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If Juárez had not died…

Benito Juárez (March 21, 1806 - July 18, 1872) is an indisputable figure in the history of his country, whose portrait on the screen is closer to those extinct monographs or stamps on stationery than to the stark vision of his time and circumstances. In Mexicanos al grito de guerra (1943) by Álvaro Gálvez y Fuentes and Ismael Rodríguez —a tale of unbridled patriotic excesses, starring Pedro Infante as a lieutenant that enlists in the army to defend México from the French attack— Miguel Inclán brings President Benito Juárez to life for a small cameo. 

El joven Juárez (1954, dir. Emilio Gómez Muriel) | FOTO: Canal 22

In 1954, Emilio Gómez Muriel directed El joven Juárez, centered on the youth of the "Benemérito de Las Américas," through several vignettes about his pre-presidential years, starring Humberto Almazán and María Elena Marqués as Margarita Maza de Juárez. In the early years of the 19th century, Benito, from Oaxaca and of Zapotec ancestry, became an orphan. He enjoyed playing the flute and herding sheep. As a young man, he worked in the house of the De la Maza family, where his sister Josefa was a servant (Elsa Cárdenas). There, he fell in love with Margarita, who teaches him Spanish. He entered the Seminary but did not get along well with the priests. Then, he joined the Liberal Party. Later, he became a lawyer, defended indigenous people, was elected deputy, and took Margarita's hand. It is a sort of didactic historical telenovela with moments halfway between patriotic and unintentional humor, like when Juárez kisses the Mexican flag when the insurgent army enters Oaxaca.

In a way, Felipe Cazals' Aquellos años (1972) picks up where El joven Juárez left off. It covers from 1857 to 1867, known as the nationalist decade. During that time, Juarez fought against the conservatives who had sent someone from France to govern them. Then he fought against the French, who, supported by Maximilian, lost the Battle of Puebla on May 5. Jorge Martinez de Hoyos played Juarez, and the beautiful Helena Rojo played Empress Charlotte. In 1972, José Carlos Ruiz played a great rendition of Juárez in the historical telenovela El carruaje written by Carlos Enrique Taboada and Antonio Monsell and directed by Raúl Araiza and Ernesto Alonso.

Aquellos años (1972, dir. Felipe Cazals)

An interesting fact is that in 1939, Hollywood made a biopic about Juárez directed by William Dieterle, where Emperor Maximilian (Brian Aherne) arrives in Mexico to establish an imperial government and comes across Benito Juarez (Paul Muni) and the opposition. Maximilian is an idealist who has fallen victim to Napoleon III’s wittiness (Claude Rains). The emperor believes in the benefits of the monarchical system, while Juarez fights for a Republic. When France withdraws its support, Empress Charlotte (Bette Davis) travels to beg for Napoleon III’s help.

Further back, Miguel Contreras Torres made Juarez and Maximilian (La caída del imperio) (1933) and some films about Charlotte: La paloma (1937), The Mad Empress (1939), and Caballería del imperio (1942), starring his wife Medea de Novara, all of which are highly dialogical outbursts with characters aware of their patriotic corollary.

In Juarez and Maximilian, Maximilian I (Enrique Herrera) and his wife Charlotte are named emperors of Mexico by Napoleon III, deluded into thinking that the Mexican nation awaited them gladly. They soon realized the truth when they learned that President Juarez (Froylan B. Tenes) was leading the resistance against the empire. The best is the scene in which Maximilian discovers a naked woman bathing in a waterfall next to the Borda Garden in Cuernavaca (the Salto de San Antón) and strokes his beard with pleasure. In La Paloma, Maximilian is killed in Querétaro, along with General officers Miguel Miramón and Tomás Mejía, on June 19, 1867. The best: the appearances of a very young Arturo de Córdova as a Juarista captain and Josefina Escobedo as Guadalupe "La Chinaca."The Mad Empress (1939, dir. Miguel Contreras Torres)

The Mad Empress (1939, dir. Miguel Contreras Torres)

The Mad Empress, an American production, is a carbon copy of La Paloma with Hollywood actors: Napoleon III (Guy Bates Post), Maximilian and Charlotte (Conrad Nagel and Medeade Novara), and Jason Robards as Benito Juarez. Finally, Caballería del imperio narrates the high points of Juárez's dispute against Maximilian (René Cardona). There, a Juarista colonel (Julián Soler) frees Empress Charlotte and falls in love with her, although she was actually a double: Baroness Lea (soprano Miliza Korjus). It is a romantic tale with unintentional humor, notable for Contreras Torres' nationalistic desires.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Guita Schyfter's Huérfanos (2014), which takes on enormous importance for its accurate everyday treatment, its superb visual work, and its sensitivity and sobriety in dealing with the life of a character who usually appears in the background: Melchor Ocampo, played by Rafael Sánchez Navarro, in one of his best and most measured works for the screen. It is a film that flows and moves smoothly and at a good pace despite its 155 minutes, its period costumes, its words, and verbal idioms that try to reproduce the national speech of the mid-nineteenth century, which usually gives the idea that all Mexican historical cinema is boring and stiff. The next great thing about the film is the intelligent and effective mise-en-scene, as it keeps up with the modern and eye-catching aesthetic treatment given to the images by cinematographer (and director) Sebastián Hiriart.

And finally, the beautiful locations: Tlaxcala, Hidalgo, Michoacán, the efficient histrionic work, and the historical fidelity with which it approaches several of the episodes centered on the childhood, youth, and maturity of the lawyer, scientist, and liberal politician from Michoacán, who was governor of his state and was killed in 1861, fighting alongside Benito Juárez, played by Fernando Becerril. It is the story of a man traumatized by his bastard origins, an orphan like the entire nation, in a time of hatred, uncertainty, and otherworldly decisions.