Pros: Beautiful cinematography, poetic romantic tragedy, fine performances
Cons: May be too melodramatic for some
More than sixty years after this film was made, it is still among the all-time favorites for many Mexicans. The lead actress and actor rank among the most famous and beloved Mexican stars and the director was virtually emblematic of Mexican cinema. Maria Candelaria, winner of a Palme dOr at Cannes in 1946, is a classic romantic tragedy, well worth a viewing if you enjoy that kind of film.
Historical Background: The so-called Golden Age of Mexican cinema began around 1935 and petered out around 1950. It was during this time period that Mexican cinema developed its star system, experienced significant improvements in the technical quality of films, and produced films in large number that were avidly anticipated by Mexicans of all social classes. During World War II, there was an infusion of American money into the Mexican film industry because Mexico had allied itself with the Allies in the war effort. After the war, not only did financial support from north of the border dry up, but the film industry found itself increasingly competing with television and imports from Hollywood. The audiences for home-grown Mexican films dried up, especially in the Mexican middle-class. As a result, the number of films produced each year began to dwindle considerably after 1950 and many of those that were produced were inexpensive films of relatively poor quality.
The most famous contributor to the Mexican film industry during the Golden Era was Emilio Fernandez (1904-1986), known at El Indio. He was famous both for his professional work and his public persona. Fernandezs mother was a Mexican Indian living in Coahuila. Fernandez participated in the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917) and thus developed the kind of violent, temperamental personality often referred to as Mexican machismo. When his faction was defeated, Fernandez was forced to flee Mexico and worked in exile in Hollywood during the 1920s and up to 1933. He found work in secondary roles while also learning about filmmaking. When he returned to Mexico, he took up a career, first, as an actor and screenwriter and, later, as a director. He had his first lead role in Janitzio (1934) and was often cast in American films as a Mexican bad guy, such as in the film The Wild Bunch (1969). Fernandez was more famous as a director, however. Some of his best-known films include Flor silvestre (1943), Maria Candelaria (1943), Enamorada (1946), Rio Escondido (1947), and Pueblerina (1949).
Fernandez was devoted first and foremost to a radical defense of Mexican culture, aiming to depict in his films those qualities and ideals that uniquely define what it means to be Mexican. He co-scripted most of his films and built a partnership with the talented cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa. Together, they created a visually poetic style, influenced by Sergei Eisenstein, who had begun but not finished a film project in Mexico called Que viva Mexico. Fernandez films emphasize the Mexican landscape and architecture. Fermandez continued to make films until the mid-seventies, when he was convicted of manslaughter in 1976, but the quality of his work declined during and after the 1950s.
The Story: The story of Maria Candelaria is melodrama, but it develops with such purity of spirit and loftiness of visual appeal that it is almost impossible not to embrace its sweet sentimentality. A famous painter, El Pinfor (Alberto Galan), is receiving admirers as he works. One of the guests is a reporter (Beatriz Ramos) who is working on a story about the painter. She inquires about a famous painting that the artist rendered but refuses to either sell or discuss a painting of a nude Mexican Indian woman. Initially the man once again refuses to discuss the painting and dismisses his guests, but, after the reporter persists, he relents, providing her and us with the story of Maria Candelaria.
Maria Candelaria (Dolores Del Rio) is a beautiful young woman of Xochimilco, Mexico, a village famous for its floating gardens surrounded by flowers. Many in the village live in huts on small elevations amidst the marsh and make their living selling flowers in nearby towns and villages. Maria is hated by nearly all of the villagers simply because her mother was a prostitute. Maria herself is the epitome of chastity, but the distinction between mother and daughter is lost on her neighbors. She has one supporter, however, Lorenzo Rafael (Pedro Armendáriz), who is entirely devoted to her. The two have plans to marry as soon as their sow matures and has piglets, which they will be able to sell to raise money to buy a dress in which Maria can be properly married. The lovely Maria sings a song as she works, My flowers bloom early in the morning.
Maria and Lorenzo are beautiful and noble people and each the object of the desire of others. Maria has refused the attentions of the local landowner, Don Damian (Miguel Inclan), who is not used to being refused. Maria owes money to Don Damian. He had previously agreed to allow her to pay him in flowers, but he now demands either the money or her sow, out of spite. He knows she doesnt have the money and by confiscating her sow, he will prevent her from marrying his rival, Lorenzo. Lorenzo Rafael has also acquired the jealous animosity of a former girlfriend (Lupe Inclán), who is determined to prevent his marriage to Maria, even if it means killing one or the other of the lovers. The villagers will not even allow Maria to sell her flowers, blocking her from paddling down the river. Maria and Lorenzo travel together to the village and briefly encounter El Pinfor, who recognizes in Maria the perfect example of the pure native Mexican woman that he has long wanted to paint. His request that she model is met with grave suspicion of Lorenzos part, and he hurries her back home.
In the evening, Lorenzo Rafael serenades Maria with his lute-like instrument. The two take a boat ride together in the moonlit night through glistening ripples. Only a mosquito bite disturbs the perfection of their ride together, but this is malaria country and that one bite proves infectious. The next day is a special one in the village a day when all of the residents take their animals to a special event called the animal blessing. Maria and Lorenzo take their sow, but the villagers try to run them off. Only the priest (Rafael Icardo) stands up for the mistreated young couple, accusing the villagers of stomping on angels wings by their un-Christian treatment of Maria in the very shadow of the church. Don Damian shows up hoping to claim Marias sow, but the priest wont allow him to come around the church to collect on debts.
