I’ve never had a more seductive, mysterious, and glamorous introduction to a film festival. Not the tedious travel from Northern California to Mexico City in a couple of cramped and airless metal tubes, not the long, long taxi ride in the rainy dark night to the boutique hotel cleverly built so one can hear noise in one’s room from both the interior patio on one side and the street on the other (churlish to complain, but there it is, a girl’s gotta sleep).
No, the seduction began after waking up to a lovely buffet breakfast (extraordinary mango and guava, Mexican baked goods much better than those found in US panaderias, excellent coffee) and getting in a Morelia Festival van bound for Patzcuaro, a four-hour drive through constantly-changing Mexican countryside.
I already knew the journalist Sheerly Avni from California, but four hours was enough time to get to know my fellow travelers a bit: Yrene Ramey, mother of Fest director Daniela Michel’s husband Jim Ramey, and her friend Roberta, from Italy, who she met 50 years ago as an exchange student; Deborah Dobson Bach, a longtime associate of producer Michael Fitzgerald, and currently producing a documentary about a Mexican artist named Santos with Jim Ramey; Vladimira Klumpar, a Czech glass artist with a home on Lake Patzcuaro and a long association with the Festival; and David Antón, a famed Mexican production designer and producer.
We pulled up to the Posada Basilica in the magical town of Patzcuaro at 4:30pm, where a lavish lunch was in progress. We spied Thierry Frémaux, director of the Cannes Film Festival; Chris Weitz, director of A Better Life, set to open the festival in Morelia the following night; Maelle Arnaud, programmer of the Lumière Festival; Robert Koehler, Variety critic; Michael Nyman, film composer and director; Ximena Hiriart Schyffter, Mexican film producer; and Abu Dhabi Film Festival programmer Denis DeLaRoca, among others.
Sheerly and I join a table with JoséManuel Garcia Ortega, head of the Filmoteca Unam (the National Autonomous University of Mexico), the world-famous film archive in Mexico City. He tells us that the Fimoteca Unam had restored footage from the turn of the century to 1917 for La Historia en la Mirada, aka History in the Eyes, composed of newly-restored footage from before the Mexican revolution, shot by the Alva brothers. It sounds right up my alley, and I add it to my festival must-see list. We share a lunch of assorted appetizers, including tiny fish fried crisp as potato chips, a local soup called tarasca that inspired what we call tortilla soup, and chicken-and-huitlacoche enchiladas in a creamy sauce. José Ortega’s colleague Ximena Perugo from the Filmoteca tells us that they’re also the source of tonight’s film The Woman of the Port (1934), to be shown in the newly-restored Emperador Caltzontzin Theater. I’ve seen the poster for the film, featuring its star Andrea Palma in a slinky black-satin-and-lace gown, leaning against a street corner, cigarette dangling from her mouth. I’m hooked.
Afterwards we’re shown to our hotels: I’m in the Hotel Casa del Refugio, whose religious theme – my room key is attached to a large iron cross, and each room is identified with a painting of a different saint – gives this Jewish girl a mild frisson. Its building dates from the 18th century, but my room has better WiFi than in the chic boutique hotel of the night before.
I walk across a couple of beautiful squares in the dusk to attend opening night, which includes ceremonial speeches in Spanish, which I only understand bits of, and a short peppy film about the just-completed restoration of the 1936 theater (built in a 16th century monastery), featuring the decorations and murals around us, and plush seats we’re sitting in. Then we’re treated to a rather astonishing and beautiful series of folkloric dances that start at the back of the theater and progress down the aisles to the stage, accompanied by a deafeningly loud Mexican brass band.
The Woman of the Port, based on a novel by de Maupassant, and directed by an expatriate Russian, Arcady Boytler, is lushly shot, satisfyingly melodramatic and features a loony and disturbing last-reel twist that I didn’t see coming.
Afterwards we meet up with Telluride Film Festival director Tom Luddy, who flew in that day on a private plane from San Francisco to Morelia and a helicopter from Morelia to Patzcuaro, and we walk under whitewashed colonial arcades lit with iron lanterns to a party at the mysterious House of 11 Patios, where we drink pineapple liqueur cocktails and feast on antojitos while more folkloric dancers clack on the patio wearing thin wooden sandals. I tell Michael Nyman that Mexican brass bands always remind me of German oompah music and he retorts, sarcastically, “Thanks. I have to score a movie I’ve shot here in Oaxaca, and now you’ve ruined it for me.”
I’ve just been insulted by one of my idols. I think it’s time to call it a night.