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Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro Iñárritu, and Alfonso Cuarón: Hollywood’s “three amigos” have enjoyed recent financial and critical success and raised the profile of Mexican film-making in the process. In this paper, Scott DeVries finds that the cinematic aesthetics in films from these highly-regarded filmmakers represent the culmination of a long history of Mexican filmmaking, one that hearkens back to films by Emilio “El indio” Fernández and Luis Buñuel from the 1940s through the 1960s. In these classic films as well in the most recent work from Mexico, DeVries identifies an unsettling ambivalence toward faith communicated primarily through the use of powerful imagery rather than story elements or expository dialogue. Mr. DeVries is Associate Professor of Spanish at Bethel College in Indiana.

An installment in the child wizard series with a huge box office take, a couple of cult films, and indie studio favorites with no fewer than twelve Academy Award nominations among them, Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men, Hellboy, Blade II, 21 Grams, and Babel are English-language titles familiar enough to even the most casual of film fans. Their Mexican directors, Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro, and Alejandro Iñárritu (known as “the Three Amigos” around Hollywood1), make films that challenge traditional ideas about faith and spirituality as in Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) with its messianic depiction of redemptive birth as an alternative to a post-apocalyptic abandonment of faith. The subtle allegories of spirituality in del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) emerge from a magical story about the sacrifice of innocent blood with fantastical cinematography and visionary art direction.2 Iñárritu’s most recent movies explore the intersection of tragedy and faith in 21 Grams (2003), make reference to the biblical moment of the confusion of languages in Babel (2006), and offer abstractly theological commentary on suffering and redemption in Biutiful (late 2010). These films feature a sacred imagery of ambivalent iconography and anti-iconography that I will describe below as the culmination of a long history of Mexican film-making, one that hearkens back to debates about the incorporation of sound to cinema and the film theories of Sergei Eisenstein. The cinematic aesthetic from the highly-regarded Mexican films of the last decade derives from an imagistic style that was a hallmark of classic/Golden Age Mexican cinema of the 1940s to the 1960s, in films by Emilio “El indio” Fernández and Luis Buñuel. In general, Fernández’s work features sacred architecture as a framing device for characters that explicitly express unabashed devotion to their Roman Catholic faith. Buñuel, on the other hand, is largely critical of such things and his films often satirize them: instead of sinners being saved, saints are led astray. And Fernández and Buñuel were themselves influenced by the 1931 visit to Mexico by Sergei Eisenstein. In this paper, I will trace representations of faith and Christian belief in Mexican cinema, from Eisenstein through Fernández and Buñuel to the “Three Amigos” of the current Hollywood and international film scene. A stark contrast in visual representations of Christianity can be made among Fernández, Buñuel, and the films of the last ten years, but this visual style, whether critical of or sympathetic toward Christianity, can be characterized by an unsettling ambivalence toward faith communicated primarily through the use of powerful imagery rather than story elements or expository dialogue.

To contextualize the imagistic innovation of classic Mexican cinema, I should like to start with the current debate about the future of cinematic visuals: the stereoscopic or 3-D format versus traditional two-dimensional filmmaking. The stunning three-dimensional visual effects of James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) has got the film industry buzzing about the future of visual effects; after Avatar’sdebut, nearly 100 films using “Digital 3D” have been or are slated to be released. Predictably, several directors including J. J. Abrams, Joss Whedon, Michael Bay, and Jon Favreau have expressed reservations about this supposedly radical in-novation in film technology.3 Whether or not their resistance becomes a backlash and ruins “Digital 3D” as the format of choice for future cinematic endeavors is a matter that is likely to be decided by producers, directors, and the box office. This debate recalls that moment when Al Jolson utters the famous lines, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet” in Alan Colson’s The Jazz Singer (1927). The advent of sound in the movies was not, at the time, universally accepted as cinematic progress. In fact, Eisenstein and several of his Soviet colleagues argued that it defeated the visual power of carefully constructed shots and montage. Nevertheless, the synchronization of sound, dialogue, and images on the film stock itself was universally adopted by Hollywood studios and the “talkies” became standard. But even though silent films were rapidly reduced to nostalgic novelty, Eisenstein’s film theory, which had become the accepted cinematic grammar of the silent period, has been preserved in films by Mexican directors during that country’s cinematic Golden Age, many of whom were directly influenced by Eisenstein’s ideas.

You ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet: Sound and Mexican Cinema

In 1933, film critic Rudolf Arnheim wrote that “people who did not understand anything of the art of film used to cite silence as one of its most serious drawbacks. [But] from its very silence film received the impetus as well as the power to achieve excellent artistic effects.”4 Eisenstein himself was similarly convinced of the superiority of silence over sound in the movies. He and his filmmaker countrymen Vsevolod Pudovkin and Grigori Alexandrov signed a manifesto on sound in which they assert that the addition of audio to filmmaking can “hinder the development and improvement of cinema as an art form but might also threaten to destroy all its formal achievements to date.”5 They argue that “contemporary cinema, operating through visual images … occupies one of the leading positions in the ranks of the arts [and] the principal (and sole) method which has led cinema to a position of such great influence is montage.”6 Obviously, directors eventually learned how to appropriate the cinematic advantages of an audio track, and film retains a leading position in the ranks of the arts. But with the advent of sound, the dilemma for filmmakers at that time was whether to abandon the advanced formal aesthetics of the silent film in order to include spoken dialogue, music, and ambient noise. Many in the film industry, like Eisenstein and the others cited above, thought of sound as nothing more than a cinematic fad. Of course, the silent film was eventually abandoned to cinematic history, and the power of the image to “achieve excellent artistic effects” remains a central element even after sound films replaced silent ones as the default cinematic format. However, the use of powerful non-verbal imagery remained a staple, particularly among those directors, cinematographers, and other film technicians in Mexico who were most directly influenced by Eisenstein and other theorists and who developed and parsed the visual power of pure cinematics: montage; the innovations of various camera techniques in angulation, panning, tracking, zoom, and close-up; and the overall development of a film grammar through the use of different variations on cuts, dissolves, fades, and other transitions.

These observations concerning the development of sound are well documented in the history of film and film theory;7 I reference them here, in an analysis of Christian imagery in Mexican film, because of Eisenstein’s direct influence upon the film industry in that country. After a failed stint at the Hollywood studios in Los Angeles, the Soviet director traveled to Mexico with a grand idea to produce a four-part semi-documentary, semi-fictional work about the history and culture of Mexico.8 In the end the film was never completed by Eisenstein, but the legacy of his vision and methods were considerable among Mexican directors and film technicians for decades. According to film historian Carl J. Mora, “Eisenstein’s unrealized film was to have an important influence, even if indirect on subsequent Mexican filmmakers who were to develop a ‘national’ style of cinema, especially Emilio ‘El Indio’ Fernández.”9 Fernández and his long-time cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa, collaborated on 25 films from 1943 until 1958 and together their vision for this national style was called the “Mexican School,” a highly visual approach to film-making characterized by an extensive use of montage and deep focus. Most critics also characterize Fernández’s work as an inheritor of Eisenstein’s visual style; Julia Tuñón, for example, observes that “the image is fundamental to his cinema. … He subordinated narrative and music to the image”10; and, “in the face of such visual power, dialogues were only of secondary importance.”11 Fernández and Figueroa often created the cinematic effect of painterly compositions framed by camera angles that featured museum-like forced perspectives similar to those adopted by viewers of art or statuary in a gallery. The use of these perspectives in Fernández’s films contributes to a sympathetic representation of Christianity in his work: the low angle shots, deep focus, and dramatic use of sacred architecture as locations both interior and exterior create a sense of both awe and humility in the presence of the divine. While some critics suggest that these elements function to establish a kind of sacred nationalism in Fernandez’s work,12 I will argue that the visual aspects of his films also reinforce central aspects of Christian faith and belief.

Muralistic Moving Pictures: The Cinema of Emilio “El Indio” Fernández

Emilio “El Indio” Fernández was the director most closely associated with the Golden Age of Mexican cinema of the 1940s and 1950s. He directed all the notable actors of the time—Dolores del Río, María Felix, Pedro Armendáriz, Ninón Sevilla, Miguel Inclán—and made films in all the genres of the period: melodrama, cabaret films, star-vehicles, and the “charro,” singing-cowboy movie. More than any other director, he was responsible for developing the particularly muralistic “Mexican School” of filmmaking characterized above: the use of national, often indigenous themes, filmed in a style long on visuals, with the use of deep focus and low-angle shots that strongly identify the spectator with the protagonists of his films. Thus, common elements of Fernández’s films are typically Mexican locales and interiors: the vast, arid plains of central Mexico, the ruins and relics of the indigenous Mayan and Aztec civilizations, the chinampa (floating garden), the cantina, baroque cathedral architecture, and church interiors. These last elements lend Fernández’s films the opportunity to develop Christian themes which the director does to no small extent: the church and its priests are forces for good, for justice, for order, for forgiveness, and for salvation. His films incorporate Christian concepts—sacrifice, forgiveness, martyrdom, atonement, salvation—through the inclusion of these elements as plot points visually intercut with sacred imagery. In particular, two of his films, María Candelaria (1944) and Enamorada (1946), explicitly associate Christian ideals with character motivation and destiny, as well as with the inevitable conclusion of their stories. As a clear inheritor of Eisenstein’s influence in Mexico, Fernández employs montage and visually powerful symbols to communicate these themes rather than expository dialogue or a more direct logic of causal narrative. In Fernández’s films, the visuals are always primary to the story and represent the unique qualities for which the director is still considered among the greatest of Mexican filmmakers from his generation and those that followed.

