La sombra del caudillo and CensorshipBy: Rafael Aviña
With the arrival of Carlos Salinas de Gortari to the presidency, the rules of censorship changed and made it possible to touch on political issues that were seldom addressed in an open manner in Mexican cinema. Thus, in his six-year term as president, Rojo amanecer (1989), the first industry-sponsored film about the Tlatelolco massacre in 1968 was produced. It also brought a poorly executed premiere for La sombra del caudillo (1960), directed by Julio Bracho, who monopolized and censored the Mexican army for three decades. The cursed film par excellence, described as “the first great film made by Mexican cinema” by writer José Revueltas after a private screening at Versalles in 1960, was finally shown in the Gabriel Figueroa theatre (without any advertising), on October 25, 1990.
When the National Prize for Literature was awarded to Martín Luis Guzmán, the STYM (Union of Film Production Workers in Mexico by its acronym in Spanish) decided to adapt his homonymous novel to the screen with a successful screening at the Karlovy Vary Festival, where La sombra del caudillo won two awards. Its problems would begin shortly after. The film crudely portrayed the behavior of those in power, a theme that remains relevant to this day; replace the revolutionary generals for neoliberal graduates or doctors, for example, and everything remains the same. There are still betrayals, murder and hypocrisy reigning in the search for status and fortune. At first, Generals Olachea and Treviño were blamed for being responsible for the ban, but in 1990, Olachea clarified that the censorship came from the political power and, specifically, from the then Secretary of the Interior, Gustavo Díaz Ordaz.
Julio Bracho himself adapted the work of Martín Luis Guzmán on the presidential successions of the periods 1920-1924 and 1924-1928, and the figures of Álvaro Obregón, Plutarco Elías Calles, and Francisco Serrano, without imagining that the film would be confiscated and kept by inquisitive military maneuvers. The author, a tireless writer and journalist, was a Maderista and Villista, fought against Victoriano Huerta, and was later imprisoned in 1914 by order of Venustiano Carranza. The novel was published in 1929 and made references to a presidential succession that culminated in the murder of one of the candidates.
Bracho had just finished filming Cada quien su vida (1959), inspired by the work of Luis G. Basurto, with Ana Luisa Peluffo, and Kitty de Hoyos, this film would also suffer some cuts. La sombra del caudillo had the collaboration of the National Defense, the Chamber of Deputies and the Ministry of the Interior, and the actors did not charge a penny. In fact, it is a story close to the political thrillers by Costa Gavras (Z, State of Siege), which maintains coherent and remarkable internal logic and closes with a brutal sequence where a group of characters are executed under “ley fuga”.
The Mexican Secretary of War and Navy, General Ignacio Aguirre (Tito Junco), a prostitutes and decent young lady enthusiast, is encouraged by the party leader Emilio Oliver (Carlos López Moctezuma) and by his “conscience”, the Axcana friend (Tomás Perrín), an intellectual with socialist ideas, to run for president. However, the Caudillo in power (Miguel Ángel Férriz), decides to support the Secretary of Interior, General Hilario Jiménez (Ignacio López Tarso). Aguirre makes his candidacy public as he also feels supported by the army, although he knows that this will annoy the Caudillo.
Here, the characters are not revolutionary archetypes, but incarnations of real figures in Mexican history. The Caudillo, for example, is a combination of Elías Calles and Obregon, the latter in particular. It’s important to remember that he favored the candidacy of Plutarco Elías Calles over the aspirations of Adolfo de la Huerta, in 1923. Aguirre plays De la Huerta himself and Generals Arnulfo R. Gómez and Francisco R. Serrano, who showed up as candidates before the re-election de Obregón in 1927. Gómez was shot and Serrano murdered in Huitzilac, Morelos, as is Aguirre in the film. The film is a synthesis of management in the Mexican political system: the struggles for power, alliances between parties and leaders, betrayals, and revenge. The military is always accompanied by alcohol or arrogant assassins; governors made rich while the people starve; holes and pamphlet speeches in a violent Chamber of Deputies.
La sombra del caudillo contributes crushing phrases such as: “In politics nothing is appreciated because nothing is given”, “[Early] Rising is the only verb Mexican politics can conjugate.” It also closes with that magnificent sequence of the murder of Aguirre and his friends. Axcana, the only survivor, represents the whole revolutionary spirit, hurt but incorruptible, brave, and supportive. In 1990, the screening of La sombra del caudillo and Rojo amanecer was a way to showcase modern Salinista politics and the exposure of untouchable legends of the national political system.