The very first Cannes Film Festival was held in 1946. (The festival was originally schedule to debut in 1939 but the start of World War II put those plans on hold.) 45 films from 18 nations were entered into competition and, when it came time to announce that winner of the Grand Prix (which later became known as the Palme d’Or), the result was a tie. With the number of films competing, that’s not surprising. In fact, there have been many ties over the history of Cannes. What is surprising is that the tie was between a total of 11 films: Brief Encounter, Hets, The Last Chance, The Lost Weekend, Men Without Wings, Neecha Nagar, Red Meadows, Rome Open City, La symphonie pastorale, Velikiy perelom, and Maria Candelaria.
Last night, Jeff and I watched Maria Candelaria on YouTube.
Directed by Emilo Fernandez (who many consider to be the father of the Mexican film industry), the majority of Maria Candelaria takes place in Mexico in 1909, shortly before the start of the Mexican Revolution. Delores del Rio plays Maria, an indigenous woman who is shunned by the people of her village because her mother was a prostitute. The corrupt and greedy store owner, Don Damian (Miguel Iclan), is entranced by Maria’s beauty and wants her for himself. However, Maria loves a poor but honest farmer named Lorenzo (Pedro Armendariz). Though Maria and Lorenzo want to get married, they find their efforts thwarted at every turn by the jealous Don Damian, with Damien going so far as to shoot the pig that Lorenzo was hoping to be able to sell to have the money to not only marry Maria but also to pay off a long-standing debt that he owed Damian. When Maria grows ill, Damian spitefully refuses to sell Lorenzo the medicine that she needs. When Lorenzo breaks into the store and attempts to steal it, he’s sent to prison. Now desperately needing money to get Lorenzo out of prison, Maria poses for a well-meaning painter (Alberto Galan). When the villagers find out that Maria is posing, a chain of events are unleashed that lead to tragedy.
After reading all of that, you may be wondering how many bad things can happen to one well-meaning and loving couple. Nothing seems to go right for Maria and Lorenzo over the course of this film but, at the same time, their love never falters. They remain innocent, regardless of how much they are wronged by the greedy Damian and judged by the hypocritical villagers. Though the film focuses more on melodrama and romance than politics, the pro-revolutionary message is easy to see. The Mexican Revolution, the film argues, had to be fought for the honor of people like Maria and Lorenzo.
It’s all a bit heavy-handed but it’s effectively directed and acted and it’s hard not to get caught up in a film that is so unapologetic about embracing the melodrama. Delores del Rio was a Hollywood starlet who, tiring of the stereotypical roles that she was being offered, returned to Mexico and made several films with Emilo Fernandez. She and Pedro Armendariz have a very real chemistry as Maria and Lorenzo and they both bring a certain world-weariness to their parts that prevents Maria and Lorenzo from becoming idealized stereotypes. Maria and Lorenzo may be optimistic and often naïve but they’re not fools. They know that life will never be easy. Visually, the film is full of striking images of the Mexican countryside, which Fernandez portrays as being slowly corrupted by the growth of civilization.
Maria Candelaria was a hit not only at Cannes but also in Mexico. It’s still regularly cited as one of the best movies to come out of Mexico’s film industry. Though she eventually tired of working with the moody Fernandez, del Rio would continue to appear in movies in both Mexico and Hollywood. Fernandez went on to spend several decades as Mexico’s most popular director, before eventually falling out of favor for Luis Bunuel. Today, most cineastes remember him for playing the evil General Mapache in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.