The titular character of María Candelaria, the daughter of a prostitute, is shunned by an indigenous community in Xochimilco, outside of Mexico City. Suffering financial instability as a result of her status as outcast, she agrees to pose for a well-known painter, but only long enough for the painter to sketch her face; when he asks to see the rest of her body to finish the work, she refuses. Eventually, the painter uses another model. However, when the villagers see the nude figure with María Candelaria’s face, they turn on her and stone her to death. Of all his films, María Candelaria most effectively illustrates the manner in which Fernández employed visual imagery as an essential element of the representation of Christianity in his films. And this technique has received the majority of the critical attention; Andrea Noble, for example, observes that the “narrative syncretically encodes María Candelaria simulataneously as indigenous ‘idol’ and Catholic ‘icon’ precisely through her association with, and status as, a visual image.”13 As mentioned above, Fernández is most well known for his development of a “Mexican School” of filmmaking for his use of indigenous motifs and nationalist themes. However, less has been made of the visuals of Christianity in his work, exemplified in María Candelaria with its imagery of the virginal protagonist as “Catholic icon.”

While the plot of María Candelaria (simplified somewhat in the above summary) contains frequent mention of the importance of Christian practices such as the sacrament of marriage and a recognition of the spiritual and moral authority of the local priest, the tragic final sequence of the film contains the most direct references to biblical stories: to the woman caught in adultery and to the crucifixion itself. The Christian elements of the final sequence are established by the foregrounding of the figure of the cross. As a mob chases María Candelaria to the plaza outside the local church and stones her, the film alternates a series of crosscuts from the plaza to the desperate efforts of her fiancé, Lorenzo Rafael, at escape from the jail where he has been unjustly imprisoned (Figures 1 and 2). The montage of Lorenzo Rafael’s desperate attempts to escape and the attack on María Candelaria below are visually linked by the use of the cross. The establishing shot that sets up the final scene begins with a crane-mounted close-up of a cross set upon a column with movement that tracks downward from the crucifix to the plaza where María Candelaria is eventually cornered by the mob. The film cuts to a close-up of the anguish in Lorenzo Rafael’s expression as he witnesses the scene unfold below. In this sequence, Fernández always maintains a perspective that places the bars of the cell between the shot and the actor or between the character’s perspective and what occurs outside. The image of the cross unites the simultaneous action and from an artistic perspective is quite cinematically compelling. But the use of the quintessentially Christian image also creates a strong moral dissociation between the depravity of a lynching and the virtue of María Candelaria. And while these circumstances are not exactly equivalent to the moment in the Gospels where the woman accused of adultery is brought before Jesus, the repeated use of the image of the cross strongly reinforces the connection to biblical narrative. Yet the tragedy of the stoning veers the film abruptly away from a facile imitation and transforms the mood of the film from the hopefulness of redemption to the tragedy of self-righteous judgment. María Candelaria does not reject the biblical principle expressed by Jesus to the Pharisees about the adulterer, but reinforces it by demonstrating the converse of Jesus’ admonition against sinners casting stones. When stones are cast, the innocent will suffer and may be destroyed.

In Fernández’s other film, Enamorada, the biblical references are not as direct but the ubiquitous sacred scenery provides the background and framing for many key moments in the film just as in the conclusion of María Candelaria. The movie is a kind of Mexican Taming of the Shrew set during that country’s revolution of 1910-1917 and details the love story between General José Juan Reyes, commander of the rebel troops occupying Cholula (near Puebla, outside Mexico City), and Beatriz, daughter of one of its wealthier families. While the nationalist elements of the film have already been thoroughly analyzed by scholars,14 the Christian elements of Beatriz’s transformation and the General’s redemption have not. Two sequences from the film, shot in Puebla’s famous Capilla del Rosario in its downtown Santo Domingo church, illustrate the way in which Fernández uses symbolic, visual imagery to emphasize Christian themes in the film even when the dialogue of these scenes do not feature such themes explicitly.

In the first of these, a priest, Padre Sierra, rehearses a boys’ choir in a recitation of “Ave María” as the General enters the church to speak with him. Rather than cutting straight to their dialogue, Fernández allows the choir to complete the song to lingering shots of the baroque facades. The churrigueresque ornamentation is visually comparable to the bullet vest that crosses the General’s chest and Gabriel Figueroa’s low-angle shots foreground Reyes’s awed expression as he gazes at the gilded cupola and altarpiece. The effect is both to identify the General with the sacred architecture at the same time that it diminishes his importance in such a location. This diminishment is especially noticeable by the contrast between the dull metallic sheen of the bullets on the General’s chest as compared to the glistening splendor of the golden chapel interiors.

In the second sequence, also shot inside the Capilla del Rosario, Reyes confesses his love to Beatriz and asks her forgiveness for some previous brutishness while both are kneeling in front of the altar. While the close-up and bust shot are the most appropriate for such an emotionally intense scene, the camera regularly cuts to more general shots of elements of the chapel—to the reredo dedicated to the Virgin Mary, to the altar illuminated with candles, to the gilded angelic statues on the chancel. In each of these scenes, the director and his cinematographer (Figueroa) employ techniques that enshrine Eisenstein’s cinematic aesthetic: the aforementioned low-angle photography and deep focus “combined with the dramatic placement of figures in the extreme foreground.”15The dramatic visual effects elicited by these techniques excite a sense of awe in the spectator; the love story as the foreground for the grandeur of the chapel provides for the cathartic interest; but both of these elements visually communicate certain theological doctrines about the nature of God and humanity’s relationship to Him: humility in the face of omnipotence, kneeling prostration as appropriate both for a lover’s appeal to his beloved and for human comportment in sacred space, the benevolence of forgiveness, the supreme value of love (Figure 3).

