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A glimpse into Mexico’s past

Times Staff Writer

Now that films such as “Amores Perros” and “Y Tu Mama Tambien” have put the long-ailing Mexican film industry back on the map, it is altogether fitting that the UCLA Film Archive is presenting some of Mexico’s cinematic landmarks of the past with its “Selections From Mexican Cinema (1917-2003).”

Mexican movies dominated the Spanish-speaking market from roughly 1936 to 1956, with the ‘40s considered a golden age, a time when writer-director Emilio Fernandez, cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa and Dolores del Rio, Maria Felix and Pedro Armendariz were forging a new national cinema.

Fernandez helped launch this movement with his 1943 “Flor Silvestre” (“Wildflower”), starring Del Rio and Armendariz. In 1946, Fernandez’s “Enamorada” (“Woman in Love”) teamed Armendariz with Felix. They are vibrant examples of popular art, melodramas featuring glamorous stars and set against turbulent times, with lots of protest of the oppression of the people, broad comic relief and unified by Figueroa’s superb imagery. These two films, for all their fame and deserved landmark status, are not as timeless as the more frequently revived “Maria Candeleria” (1943), which won the Golden Palm at the first Cannes Film Festival in 1946.

In the first, the burly, macho Armendariz is the son of a landowner who not only dares to marry Del Rio’s exquisite, radiant peasant but also is sympathetic to revolutionaries. In the second, Armendariz is a Zapatista general in the Mexican Revolution of 1910 who is instantly attracted to the fiery daughter (Felix) of the town’s richest citizen. What ensues is in fact inspired by “The Taming of the Shrew.”

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The most intriguing of the opening weekend’s offerings is Gabriel Garcia Ramos’ “The Iron Fist” (1927), a silent melodrama shot in Orizaba, Vera Cruz. A pallid young man (Octavio Valencia) engaged to an attractive young woman (Lupe Bonilla), heiress to a great hacienda, endangers his future by experimenting with drugs. Lots of lurid adventures follow, with Ramos displaying an easy, relaxed style and considerable humor; there’s a surprise twist that is one of the oldest devices in the movies but seems fresh and amusing here.

“The Iron Fist” will be followed by “Tepeyac” (1917), a tender and touching reenactment of the appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe to the Indian peasant Juan Diego framed by a modern story of how a young woman places her faith in the Virgin in a time of crisis.

Seasonal vignettes

Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Distant” opened Friday at the Music Hall, and LACMA will present his two earlier features this weekend. Preceded by a short, “Cocoon” (1995), Ceylan’s first feature “Kasaba -- The Small Town” (1998) will screen Friday.

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Using nonprofessional actors, Ceylan shows he can drop in on the everyday lives of ordinary people and bring to them so much compassion and insight, with such simplicity and eloquence, that his effect is profound. “Kasaba” is composed of four vignettes, each one tied to a season that expresses Ceylan’s reverence for nature.

“Kasaba” opens in winter and introduces us to an 11-year-old girl, Asiye (Havya Saglam), and her little brother Ali (Cihat Butun), and observes their interactions with others at their school. Later, alone in the woods, Ali, in defiance of his sister, commits an act of mischievous cruelty only to experience subsequent guilt, which becomes a part of his maturing process.

In essence, “Kasaba” follows the children as they connect to their peers in the first section, to nature in the second and to their family in the third. In the final section they begin to wonder about the world beyond their small town. The key sequence is the third, set at a picnic in the forest, in which the children listen to their parents, grandparents and their father’s nephew engage in a conversation that touches upon in a thoughtful but not contrived way most all of life’s big questions. Such is the intensity of Ceylan’s vision that a perfectly natural, even casual, course of events, which is what the film consists of, makes “Kasaba” utterly compelling.

Ceylan’s second feature, “Clouds of May” (2000), re-creates the circumstances and struggles in making “Kasaba.”

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Silent rarity

Henry King’s highly regarded but seldom-screened “Tol’able David” (1921), starring Richard Barthelmess, offers a slice of rural Americana that was already disappearing. It screens Monday at the Silent Movie Theatre.

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Screenings

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UCLA Film Archive’s Selections From Mexican Cinema

* “Wildflower,” followed by “Woman in Love,” 7:30 p.m. Friday.

* “The Iron Fist,” followed by “Tepeyac,” 7 p.m. Sunday

Where: James Bridges Theater, Melnitz Hall, UCLA

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Info: (310) 206-FILM or www.cinema.ucla.edu

The Films of Turkish Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan

* “Cocoon,” followed by “Kasaba -- The Small Town,” 7:30 p.m. Friday.

* “Clouds of May,” 7:30 p.m. Saturday

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Where: Leo S. Bing Theater, LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.

Info: (323) 857-6177 or www.lacma.org

Silent Movie Mondays

* “Tol’able David,” 8 p.m. Monday

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Where: Silent Movie Theatre, 611 N. Fairfax Ave., Hollywood

Info: (323) 655-2520


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