Over the course of his prodigious and still active career Arturo Ripstein (b. 1943) has remained the most vital, persistent and original filmmaker working within the Mexican cinema. A maverick contrarian, Ripstein has paradoxically flourished within the same commercial industry whose complacent traditions he has so steadily defied. Fearless and subversive, Ripstein's films artfully transform popular genres – the Western, the "family film" and, above all, melodrama – into devastating attacks against the inveterate prejudice and myopia deeply-rooted in Mexican culture and history. Yet, while major films such as The Castle of Purity, The Place Without Limits and Deep Crimson deliver swift hammer blows against obdurate patriarchy, intolerance, provincialism and, above all, machismo, their lasting power and artistry lies far beyond the daring themes. For within the stark, mesmerizing imagery that haunts Ripstein's films is crystallized a strange fusion of beauty and brutality, compassion and violence, central to a profound melancholia and sense of slow, inexorable decline which underlies his entire oeuvre. Far from nihilistic, the unyielding pessimism often credited to Ripstein's cinema is instead a brand of bracing humanism fascinated by the secret nightmares and dark fantasies of the indelible anti-heroes whose weakness, hubris and folly Ripstein steadfastly refuses to sentimentalize. In 1975 The Realm of Fortune launched Ripstein's long and remarkable collaboration with the talented screenwriter Paz Alicia Garcíadiego whose subtle ear for the music of vernacular language and consummate skills at literary adaptation brought a new dimension into Ripstein's cinema, a novelistic complexity of voice and character that resulted in such celebrated works as The Beginning and the End as well as lesser known classics like The Ruination of Men.
The son of one of Mexico's most prominent film producers, Ripstein was quite literally born and bred into the cinema, observing film productions and apprenticing from a very young age. Especially important to Ripstein's formation was his long friendship with Luis Buñuel who became an intellectual and spiritual mentor to the aspiring filmmaker – although Ripstein never, despite the stubborn myth, worked as Buñuel's assistant on any film. From his very first youthful films, Ripstein boldly embraced a certain Buñuelian iconoclasm and irreverent black humor that which would remain important signatures of his films. Tied not only to Buñuel but also to the Golden Age of Mexican cinema whose crepuscular days he witnessed firsthand and whose stars – such as Claudio Brook and Katy Jurado – he often cast, Ripstein stands as a crucial link between Mexico's studio-era and the new generation of auteur directors such as Carlos Reygadas, Guilermo del Toro and Nicolás Pereda who each, in their own ways, acknowledge Ripstein's profound legacy.
The Harvard Film Archive is humbled by the visit of Arturo Ripstein and Paz Alicia Garcíadiego and the rare opportunity to discuss their extraordinary films and careers. — Haden Guest
This event is the 3rd Annual ARTS@DRCLAS – HFA film retrospective and is co-sponsored by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS) Mexico and Central America Program. Special thanks: Paola Ibarra – DRCLAS
Directed by Arturo Ripstein. With Daniel Giménez Cacho, Regina Orozco, Marisa Paredes
Mexico 1996, 35mm, color, 110 min. Spanish with English subtitles
The jaundiced dystopia refined across the inspired collaboration of Ripstein and Garcíadiego reached a dark zenith in their remake of Leonard Kastle's feverish 1969 cult film The Honeymoon Killers. Revealing a broken world littered with dog-eared movie magazines and tear-soaked pillows, Deep Crimson lays a wilted bouquet in tribute to the long eclipsed Golden Ages of the Hollywood and Mexican cinemas whose ardent melodramatic romanticism the film both embraces and savagely parodies. Thrown into each other’s arms by desperate loneliness and a strange brand of outrageous fortune, a comically unlikely criminal couple enacts a theatrical killing spree that brutally and systematically deconstructs matrimony, masculinity and family values en toto. Inspired by a dark strain of amor loco, Deep Crimson‘s sordid love adventure is a fascinating anti-epic torn between blackest comedy and brutal violence yet ultimately as arid, dust swept and corpuscular as the desolate Norteño landscapes that so haunt the film.