Fernández’s use of these sacred interiors reminds the viewer of the original purpose for cathedral architecture as a teaching tool to parishioners: design elements such as the repeated use of doors and column sets in triads, the cruciform shape of the nave and transepts, the soaring heights that direct attention heavenward, and the myriad decorative elements like stained glass, statuary, painted frescoes and canvases, tapestries, and gilded altarpieces. These elements were necessarily image-based, designed as they were during the Renaissance and Baroque to reinforce elements of doctrine that were exclusively taught in Latin and incomprehensible to the majority of congregants who occupied the pews of cathedrals and churches. Fernández’s choice of location for Enamorada in Cholula (a city said to contain 365 churches, one for each day of the year) and in the interior of the church of Santo Domingo’s Capilla del Rosario in Puebla emphasizes this aspect of sacred architecture, but translated to the idiom of moving pictures. The cinematography by Figueroa, where “the camera soars to pick out a church ceiling’s tiniest decorative detail”16 allows the film to take advantage of these sacred motifs to advance important elements of the story: the forgiveness granted to the General by Beatriz, the blossoming of her love for him, and the eventual sacrifice of her future for that love. In each and every case, the communication of these ideas in Fernández’s films is realized through sacred filmic images rather than through dialogue or narrative action. In most of his films, the motifs are the same: sacred locations reinforce virtue, faithfulness, and humility and the result is a representation of Christianity sympathetic to its ideals. However, while Fernández’s work articulated a sympathetic Christian iconography, his films were not the only ones then that ascribed to an Eisensteinian school of the archetypal image. Rather, Luis Buñuel, the famed Spanish exile, was making movies in Mexico at the same time as Fernández and his work can be characterized by its parodist anti-iconography, as viciously antagonistic to Christian faith and practice as Fernández was sympathetic.

Losing Their Religion:
Parodied Christians in Luis Buñuel’s Mexican Films

As they have with Fernández, critics have associated Buñuel’s highly visual style of filmmaking with the ideas and techniques of Eisenstein. According to Ernesto R. Acevedo-Muñoz, the Spaniard “became an admirer of Eisenstein”17and later met him on an MGM set in Los Angeles just before the Soviet director departed south to make what would later become ¡Qué viva México! After the Nationalist victory in the Spanish Civil War, Buñuel’s exile in Mexico resulted in twenty of his total thrity-two films and seven of those in collaboration with Emilio Fernández’s long-time cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa. Buñuel’s memorable debut as director in 1929 with Un chien andalou and its unforgettable imagery of ants emerging from the palms of hands, eviscerated eyeballs, men dressed as nuns, priests dragged with pianos, and so on, characterizes his surrealist visual style and remained a hallmark of his later films. What was also characteristic of Buñuel’s work was his disdain for conventional “bourgeoisie” society and particularly the practice of organized religion in that context. Michael Wood has observed that “religion is scarcely absent from any of Buñuel’s films,”18 but three films from the end of his Mexican exile and before his second French period deal exclusively and explicitly with religion, particularly the process of losing the convictions of faith: Nazarín (1959), Viridiana (1961), and Simón del desierto (1965).

In these films, Buñuel explores the role of temptation in the lives of the devout and concludes exactly the opposite of the promise from 1 Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”19 In the religious trilogy by Buñuel, neither priest nor nun, pilgrim, ascetic, recent convert or lifelong believer are eventually able to resist; all temptation is beyond what the characters can bear. This idea represents a significant departure from the nationalist orthodoxy of Fernández’s films and even someone like Gabriel Figueroa, who worked extensively with both men, affirmed that Buñuel represented the “antipode of Emilio Fernández.20 However, I find that while a stark contrast marks the content of each director’s films, both rely heavily on the power of the image and a highly visual style. While in Fernández’s work, imagery employs the power of sacred motifs to reinforce themes such as forgiveness, atonement, sacrifice, and injustice, Buñuel’s visual style is critical of Christianity, and in many cases, specific images are employed to hold faith up for ridicule. The ambivalent treatment of these elements in contemporary Mexican cinema clearly derives precedent from this contrast in the purposes for sacred imagery in Fernández and Buñuel.

