutionary history. After the revolution warfare erupts between the anti-clerical government and the Roman Church. The revolutionary government, seeing Romanism as the great historical obstacle to progress in Mexico, shut down parochial schools in favour of universal free state education, and banned worship outside of church buildings and the wearing of clerical garb in public. Armed agents called “defanaticizers” were sent out to enforce the edicts. For two years the clergy abandoned the church buildings and gave no masses except at clandestine meetings of zealots. Fanatical clergy stirred up peasants to fight against the central government. These reactionaries were known as the Cristeros. In the film people are stirred up by a priest and then amid shouts of “Viva Cristo rey!” a mob goes off to fight the government. In Latin American Roman Catholicism Jesus is worshipped in several distinct cultic modes. There is Christ on the cross, Christ of the sacred heart, Christ the king (Cristo Rey), and so on, as though they were so many distinct saints. Cristo Rey is the avatar used in combat, especially for religious persecution of dissenters. Having witnessed torch carrying mobs shouting “Viva Cristo rey” and intent on malice against evangelicals, I was interested to see the film’s depiction of just this same type getting some of their own medicine back from the Federales.
The upshot is that the assassination of the president by the Cristeros was the occasion for Vasconcelos to enter politics, running against the revolutionary government of Calles, founder of the Institutional Revolutionary Party.
All this can be very confusing, and also very open to bias and misinformation. The film has to get this historical context across, and yet keep it secondary to the story. Apparently this is a touchy matter, particularly in an officially sponsored film in 1982, with the IRP still allowing no genuine electoral challenge to its power. It becomes understandable why the film uses the technique of presenting all this as the visualization of the poet’s reminiscences, and has a modern Mexican spokesman contradict it, with the only “as it was” footage being newsreels shown to Hanna. What it not made clear, however, is that all the campaigning and high sounding rhetoric was infighting among revolutionaries of the left.
The film Antonieta had its own troubled production history, which also explains the form the film takes. The film was a long contemplated project by a Mexican director Rafael Castañedo, who had planned to cast as Antonieta an actress familiar with Antonieta’s social circle. He could not raise the money. The government media boss, Margarita López Portillo, had other ideas and wanted to raise the cachet of Mexican cinema by importing foreign talent. She had the German actress Hannah Schygulla brought in for the psychologist role as a European interpreter of Mexico and of Antonieta. Isabelle Adjani as Antonieta brought star power from France, while the director was from Spain. One of Luis Buñuel’s people was hired to adapt the script. This probably accounts for the bizarre opening of a televised cooking show suicide (which does the movie no good).
Isabelle Adjani as Antonieta
Reportedly the director with his New Wave methods had trouble working with the studio style Mexican crew. This may be. There is certainly nothing inspired about the camera work or the organization of the scenes. Some people have complained that all the cutting between the Antoniata story and the modern context is confusing. I did not find it so, and really there is no cutting between the modern context and the past, if we keep in mind that all we see are the accounts decades latter of an old poet and acquaintance of Antonieta’s. Some sort of device had to be used to bring in the historical context, and what better than the need to explain it all to a foreigner? Adjani is an actress who is interesting to watch in much the same way as is Helena Bonham Carter, and that is just what is needed to keep alive historical and biographical narratives.
The movie publicity is pitched as the story of a French psychologist who is obsessed with celebrity suicides and, on investigating the story of Antonieta, discovers that it is another case of the talented woman ground down in a man’s world. First we should notice that Antonieta, Rodríguez Lozano, and others in this film are now being celebrated by various “liberation” movements, be they feminist, homosexual, or nationalist. Thus today they are brought to memory just to serve a polemical purpose. This film does seem to have selected aspects of the life of Antonieta for a feminist spin-that is, it omitted what would not fit that scenario. The real Antonieta seems to have been one of the most free woman of her day, and possessed the talent and the admiring followers to take full advantage of the freedom. Whatever we make of her marriage at 18 and subsequent divorce, she then chose to involve herself with a homosexual and a womanizer from whom she could not expect fulfilling relationships.
Nor is the promotional representation of the Hanna character correct. To dramatize the point that Hanna is studying female suicide in the twentieth century we see her reviewing video, and interviewing a woman who has attempted suicide. She is compassionate and considerate and in no way obsessed. To dramatize her research, pictures of other cases are posted on walls around Hanna’s desk. But how is the movie audience to know that these are suicides? The only way is to use pictures that the audience will recognize, that is, of celebrities: Marilyn Monroe, Jean Seberg, etc. Call it bad direction.
A much better movie about Antonieta could have been made. This is not to suggest that this film should be avoided, but that the producers and writers did not do justice to their subject. There seems to be growing interest in Antonieta in Mexico since this film was made, but this revival appears to be even move captive to ideology, so we are not likely to get anything better.
Picture on DVD goes out of frame
Finally a word about the DVD: There seem to be two versions, one with subtitles, and the other, which I bought from Amazon.com, without, and merely the Spanish language track. The transfer seems to have been made from a worn VHS tape. Resolution and focus are bad throughout, and there are places near the climactic scene in Notre Dame where the picture goes out of frame, amid color dropouts. This tape seems, in turn, to come from a bad yellowed print. That certainly does not further Margarita López Portillo’s project to raise the status of Mexican cinema.