Don Damian is angry about being thwarted in his revenge and is further enraged by Lorenzos jealous ex-girlfriend, who mocks Don Damian with the specific intent to enrage him and drive him to some kind of violent action. Don Damian loads his rifle, paddles down the river, and shoots Marias sow. No sooner have Maria and Lorenzo discovered the dead sow than Maria develops the fever of Malaria. The village Shaman (or bone-crusher) refuses to come to Maria out of fear of retribution from Don Damian. Maria needs quinine, but Don Damian controls the villages quinine supply and refuses to provide any to Lorenzo. All Lorenzo can do is sit at Marias side in their small hut and pray for her recovery. Maria becomes increasingly delirious as thunder and lightning light up the night. Lorenzo desperately paddles through the mist and rain to Don Damians store. Seeing the quinine containers through the window, Lorenzo breaks in and steals both the quinine and a lovely dress for Maria.
When he returns to the hut, he gives Maria her first dose of quinine. Moments later a doctor (Arturo Soto Bangel) arrives, having been sent to help by El Pinfor, who continues to hope that Maria will sit as a subject for a painting. The Shaman (Lupe del Castillo) arrives a few moments later, and the two quarrel over the healing power of their respective methods. Between the two of them, Maria duly recovers. As soon as she is well, she dons the dress that Lorenzo had stolen from Don Damian's store, and the two go to the priest to get married. Their ceremony is interrupted by the arrival of Don Damian with two policemen, to arrest Lorenzo.
SPOILERS AHEAD. SKIP TO THEMES SECTION TO AVOID!
Don Damian has magnified the seriousness of Lorenzos petty theft by claiming that the money from the till was also stolen. Lorenzo is sentenced to a year in jail. Maria seeks the help of El Pinfor and when he returns after a daytrip to Mexico City, he immediately tries to get bail set for Lorenzo and, in the meantime, arranges a visit for Maria with her beloved. Later, Maria sits for El Pinfor and he renders her head but then asks her to pose in the nude for the remainder of the painting. She is shocked by the request and, in her piety, flees. El Pinfor has to make do with one of the professional models, Lupe (Lupe Garnica), who is on hand and who has a similar build. The townspeople discover the completed painting and believe that Maria posed nude, which violates their pious religious beliefs as well as convincing them that Maria has followed in the footsteps of her mother. The villagers burn down Marias dwelling and pursue her through the marshes and into the village, finally chasing her down and stoning her to death. Lorenzo, able to see Maria being chased from his cell window, breaks his way out of jail, but arrives at the scene only in time for Maria to die in his arms.
Themes: The price of artistic expression is sometimes very steep. The painter's only goal was to preserve through his painting the beauty of the pure indigenous Mexican people before it disappeared forever. Well over half of the population of Mexico consists of people with both Spanish and indigenous genetic background and race is an inherent part of Mexican politics and socio-economic status. The painter's desire to paint a pure Mexican woman in the nude conflicted with the strict Catholic piety of the populace, unwittingly resulting in Maria Candelarias death. The painter begins his tale with the preamble, Life uses us as instruments of other peoples pain. You know that we painters always dream of finding the materialization of what we carry inside of us. Almost nobody does. I had the privilege of finding it, however, it would have been better if I hadnt.
Beyond that, Maria Candelaria is pure romantic tragedy, in the manner of Romeo and Juliet. This film invites you to feel the pure and noble love of Maria and Lorenzo and to share in their tragedy. Since the film is quintessentially Mexican in its aura and sensitivities, it also invites you to fall in love with Mexico and its magnificent cultural heritage.
Production Values: The cinematography is really quite extraordinary for this film. There are so many standout shots. When Maria is feverish with malaria, for example, the hut is lit only by firelight, so that the central portion of the frames are bathed in flickering yellow light which the outsides of the frames are dark. The boatride down the river in the moonlight is gorgeous as is Lorenzos ride through the mist and rain to steal the quinine to save Maria. The floating gardens of Xochimilco are a sight to behold.
Dolores del Rio was one of the great stars of the Golden Era of Mexican cinema and for many years thereafter. She has presence and charisma, exuding the beauty and nobility required for the part of Maria. Some of her other best films included Flying Down to Rio (1933), Journey into Fear (1942), The Fugitive (1947), and Cheyenne Autumn (1964). Pedro Armendariz is perfectly cast opposite Del Rio. Together, they make a beautiful couple and their love for one another feels fully genuine and believable. His resume included The Fugitive (1947), The Three Godfathers (1948), Fort Apache (1948), From Russia with Love (1963), where he played Kerim Bey, and The Mark of Zorro.
Bottom-Line: The painter character of this film, El Pinfor, sums up the story of Maria Candelaria as well as I could: Something in her story is so terrible and sweet at the same time. Maria Candelaria is in Spanish with English subtitles. It is a hard film to locate in the United States, but the Mexican DVD can be found at internet stores and auction sites and includes optional English subtitles for the main feature (though not the trailers for other films). The running time is 97 minutes.
You might want to check out these other excellent films from Mexico:
Like Water For Chocolate
Y Tu Mama Tambien