Nazarín, the first of Buñuel’s religious trilogy, is the story of a priest who embarks on a pilgrimage to nowhere and is truncated by moments of odd imagery that in every case, when referring to Christianity, challenge the validity of true faith. In one memorable scene, a priest gathers his rosary beads from the corner of a somewhat intense Ecce Homo: the image of a serene but suffering Messiah is framed by light about his head in the familiar motif of the halo. Buñuel employs a slightly low-angled bust shot for both the portrait and the priest, who crosses himself as he retrieves the rosary beads from the corner of the canvas. The devotion of the priest and the suffering of Jesus are emphasized in the shot which could appear innocently enough in any film attempting to establish a sense of spiritual holiness. But in Buñuel, this representation of faith is completely mocked at the end of the sequence. After Beatriz, a local prostitute who has been wounded in a knife-fight, appears in the priest’s cell and he tends to her wound, she collapses and the priest lays her on his bed to recover. As she comes to, the figure in the painting has been transformed into a leering and scornfully mocking representation of Christ with mouth held wide open in a grimace and flames emerging from the crown of thorns rather than the ethereal glow of a halo (Figures 4 and 5). The camera zooms to an extreme close-up of the gaping, grimacing mouth and the sequence closes with a reaction shot of the woman who covers her face and recoils from the monstrous, mocking Jesus. In this scene, Figueroa’s work with camera placement, angle and lighting gradually creates uneasiness in the viewer as the priest’s cell seems to exude a sense of foreboding and even ominous fear. These techniques, characterized by the unsettling zoom to the grimacing caricature of Christ, leave the viewer with the impression that Christianity is nothing more than irrational fear of a mocking deity.

Eventually, the film concludes with the priest accused of insanity and heresy; his failures throughout the film illustrate the frustrated nature of faith that is central to Buñuel’s criticism of Christianity. The biblical promise for help against trials that go beyond what an individual can bear is mocked in Buñuel’s films; the director himself indicated nothing less in a letter to José Rubia Barcia: “I haven’t given in to paraphrasing the Gospels, an easy and out-moded trick. And in the end, Nazarín is inhabited by doubt and not by the Holy Spirit.”21 In both of the remaining films in his religious trilogy, this sentiment—the abandonment of humanity by the Holy Spirit—is central to Buñuel’s representation of individual faith. The shock of the image of a leering Jesus in Nazarín is matched in Viridianawhere sacred icons of the faith are parodied and in Simón del desierto, where the Christ-like image of an ascetic is openly mocked by the beautiful actress Silvia Pinal, playing the role of none other than Satan himself.

Although Viridiana was made in Spain, it was produced by a Mexican backer, starred the Mexican Silvia Pinal, and eventually acquired Mexican nationality after Francoist Spain banned and disowned it; therefore, it is appropriate to devote some brief comments to the film here. Like Nazarín and Simón del desierto, the screenplay features a pious individual who eventually loses her religion. In this case, a novice nun, whose uncle has hanged himself, abandons the novitiate, takes up residence in his house, and devotes herself to making the property a commune, filled with the poor of the town in an effort to rehabilitate them. But one evening when she is away, they invade the house and in a night of drunken debauchery, completely destroy its contents. Eventually, Viridiana, devastated by the disillusionment of her failed experiment (and nearly raped by two of the vagrants), comes to the room of her uncle’s son (who has arrived to take possession of the property) and implicitly surrenders to a physical relationship with him. Like the other films, this one is filled with sacrilegious imagery including a moment where Viridiana, the virginal novitiate, has been drugged by her uncle and dressed in his deceased wife’s wedding gown; a parodic “photo” of the poor around the nearly wrecked dining room table, assembled in the style of DaVinci’s last supper (Figure 6); and Viridiana burning her penitential crown of thorns after she abandons her faith and submits to the advances of her uncle’s son. The raw power of these highly visual moments saw the film banned by Franco’s cultural ministers and reiterates Buñuel’s tendency toward scathing critique of the Church, more through the shock of imagery and montage than by any verbally expressed argument.

In the last of the trilogy, Simón del desierto represents the valiant, but ultimately fruitless, attempts by an ascetic to resist the temptation of the Devil. Utterly isolated from the “World,” the titular character, Simón, based on the historical Saint Simeon Stylites (pillar-dweller) who had lived atop a column in Syria for over 30 years, does much like his historical predecessor. Buñuel’s film remains faithful to the meditative nature of the saint’s life and is dominated by powerful imagery and very little expository action. Niklaus Largier finds that “what Buñuel’s film depicts—rather than narrates—is the mechanical structure of this production and reproduction of images of holiness that relies on a tradition of exemplary images that goes far back, obviously beyond the invention of cinema itself.”22 In the film, Buñuel juxtaposes the saint’s stoicism with his self-righteousness. Simón resists an incarnation of Satan in the form of a schoolgirl who lasciviously exposes her body to him, but these triumphs often translate into an ever-more-self-righteous attitude as he ascends to a higher, more penitential column, all the better from which to judge the shortcomings of his contemporaries (Figure 7); as Michael Wood puts it, “Buñuel’s cool irony suggests that even in the realm of renunciation there are opportunities for professional advancement [and] any extreme attempt at holiness is likely to call up its opposite.”23