Directed by Arturo Ripstein. With Pedro Armendáriz Jr., Narciso Busquets, Ernesto Gómez Cruz
Mexico 1978, 35mm, color, 88 min. Spanish with English subtitles
Heavily favored by Mexican critics to this day, Life Sentence is a taut and fatalistic portrait of an Everyman struggling desperately to free himself from the barbed and crooked path of the flamboyant criminal past that constantly pulls him back to the once glittering but now dingy underworld he so naturally inhabited. The sweat and nicotine of Seventies paranoid cinema leaves acrid stains on Vicente Leñero’s crisp script whose flashback structure Ripstein skillfully exploits to ratchet the tension while gradually revealing a cruel symmetry between past and present. With its breathless narrative unfolding entirely within the sprawl and steel of late Seventies Mexico City, Life Sentence brought a new urban contemporaneity into Ripstein's cinema.
Directed by Arturo Ripstein. With Claudio Brook, Rita Macedo,
Mexico 1972, 35mm, color, 103 min. Spanish with English subtitles
Its title given to Ripstein by Octavio Paz – and taken from a seminal essay on Marcel Duchamp – The Castle of Purity is itself an absolute work of high art which uses its haunting poetic imagery and rigorous avoidance of explanation to conjure a frightening yet strangely familiar world shadowed with somber metaphors. Starring Buñuel regular Claudio Brook as a father who imprisons his wife and children in their crumbling mansion home for eighteen years, operating an artisanal rat poison production to support themselves, The Castle of Purity only gradually reveals the rigid laws and logic of the father who exerts total and unflagging dominion over his family. As the unquestioned imprisonment comes under increased strain from within while the father's will never falters, The Castle of Purity begins to simultaneously inspire and resist the stubborn meaning that clings to the narrative; readings of the film, for example, that discover a critique of the State or exploitation of the Third World. Yet the strange effect of the film ultimately lies in the uncanny familiarity of the father's cruel regimentation, reminding us of the ways we ourselves are thoroughly subjected and shaped by the concentric institutions of state, school, church, family.
Directed by Alile Sharon Larkin. With Margot Saxton-Federella,
US 1982, 16mm, color, 51 min
Ripstein assembled a storied cast led by Fernando Lujan and Marisa Peredes for Garcíadiego's lush and evocative adaptation of Gabriel Garciá Márquez’s celebrated short story. The film's complex camerawork matches the screenplay's subtle intertwining of voice and desire, fantasy and the dark reality of a retired veteran's embittered solitude and desolation.
Directed by Alile Sharon Larkin. With Marga López, Jorge Martínez de Hoyos, Enrique Rocha
Mexico 1965, 35mm, b/w, 90 min
Please note that this film will be presented in Spanish,
Boasting a screenplay by Gabriel Garciá Márquez, with dialogue "Mexican-ized" by Carlos Fuentes, Ripstein's strikingly accomplished debut film boldly announced the engaged fascination with Latin American literature that has remained an important constant across his career. Originally designated for another director and producer, Time to Die offered the precocious twenty-one year old Ripstein a chance to prove himself as director after multiple failed attempts as an actor and in spite of the heavy weight of his father's influential position within the Mexican film industry and as producer of the film. A late entry in the cycle of so-called "chile-Westerns" that flourished in Mexico from the late 1950s through the 1960s, Time to Die is a stark and fatalistic revenge story set in a small tumbleweed town that follows the final days of a released convict destined to encounter the vengeful wrath of the son whose father's murder was the cause of his eighteen-year sentence. Anticipating Márquez's own Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Time to Die reveals machismo as a pernicious cultural heredity, a curse pushing men towards unrelenting violence and sexism.
