Tuesday, March 7, 2017

cabaretera noir: Aventurera (1950)

Aventurera [videorecording]. Producciones Calderon S.A.; argumento de Alvaro Custodio; adaptacíon de Carlos Sampelayo y Alvaro Custodio ; una pelicula de pedro y Guillermo Calderón; dirigida por Alberto Gout. Cinemateca, distributed by Facets Video, [2004]. Originally released as a motion picture in 1950. Cinematography, Alex Phillips; editor, Alfredo Rosas Priego; music, Alberto Domínguez, Antonio Díaz Conde and Agustin Lara. Performers: Ninón Sevilla, Tito Junco, Andrea Palma, Miguel Inclán. With: video introduction by Michael Donnelly.
Summary: Elena tries to make a new life for herself after her mother leaves her alone, but she is drugged, seduced, and forced to work as a dancer/call girl in a nightclub. She soon rises to stardom as a dancer, but still plots revenge and escape.

style ****
substance ***1/2

Aventurera is a primo entry in the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, and, more important, perhaps the finest exemplar of the Mexican cabaretera subgenre, which is the rough equivalent of the American films noirs of the era. The critical difference, as the name implies, is that cabaretera always uses a club or casino as the backdrop and includes a goodly amount of musical numbers, also that cabaretera was more up front in its depiction of sensuality and sordidness than its Code-inhibited American cousins.

In any case the usual cabaretera story has considerable Sturm und Drang, and to spice things up, as if we needed more, the cabaret often doubles as a front for prostitution and white slavery, with the proprietor (or proprietress) leading a double life, usually as an otherwise respectable figure in high society. And, again paralleling film noir’s leftist sentiments, Aventurera and other films of its ilk swept away the curtain and revealed the seamy
side of urban economic affluence in Mexico during the post-World War II years [1]. Changing tastes and other factors doomed the cabaretera to a short life span, little more than five years, and by 1956 it had more or less disappeared.

The plot of Aventurera, such as it is, concerns the character Elena (Ninon Sevilla) and her attempts to go straight after being forced into life as a prostitute and cabaret dancer by an evil bordello madam. Plot twists proceed fast and furious and the viewer can be forgiven for having difficulty keeping up with all the goings-on. But these are smoothed out by the phantasmagoric dance numbers which feature a high-energy Ninon at her most beguiling, never more so so than in the surrealist Arabian nights number, the over-the–top glory of which would do Busby Berkeley proud.

Aventurera was re-released in the late 1990s to much acclaim, and today enjoys a considerable cult following, mostly for its camp elements. But even so, after seven decades the film holds up exceptionally well, but more to the point holds up well when considered against the American films noirs of the period. And ultimately, even with all the talent in front of and behind the camera, this is Ninon Sevilla’s film start to finish.

Echoes of
cabaretera can been seen even today in our current pop culture, most prominently in the immensely popular Mexican telenovelas. There was no American equivalent of cabaretera, though the closest is probably Gilda, and, strangely, in its more tenuous way, Casablanca. One quibble: the Facets DVD includes an informative introduction by film historian Michael Connelly, but a film as significant as Aventurera seems to scream out for real-time commentary as well as other extras. Perhaps Criterion can be persuaded to release an all-the-trimmings version in the future. Still, even in its present incarnation, a wild ride, and a fun movie.

[1] Aventurera has also been cited for its proto-feminist elements. The strong-willed Elena refuses to bend to the dictates of a patriarchal system; she resists the machinations of high-handed would be masters, be they a kindly, albeit clueless, husband, or a ruthless gangster, and ultimately her independent spirit prevails. There’s also the character of Rosaura, who, despite the unsavory nature of her enterprise, is a capable and successful businesswoman.

Further reading

Las reinas del trópico: María Antonieta Pons, Meche Barba, Amalia Aguilar, Ninón Sevilla, Rosa Carmina, by Fernando Muñoz Castillo. [México, D.F.] : Grupo Azabache, 1993. "Se termino de imprimir en julio de 1993 en Offset 70, S.A. de C.V., Victor Hugo 99, Mexico,03300, D.F."

Joanne Hershfield, Mexican Cinema/Mexican Woman, 1940-1950, University of Arizona Press, 1996.

Paula Barreiro Posada, ''The Only Defense is Excess: Translating and Surpassing Hollywood's Conventions to Establish a Relevant Mexican Cinema,” Anagramas Rumbos Sentidos Comunicación, v9 n18, Jan./June 2011.


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