Ultimately, the unsettling montage of transitions from the penultimate to the final scene is where Buñuel’s criticism is at its sharpest. As Satan emerges from a casket, appearing again in the form of the beautiful woman, she indicates that a long journey awaits them: from the medieval desert of the column to a dance club in contemporary Manhattan. This transition in time and space is jarring for its sequence of shots that include the appearance of an anachronistic passenger jet in the skies above the column’s medieval landscape, followed by the now-abandoned pillar with a blur-dissolve graphic match cut to an establishing shot of the columnar edifices of the Manhattan skyline. This segues to a descending vertical pan from street level and resolves, finally, inside the club where a band plays the kind of guitar-heavy surf sound so characteristic of early 1960s American music. Men and women dance to something called “the radioactive flesh,” and the mass of bodies cavorting to the music represents an effective contrast between that and Simón’s isolation atop his column. It all seems fairly quaint in light of the drug-fueled excesses of the club scene of the last 40 years, more of a sock-hop than something like the debauchery of Michael Alig and the Club Kids from James St. James’s autobiographical novel Disco Bloodbath (1999) and Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s film Party Monster (2003) based on the book. Nevertheless, the abrupt transition is shocking as Simón smokes a pipe and appears to be sipping Coca-Cola: “He looks like a man disguised as a French intellectual, a fraud now rather than a saintly fool.”24 More significantly, these tiny indulgences seem sacrilegious after the viewer is treated to Simón’s years-long penitential asceticism atop the column in the first forty minutes of the film. Again, Buñuel employs the motif of the formerly saintly individual who cannot in the end resist worldly temptation and gives in to indulgence; but rather than lay these ideas out in an expository fashion, he preserves the visual power of montage which Eisenstein thought to be that “principal (and sole) method which has led cinema to a position of such great influence.” In Simón del desierto, this method—the transitions that link the abandoned column to the perdition of a formerly penitent holy man in the bowels of a 1960s-era New York dance club—serves to reinforce Buñuel’s seemingly central criticism of Christian faith: no man or woman, no matter how virtuous or devout, can resist the temptations of a worldly existence and will inevitably and irremediably give in and abandon the faith.

Cults, Sacred Quests, Corruption:
Christianity in Recent and Contemporary Mexican Cinema

Despite the contrast between the sympathies and criticisms toward Christianity in the films of Emilio “El indio” Fernández and Luis Buñuel, both maintain a visual style that seems to have been largely lost when filmmakers abandoned the silent format. In Fernández and Buñuel, the composition and content of images in their film’s montages (the key to what Eisenstein thought constituted cinema’s artistic power) serve as an ideological commentary on Christianity as much or more than the expository dialogue in any of their films. In fact, the legacy of Eisenstein, through Fernández and Buñuel and from the work of other filmmakers in the generation of the 70s and 80s following the Golden Age, can be located in the aesthetics of the representation of Christianity, faith, and spirituality in Mexican filmmakers active today. The Eisensteinian style is particularly evident in the following four recent films that take Christian faith and practice as central elements: cultic Christianity in Ángel de fuego (1992) by Dana Rotberg and El evangelio de las maravillas (1998) by Arturo Ripstein; the veneration of the saints in Santitos (1999) by Alejandro Springhall; and the corruption of the church in El crimen del padre Amaro (2003) by Carlos Carrera.

Rotberg’s Ángel de fuego is the first cinematic representation of a cult-like alternative to Roman Catholicism from the history of Mexican filmmaking. The film employs familiar visual elements from Scripture and Church tradition such as kneeling prayer, altar calls, penitential rites, and so on, but it contrasts these seemingly-orthodox elements with scenes of extreme rituals of penance that call to mind the Mexican cultural context in which the film unfolds (Figure 8). 

To students of Mexican cinema, these scenes seem straight from Eisenstein and Buñuel,25 yet in other moments from the film, the visual imagery of atonement departs absolutely from anything remotely orthodox. Like the films of Buñuel, Rotberg’s Ángel de fuego features enough expository dialogue to make plain the criticism of the film toward Christianity, but the particularly powerful images, those that really shock, are the ones that utilize icons of the faith and pervert them in the service of a criticism of the Christian faith. Arturo Ripstein’s El evangelio de las maravillas is similar for its representation of cultish practice, but in this case, the cult departs from traditions of the Roman Catholic Church.26

Like the Churrigueresque facades for which Mexican ecclesiastical architecture is well known, the visual style of Ripstein’s film is a baroque parody of Roman Catholic design, ritual, and dogma through the representation of the cult’s peculiar interior decorating. The film opens with a close pan across a barbed wire fence that frames the entrance to the cult’s church; inside, roosters roam the floors, the confessional and apse are adorned with blinking Christmas lights and the altar with crucifixes adorned by hanged, disjointed humanoid figures and dismembered dolls. While the sect’s bizarre beliefs are gradually revealed in dialogue, the visual representation of the architecture and interior design within the compound represents as much a criticism of the cult as the exposition of their beliefs. Critics typically emphasize certain elements in many of Ripstein’s films that hearken directly to elements of Buñuel’s pictures,27 but I draw attention to the similarities between the two filmmakers here because when Ripstein finally gets around to making a film about faith, the representation is just as critical as anything from Buñuel. To a certain extent, the critical posture toward Christianity in each of these director’s films eventually emerges from the expository content: dialogue, the actions of the characters, sequences of events. However, the most striking criticisms in Buñuel, in Ángel de fuego, and in El evangelio de las maravillascome from the raw offense of the heterodox imagery that is and was a hallmark of these directors.