Directed by Arturo Ripstein. With Ernesto Laguardia, Julieta Egurrola, Bruno Bichir
Mexico 1993, 35mm, color, 169 min. Spanish with English subtitles
A spellbinding saga of sacrifice and bitter blood bonds, The Beginning and the End is an innovative adaptation of Naguib Mahfouz's eponymous novel that counts among the highest achievements of Ripstein and Garcíadiego's storied collaboration. The film’s multilayered portrait of a family's struggles after the death of the father traces the corrosive arc of the mother's blind devotion to her favorite son to whose education she pledges a dangerously blind devotion. Told in slowly sweeping, almost waltz-like, movements, Ripstein's restless camera sets the steady decay of the Botero family against the fascinating backdrop of a Mexico City teeming with sordid and strange details and minor characters whose vivid presence suggest a multitude of untold narratives. The Beginning and the End‘s pitiless vision of motherly love and familial pride as destructive forces can be read as an equally impassioned and ruminative counter to the deep tradition of family melodrama so central to Mexican cinema.
Directed by Arturo Ripstein. With Jorge Luke, Diana Bracho,
Mexico 1973, 35mm, color, 130 min
Please note that this film will be presented in Spanish,
Ripstein's first period film turned back to the troubled age of the Spanish Inquisition in Mexico with a riveting drama of a family destroyed by unnerving suspicions that their deceased paterfamilias never fully recounted his Jewish origins or beliefs. Featuring Jorge Luke as the tormented son pressured to denounce his family and Claudio Brook as the Chief Inquisitor and fierce embodiment of the vengefully merciless Church, The Holy Office is a dark meditation on the treacherous power struggles that shape and reshape religious faith and family alike. The Holy Office is among the few Mexican films to examine the perilous status of the Jews in 16th century Mexico, and one of the few works to directly explore Ripstein's own Jewish heritage.
Directed by Arturo Ripstein. With Patricia Reyes Spíndola, Rafael Inclán, Luis Felipe Tovar
Mexico/Spain 2000, 35mm, b/w, 106 min. Spanish with English subtitles
The Ruination of Men opens with an arresting sequence, filmed in long takes, in which a peasant is beaten to death by two men who then trundle the corpse back to their victim’s shack. In the ensuing dark comedy, the reasons for the murder gradually become clear as various characters gather around the body. Suffice it to say that the title comes from a song blaming women for any strife between men, although the film wastes little time in pointing out that neither gender has a monopoly on causing or suffering ruin and defeat. Ripstein mitigates the theatrical nature of the screenplay with fluid handheld camera movement. The black-and-white cinematography suits the film’s seedy naturalism and links it to Buñuel by way of Aki Kaurismaki and Bela Tarr.
Directed by Arturo Ripstein. With Patricia Reyes Spíndola, Ana Ofelia Murguía, Alberto Estrella
Mexico 1994, 35mm, color, 112 min
Please note that this film will be presented in Spanish,
Ripstein describes his soulful tribute to Mexican chanteuse Lucha Reyes as an "imaginary portrait of a sentimental life" that takes open license in enriching and expanding Reyes tragic life story into a heady evocation of Mexico City in the Thirties and Forties, rich in baroque detail and texture. Reyes' forcefully destructive tendencies and descent into alcoholism are treated with rare tenderness by Garcíadiego's sensitive script which gives equal space to her ballads of torturous love. Both Reyes's hard-scrabble struggle for her art and for dignity – her desperate mothering of a beggar orphan can be taken as an emblem of modern Mexico's own turbulent coming of age.
Directed by Arturo Ripstein. With Roberto Cobo, Lucha Villa, Ana Martín
Mexico 1977, 35mm, color, 106 min. Spanish with English subtitles
The most complex and complete expression of the anti-machismo that gives such a forceful critical edge to so many of Ripstein's masterworks, The Place Without Limits marked an important milestone in Mexican cinema through its unprecedentedly frank depiction of homosexuality and violently reactionary homophobia. Ripstein's devastating portrait of masculinity in irredeemable crisis is transgressive in powerfully literal ways, embodied in the willfully contradictory characters who shatter traditional gender boundaries and roles. Loosely centered around a transvestite prostitute and his/her daughter, The Place Without Limits carefully destabilizes gender roles to reveal an unsettling instability at the heart of patriarchy itself as embodied in the avaricious and embittered patriarch ruthlessly abusing his position as cacique to slowly strangle life out of the tumbleweed Norteño town which is the film's stark setting. Ripstein himself adapted the eponymous 1975 novel by José Donosco that was originally intended for Manuel Puig, whose first screenplay attempts proved unsatisfactory
Directed by Arturo Ripstein. With Carlos Savage, Bebi Pecanins, Carlos Nieto
Mexico 1969, 35mm, b/w, 65 min
Please note that this film will be presented in Spanish, without subtitles - a synopsis will be provided.
