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Morelia Film Fest Day Two: Mexico by Train, More Delicious Food and Weitz's A Better Life

by Meredith Brody
October 18, 2011 8:00 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood


Day Two of the Morelia International Film Festival in Patzcuaro, Mexico brings a city tour, train ride and more movies. Meredith Brody reports:

Today I’ve been told we can sleep in until lunch, and afterwards we’ll be transported to Morelia by train. Or we can join Jim Ramey in a tour of Patzcuaro, which is one of the 100 Historic World Treasure Cities named by the United Nations. Having never been in Michoacán before, of course I opt for the latter, even though there’s a somewhat daunting meeting time of 8:30.
Thompson on Hollywood

I am usually early – it’s my curse – and I know, fatalistically, that I will probably be alone when I arrive at the Hotel Posada Basilica on the dot. I should pause and explore the tempting small handicrafts market on the grounds of the impressive Basilica of Nuestra Señora de la Salud, even though I have not managed to run across a bank machine since my arrival last night.

But no, Dennis DeLaRoca is already in the beautiful courtyard, which overlooks a vista of terracotta-tiled roofs as touching and evocative as the famed rooftops of Paris. He tells me that Posada was once a private house and is now being run as a small hotel by a daughter, whose siblings would prefer that she sells the place.
After a few minutes, we discover that our impresario Jim is seated at a table inside with Thierry Frémaux and Maelle Arnaud, awaiting breakfast. We join them for coffee, and, as an hour passes, some quesadillas, which we share around the table. Michael Nyman tells us he’s already breakfasted at 7, but his rule is to eat food when it’s offered because you never know when you’re going to eat again. He shares a brief video he just shot of some musicians in the market – he gave them some money, “which means that already we’ve both had a good day.”

Eventually the smallish tour contingent piles into a van and we set out for our first stop, Tzinzuntzan, once the capital, until conquered by the Spanish in 1520. On this glorious, cloudless day we visit the town’s premier archeological site, on a hill overlooking the town and Lake Patzcuaro. There are five impressive enormous circular pyramids, in varying states of preservation and restoration, that look something like earth and land art by such modern artists as Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer.

Afterwards we visit Tzinzunzan’s other main attraction, the former monastery complex of San Francisco, originally built in the 16th century, with expansive grounds lined with olive trees. Inside an artfully-arranged restored kitchen, we’re treated to membrillo and figs. There are a few old paintings, one of which features loinclothed holy men with their arms held up in such a way that it looks like they’re taking photographs, as we’ve been doing with abandon.

Our next stop is the astonishing lakeside home of Vladmira Klumpar, the glass artist and longtime friend of the festival (it seems that Jim and Daniela got engaged during a visit there). It combines aspects of colonial style and modernity. We’re offered multiple shots of mescal, complete with the requisite panoply of lime wedges and salt, but I opt for fresh lemonade, as I don’t think it’s 11am yet.

As we wander the grounds, Nyman tells me he has “four or five houses – in London, the South of France, and Mexico City – but maybe I should consolidate and have one amazing house.” My heart bleeds borscht for him.

Back in the van, we’re taken to a quite gorgeous new small hotel, the Hacienda Ucazanaztacua, with a big terrace again overlooking Lake Patzcuaro. There’s an impossibly long table set for lunch, as other festival guests arrive to join our crew. We’re treated to a simple but excellent meal of grilled chicken and roasted pork in a citrus marinade, both cooked over charcoal and tasting more like chicken and pig than the denatured commercial meat that most of us are used to.

A tour of the hotel reveals six luxurious guest rooms, five of which have extraordinary views. They all have massive glamorous bathrooms, most with enormous tubs overlooking the manicured grounds and the lake.

In a trice we’re led to an open boat, cheerfully painted in bright yellow and blue, and we chug across the lake towards an island where we’re joined by a young group of musicians who play and sing for us as we pass other islands, including Janitzio, whose hillside town looks eerily like Capri, topped with a looming, massive modernist statue of Jose Maria Morelos, a hero of Mexican independence.

On the boat, Tom Luddy tells me that part of the genius of the Morelia Festival are moments like these, when attendees get to mingle and connect and talk before the relentless film schedule begins. “That’s why we start Telluride slowly, with filmmaker’s dinners and the patron’s brunch and the Feed in town. Sometimes film festivals are at their best when they’re not showing film.”