Finally, Santitos and El crimen del padre Amaro are the two most recent Mexican films to deal extensively with faith in the context of explicitly Christian belief. In fact, film critic Darryl Caterine considers the former unique in terms of its content: “While Catholicism had always been featured as a prominent component of Mexican Cinema, not until Santitos did it receive such sustained attention as the central theme in a Mexican movie.”28 Caterine’s analysis gives considerable attention to the orthodoxy of devotionalism in Santitos, so I will not pursue that aspect of the film here. However, I do propose that director Alejandro Springhall’s extensive use of Christian imagery follows a tradition of highly visualized cinematic representation so typical of Mexican filmmaking since its earliest days after Eisenstein’s influential visit. The film begins with an establishing shot and short sequence in a plaza of the small town of Tlacotalpan, outside of Veracruz, but cuts immediately to the interior of the local church, with a close-up to a statue of Jesus, done in a typically-Mexican artisanal style. This opening shot of a sacred image becomes a central motif throughout the film: from the appearance of Saint Jude in the glass of an oven door to the sacred statuary of church interiors, devotional figurines, and even visions of Saint Jude and the Virgin of Guadelupe. Throughout the film, devotion is affirmed though the use of the cinematics that I have been analyzing throughout this article and which has become the hallmark of Mexican Christian cinema since Eisenstein: the repeated use of images to edify, sanctify, or alternately, criticize the faith. As an example of the latter, I shall consider the biting, almost blasphemous, imagery of Carlos Carrera’s El crimen del padre Amaro.

Carrera’s film, along with Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, are the two most critically acclaimed and frequently honored in the history of Mexican cinema; El crimen del padre Amaro was also Mexico’s biggest domestic box office hit, was nominated for the Oscar for best Foreign Film in 2003, and won an Ariel (the highest Mexican cinematic award) for best director. The highly controversial material of the film—Church corruption and a sexual relationship between a priest and young female parishioner—even led to an attempt by the Roman Catholic Church to block the film’s release (which of course only made it more popular). One moment in particular merits mention in this analysis as a singular brief image in the context of the affair between the titular Padre Amaro and his lover Amelia that probably aroused as much revulsion as all the rest of the film’s more direct argument about the corruption of the church. The priest and the girl have met for a tryst in the sexton’s quarters, but on his way to their meeting place, a parishioner has gives Amaro a vestment for the statue of Mary in the church. He takes the robe with him and insists that Amelia put it on. Given the high esteem in which Roman Catholics hold Jesus’ mother, there probably could not have been a more shocking image than the close-up of Amelia wearing the Virgin’s traditional blue robe, with very little underneath, as a kind of twisted foreplay before the consummation of her affair with the priest. While the criticism of the Church in the film would likely frustrate and anger the Roman Catholic devout, the blasphemous image of the actress Ana Claudia Talancón wrapped in vestments intended for the Virgin Mary and about to participate with the priest in the violation of his vows must have been absolutely abhorrent (Figure 9).

I have chosen the directors and examples of Christian imagery in Mexican cinema that I analyze above because I believe that they are representative as much of the Christian tendencies in Mexican cinema as they are a forebear to the unique visual imagery in films by the cross-over directors—Cuarón, del Toro, and Iñárritu—mentioned in the opening paragraph of this article. My central argument has been that the representation of Christianity in these films (whether sympathetic or critical) has always been effected through powerful imagery rather than discursive dialogue or filmic narrative. The ambiguity of such filmmaking can be ambivalent: for one, the imagery itself can be quite shocking, but it can also lead viewers to conclusions that are opposite of the directors’ intentions. It is not surprising, for example, that Nazarín was considered for an award by the Roman Catholic Church for its positive message.29 In the end, these films take Christianity seriously. The sympathetic imagery analyzed above unfolds in the context of fictional characters who allow essential Christian motifs to guide their actions: atonement, pilgrimage, faith, forgiveness. But even the Buñuelean characters and those that appear in other films critical of Christianity—individuals that surrender to temptation, countenance heresy, and give in to corruption—can 

result in viewer interpretations that do not mirror these pessimistic conclusions. Such films, instead of offering a definitive condemnation of Christian faith, can do much to warn against the spiritual danger of temptation, unorthodoxy, and corruption, but they may also potentially lead to a renewal of faith. This could constitute an ironic form of evangelism as the product of work by an atheist director like Buñuel, but occasionally, the human remnant of the imago dei can leave a residual of the divine, visible even in the perversions of cinematic representations, where such perversions actually remind viewers of what came before. As such, the divine image persists, even in the work of filmmakers who reject the Original.

