Cascabel, Another Key to Undersanding “Echeverrism”By: Rafael Aviña
President Luis Echeverría‘s time in office (1970-1976) was coming to an end. The motto of his six-year term –”Onwards and Upwards”– was a perfect fit for the cinematic renewal undertaken by the State at the time, whose object was to integrate production means and launch a handful of young directors to stardom. However, by 1976 it was evident that for this government, the cinematographic industry would always be a political toy, one that would work primarily for personal gain, rather than as a transformative social movement.
It was in the context of this six-year period that filmmakers like Felipe Cazals, Arturo Ripstein, Gabriel Retes, José Estrada, Raúl Araiza and Jaime Humberto Hermosillo, among others, would rise to fame. “Echeverrism” ended with a film that clearly embodied the contradictions of the regime: Cascabel. The first film directed by the TV and theatre director Raúl Araiza and written by Araiza himself alongside Antonio Monsell and Jorge Patiño, can be considered emblematic of the period that on one hand transformed cinema but, at the same time, laid the foundations of its eventual decline as an industry. The history of an impetuous new filmmaker who was entrusted with directing a documentary about the Lacandon jungle and its inhabitants, became a true reflection of Echerraristic film policy: criticism of the system; commercial impact; sensationalism; an edifying message and, at the same time, an honest social denunciation.
Produced by the now defunct Conacine and Dasa Films, Cascabel was highly successful at the time, winning an Ariel for Best First Film for Araiza and Best Editing for Reynaldo P. Portillo, as well as Diosas de Plata for Best Film, Best Directing and Best Screenplay. “It creeps slowly through the city and the jungle. Its poison is deadly. Its fury has no motive and no respect…” read the publicity for a film that remained top of the box office for six weeks from its premiere on September 1 1977 at the Latino cinema, where it came up against commercial films like Aeropuerto 77, Carnalidad, Ultimátum nuclear and El automóvil asesino. In the film, Araiza considers the idea of a film within a film as a way to generate a controversial discussion about government corruption, through a mix of documentary and fiction both on and off screen.
The films protagonist, played by the extraordinary Sergio Jiménez, is Alfredo Castro (Araiza’s alter ego) who is named after the director Alfredo Gurrola according to statements made by one of the screenwriters, Jorge Patiño. Castro is recommended to direct a documentary that aims to show “the help and support” that the State offers to Lacandon indigenous people in Chiapas. However, when he arrives, he is confronted with government deception and corruption, as well as rural under-development and alienation.
In parallel, Araiza focuses on Castro’s vicissitudes via documentary scenes that he films, with interviews with students from the Political and Social Sciences, Economics and Law departments at the UNAM University, as well as will people on the street and political figures like Herberto Castillo, among others. The result is a kind of collage in the style of the best contemporaneous social works of the time made by the CUEC de la UNAM film school (now the Escuela Nacional de Artes Cinematográficas), films like: El cambio (1971, Alfredo Joskowicz); Chihuahua, un pueblo en lucha (Taller de Cine Octubre, 1974) or Esa mi Irene (1975, Marco López Negrete). This was thanks to Arazia’s indisputable technical expertise and his strong direction of actors, which helped him make some of the best soap operas in history, like: La tormenta (1967); Los caudillos (1968) and El carruaje (1972).
The climate of criticism that is maintained throughout the film, right up to its dramatic climax (a kind of sinister allegory about power that destroys ideas), is surprising. Equally surprising are some of the assertions that the film makes about the PRI (the hegemonic political party of the time): “The government has no shame” and “Freedom of expression? Don’t be naïve” comments Raúl Ramírez in his role as Licenciado Gómez Rul, Alfredo’s contractor and part of the Ministry of the Interior, who also states: “You have to move between half-truths and half-lies”. Towards the end of the film, this leads Castro to resign from directing the documentary, after he plans to film the wife of the Lancandon´s leader giving birth, as a way to confront his tragic destiny.
Shortly after making the film, Raúl Araiza would make one of the best films about machismo and the crisis of the couple in Mexico: En la trampa (1978), which includes a series of notable naturalistic performances that would consolidate the director´s fame. After making films like Fuego en el mar (1979) and Lagunilla mi barrio (1980) he would go on to opt for easier films. Cascabel, with its locations in Tenejapa, San Juan Chamula, Chiapas, the Condesa building in Mazatlán street, the National Art Museum (MUNAL) and Ciudad Universitaria, is an honest, original, sensitive and critical portrait. The film ends with one more ironic, official event, where parts of the official documentary about Chiapas are projected in the style of directors and photographers like Demetrio and Ángel Bilbatúa, with music by Pablo Moncayo, Huapango and the splendid voice of Jorge Zúñiga. At the same time, enlarged photos of the faces of the Lacandon indigenous people are shown as a way to open a conversation about poverty and social abandonment within the luxurious event.