Friday, May 6, 2011

Que Viva Zapata!: Hollywood Style

Marlon Brando and Jean Peters
I just watched (again) one of my all time favorite films, Elia Kazan's "Viva Zapata", a fictionalized biographical account of Emiliano Zapata, one of the great rebel leaders of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), based on the screenplay by John Steinbeck, nontheless.

The film stars Marlon Brando as Emiliano, Jean Peters as his wife Josefa, and Anthony Quinn as Emiliano's brother, Eufemio.

I remember seeing it as a kid when it was first released and feeling a surge of pride in being Mexican and the child of parents who actually lived in Mexico during these tumultuous times. It was a far cry from the canned films of the 50's and a daring departure from Hollywood's stereotyped depictions of Mexicans as drunkards, brawlers, womanizers, servants and Latin-lovers in so many movies.

My mom was from Torreon, Coahuila, the home of one of Pancho Villa's most celebrated victories(1914), in the North against the more strongly armed and disciplined Mexican troups, Los Federales.

Villa, and Zapata who led rebel forces in the South of Mexico (Morelos), were god-like heroes to the poor masses of Mexico. Dozens of corridos (ballads) extolling their heroic and tragic lives live on today. My mom used to tell me stories that Villa would ride into town, shoot up the wealthy Hacendados and rich merchants, sometimes killing them, and how she and her mother would wander through the streets of Torreon, the empty stores and search dead bodies, rummaging for anything of value.

Moreover, even then,  the 50's, we entertained the unspoken and restless unease about Hollywood's insistence on casting White actors as Mexicans. It angered us. It embarrassed us. But being simple people, we had no words for it. When I found out they had glued Marlon Brando's eyelids to give him a "indian" look in this film, I felt cheated. Why wasn't Anthony Quinn, who played Zapata's brother Eufemio, cast as Emiliano? Was it their fear that a Mexican cast in a leading role would not be a draw at the box office?

Still, Brando being Brando, pulls off a powerful portrayal of a simple, intense, charismatic and humble man willingly giving his life for the rights of the poor people of Mexico with no glory or reward for himself. Quinn is masterful in the film, at his usual best playing a passionate volcano of bravado, and a womanizing Macho, like he did in "Zorba The Greek." The beautiful Jean Peters was cast as Josefa, Emilian's loving and faithful wife, despite their differences in social class. In black and white she looks almost Mexican in parts.

All of this is forgiven though in light of the great cinematography, many shots reminding us of actual photos from the Mexican Revolution. Kazan in fact studied actual photos to help him recreate scenes for the film.

The faces of Mexico, the old men and women especially and the beautiful light and dark hues, the shadows created by black and white film are compelling.

Forgiven too is the occasional staccato of abrupt fade-ins and fade-outs, the melodramatic music and overacted scenes remnants of the silent film era. Realistic accents were generally non-existent with the exception of Quinn's, of course, another bothersome detail.

Perhaps the film's most memorable sequence is that of Zapata's betrayal and assassination at the end of the film. As he rides into a trap he himself suspects, he cannot resist the lure of the tons of machine guns, rifles and ammunition that has been promised him, just for the taking. Cautiously entering into the courtyard of the military garrison, he is welcomed with a kiss on the cheek (reminiscent of Christ's betrayal by Judas), by a General Guajardo,and further enticed by the sight of his favorite white stallion. Dismounting, he embraces his long lost friend but the horse is restless and begins to neigh foreshadowing the impending terror to come.

Guajardo raises his sword giving the order to fire, and dozens of uniformed soldiers appear on the rooftops of the garrison and begin firing. The camera shots of Zapata's body, cringing on his knees, shielding his head, and the in the fury of hundreds of rounds tearing his body apart is unforgettable, reminding this viewer of the the closing scenes of "Bonnie and Clyde",  or "Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid", when the protagonists are mercilessly gunned down.

The ending is predicatable as Zapata's white horse "escapes" to fuel the myth to follow that Zapata is still alive, that he can never be killed, that as long as injustice rears its head, he will be there to lead the people against it.

Regardless of these minor glitches, this period-piece remains on of my favorite films.

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