Cite this article
Scott DeVries, “Murals, Icons, Movies: Christian Imagery in Mexican Cinema”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 40:4 , 407-424


  1. Larry Rohter, “The Three Amigos of Cha Cha Cha,” New York Times, April 23, 2009.
  2. In fact, del Toro’s film won Oscars for Best Achievement in Art Direction, Best Achievement in Cinematography, Best Achievement in Makeup and nominations for Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score, Best Foreign Language Film of the Year, and Best Writing, Original Screenplay. It also garnered 68 wins and 58 nominations by other national and international film societies. “Pan’s Labyrinth,” The Internet Movie Database, accessed January 7, 2011,
  3. Michael Cipley, “Resistance Forms against Hollywood’s 3-D Push,” The New York Times,August 2, 2010,
  4. Arnheim, Rudolf, “FromFilm as Art,” in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 319.
  5. Eisenstein, Sergei, Vseyolod Pudovkin and Grigori Alexandrov, in Film Theory and Criticism, 360.
  6. Ibid.
  7. See Braudy and Cohen, Film Theory and Criticism.
  8. Miles of footage were filmed, some of which appeared in Sol Lesser’s Thunder Over México (1933) and also in ¡Qué viva México! (1979). The version from 1979 was a re-edit by Grigori Aleksandrov, one of the film crew from the original project, who indicates in the introduction to the film that his cut attempts to follow Eisenstein’s original vision.
  9. Carl J. Mora, Mexican Cinema: Reflections of a Society, 1896-2004 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2005), 37.
  10. Julia Tunón, “Emilio Fernández: A Look Behind the Bars,” in Mexican Cinema, ed. Paulo Antonio Paranguá (London: British Film Institute, 1995), 185.
  11. Ibid., 186.
  12. See Anne Doremus, “Religion, the Church and Mexican Nationalism: The Films of Emilio Fernández,” Studies in Latin American Popular Culture 22 (2003): 149-163; Joanne Hershfield, Mexican Cinema/Mexican Women, 1940-1950 (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1996); Viviana Mahieux, “De Ceja a Ceja: Retos Nacionales y Espejismos Sexuales en Enamorada de Emilio Fernández,” Delaware Review of Latin American Studies 7.1 (2006),; Carlos Monsivais, “Mythologies,” in Mexican Cinema,117-27; Charles Ramírez Berg, “The Cinematic Invention of Mexico: The Poetics and Politics of the Fernández-Figueroa Style,” in The Mexican Cinema Project, eds. Chon Noriega and Steven Ricci (Los Angeles: University of Texas Press, 1995), 13-24; and Erica Segre, “Visualizing Mexico: The Interplay of Mexican Graphic Arts and Film in the 1930’s and 1940’s,” Hispanic Research Journal. 1.1 (2000): 87-95.
  13. Andrea Noble, “If Looks Could Kill: Image Wars in María Candelaria,” in Screening World Cin-ema: A Screen Reader, eds. Catherine Grant and Annette Kuhn (London: Routledge, 2006), 77.
  14. See Susan Dever, Celluloid Nationalism and Other Melodramas: From Post-Revolutionary Mexico to fin de siglo Mexamérica, (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2003); Doremus; Hershfield; Mahieux; Mora; Ramirez Berg; and Dolores Tierney, “Gender Relations and Mexican Cultural Nationalism in Emilio Fernández’s Enamorada/Woman in Love,” Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 20 (2003): 225-236.
  15. Berg, “The Cinematic Invention of Mexico,” 17.
  16. Geoff Brown, Review of Enamorada by Emilio Fernández, Sight and Sound 17.11 (2007): 19.
  17. Ernesto R. Acevedo-Muñoz, Buñuel and Mexico: The Crisis of National Cinema (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003), 35.
  18. Michael Wood, “Damned if you Do…,” in booklet accompanying Simón del desierto, DVD, directed by Luis Buñuel (Rochester, NY: Criterion Collection, 2008): 9.
  19. 1 Corinthians 10:13, NIV.
  20. Acevedo-Muñoz, Buñuel and Mexico, 151.
  21. Fernando Lara, “Nazarín y Tristana, una Traición Creativa,” Cuadernos de literatura infantil y juvenil 129 (2000): 65 (my translation).
  22. Niklaus Largier, “Praying by Numbers: An Essay on Medieval Aesthetics,” Representations104 (2008): 73-75.
  23. Wood, “Damned if you do…,” 6.
  24. Ibid., 7.
  25. 5Elements of self-flagellation and self-mortification are present in Rotberg’s film as in Eisenstein’s ¡Que viva México! and in Buñuel’s Viridiana and Simón del desierto
  26. The film is based on an actual cult based in Michoacan State, Mexico.
  27. Leonardo García Tsao, Review of Divine (El evangelio de las maravillas) directed by Arturo Ripstein, Variety (June 1-7, 1998): 39.
  28. Darryl Caterine, “Border Saints: Santitos (1999), in Catholics in the Movies, ed. Colleen McDannel (New York: Oxford UP, 2008), 294.
  29. Ignacio Javier López, “Ética y vanguardia en Nazarín, de Buñuel,” Revista canadiense de estudios hispánicos 30.3 (2006): 528.

Scott DeVries

Scott DeVries is Associate Professor of Spanish at Bethel College in Indiana.