Ripstein's third film is a stylistically striking and Surrealist-inflected departure from his previous works, an assertion and exploration of difference that revels the ambition and narrative acumen of its young director. Shot in black-and-white, The Children’s Hour follows the minimalist story of a clown who comes to a city to babysit a young boy, strictly following and eventually reinventing the parents' careful instructions not to scare their son with any frightening stories. Taking place almost entirely within the boy's apartment home, this rarely seen apprentice work is a revealing early expression of the enclosed Kammerspiel settings and claustrophobic narrative that remain crucial to Ripstein's later films.
Directed by Arturo Ripstein
Mexico 1971, 16mm, b/w, 10 min. Spanish with English subtitles
Ripstein's little known early short reveals a more personal and experimental side of the young filmmaker.
Directed by Arturo Ripstein. With Arcelia Ramírez, Vladimir Cruz,
Mexico/Spain 2011, 35mm, color, 119 min. Spanish with English subtitles
A cannily adjudged mixture of the austere and the melodramatic, The Reasons of the Heart is a loose modern-day adaptation of Madame Bovary in black-and-white, set almost entirely in a nondescript Mexico City apartment building. The film’s opening scene finds Emilia already in the throes of illicit lust: bored by her husband and her daughter, she lives only for the desultory attention of her lover upstairs. The camera paces the building’s hallways and lurks in its drab lobby, its gaze somehow both anxious and dispassionate as the adulteress’ life unravels. Ripstein has spoken of Garcíadiego’s ability in her screenplay to reveal the affirmative side of a literary character he’s always disliked – Emilia’s total commitment to her passion – and this turbulent ambivalence fuels the movie.
Directed by Arturo Ripstein. With Ernesto Gómez Cruz, Blanca Guerra, Alejandro Parodi
Mexico 1985, 35mm, color, 126 min. Spanish with English subtitles
A mesmerizing fable about decline and decadence, The Realm of Fortune is both stark and baroque in its transformation of the remotest Mexican hinterlands into a mythic world of Pyrrhic victory and ritualistically humiliating defeat. Based on a story by legendary Mexican author Juan Rulfo, The Realm of Fortune was the first of Ripstein's films with a screenplay masterfully written by his future partner Paz Alicia Garcíadiego, the launch of their storied collaboration. The pessimism, dark sexuality, black humor and the strange tenderness which the film shows to its misshapen characters would become important signatures of the Ripstein-Garcíadiego films.
Directed by Arturo Ripstein. With Arcelia Ramírez, Patricia Reyes Spíndola, Luis Felipe Tovar
Mexico 2000, 35mm, color, 98 min. Spanish with English subtitles
The story of Medea, the sorceress who murdered her children to punish their unfaithful father, has fascinated artists from Euripides to Pasolini. For his first feature shot digitally – indeed, the first in Latin America – Ripstein filmed Garcíadiego's adaptation of Seneca's Medea, transposed to the lower depths of contemporary Mexico City. The film is the fullest exploration to date of Garcíadiego's theme of motherhood as a double-edged sword – wounding both mothers and children but also capable of being turned against the outside world. The fatalism that underpins Ripstein's work and the theatricality of Garciadiego's here combine to present a mythic world embedded in the modern one. The film is as faithful to the theatrical unities of time, place and action as Seneca, and fate is as pitiless.