Once docked, we speed off in multiple vans to what for me is the highlight of two days filled with excitement and beauty: we’re to ride a private train, the Kansas City Southern de Mexico, from Patzcuaro to Morelia, about 40 miles away. I would already be blown away by the experience – I adore trains – even if we weren’t told that public railway travel in Mexico was ended by the government in 1995, and that railways in Mexico are reserved for cargo.

There’s a bar car with plush armchairs lining the car, a dining car with booths, a kitchen car topped with a glass-domed observation area also lined with booths, and another car with sleeping rooms that all prove to be locked when I explore. The staff is a bit fuzzy on the original age of the restored cars – I’m told both twenties and thirties – but I’m deliriously happy just looking out the screen-shaped windows at the landscape movie unreeling before me over nearly two hours. To gild the lily, we’re served champagne and a number of antojitos.

I discover almost too late that cocktails are being served in the bar car, but I manage to consume most of a lightly-rummed pina colada that tastes like the world’s best coconut milkshake before we’re detrained, envanned, and driven to our hotels.

I’m staying at Los Juaninos, an impressive colonial establishment right across the square from the baroque two-towered Morelia Cathedral. My room is windowless, but its beamed ceilings must be 16 feet high. I set off in search of my pass, which leads me to a new hotel called the Casa Grande (in a historic building, of course), two picturesque squares away, where festival director Daniela Michel is preparing for the night’s festivities.

My invitation specifies “cocktail attire” – I’m glad I threw a couple of skirts into the bag, though I wish I’d brought either one of the two dresses I never actually wore in either Telluride or Toronto. I spend most of the scant hour I have before the opening talking to the front desk about the lack of WiFi in my room. I’m joined briefly by Steve Uljaki, film producer and head of the Loyola Marymount Film and Television School in Los Angeles, who tells the clerk that he, too, hasn’t had WiFi since he arrived. Without missing a beat, the young man turns to me after Steve leaves and says “But, madame, you’re the only person in the hotel who has complained.”

The arrival at opening night is, well, welcome to my nightmare: for some unknown reason, I’m sent along the elevated red carpet, with Kim Hendrickson, Executive Producer of the Criterion Collection, in front of a phalanx of Day-of-the-Locust photographers, who shout at us to stop and wave. I’m in a red t-shirt from Target, old black skirt, and flat black boots. Not only am I not dressed in labels and professionally made-up and coiffed, I’m not even doing the reputation of the Fourth Estate any favors. Kim, a beautiful blonde, is much better dressed, but similarly horrified. We pause for one dreadful unforgettable moment before rushing in to the auditorium and thankfully gaining our seats.

Less thankfully, I realize my stumble along the red carpet was televised on the big screen in the auditorium. Luckily the room is nowhere near full.

I’m sitting between Steve Ujlaki, with artist/author Jackie Mancuso, and producer Deborah Bach and her husband David. When Czar of Noir Eddie Muller arrives, in town to introduce Imaginary Mexico, a three-film series of American film noirs set in Mexico (although not shot there), we open up a seat for him between me and David. In a trice they find out that they both attended the same high school in San Francisco, though not at the same time.

Eddie is brought headphones for simultaneous translation of the introductory speeches. I think that I should have a pair, too, and that turns into a cascade of requests from my seatmates, so the pretty young girl promises to bring us back five sets.

By the time I realize she’s never coming back, it’s too late: the speeches have begun, from, among others, President of the Morelia Film Festival Alejandro Ramirez Magaña, Director Daniela Michel, and, most stirringly, from Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas Batél, whose long and poetic speech, a call to arms favoring the arts over bullets, I happily found later excerpted online. Even without much Spanish, I recognized its incantory ending, repeated the word “Cantamos” (let us sing) as poetry, not knowing it was by Uruguayan poet Mario Benedetti: “Por que cantamos?”

It was very interesting watching A Better Life, by Chris Weitz (grandson of famed Hollywood agent Paul Kohner – born in what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire and is now Czechoslovakia – and Lupita Tovar, born in Oaxaca, Mexico, and also the son of Susan Kohner and John Weitz), about the attempt of an undocumented Mexican day laborer to make a better life for his son in Los Angeles, with a largely Mexican audience.

The story – he saves up to buy a truck for his gardening route, which is stolen on the first day he uses it – resonates with that of Bicycle Thief, but is set in various areas of Los Angeles and cities east (Whittier, Pico Rivera) that are largely unknown to the non-immigrant population. I feared that the ending would feel patronizing to the audience, but no, there were audible tears and then cheers from the audience.

I asked Chris Weitz afterwards where the rodeo in the film was held, with its amazing display of horsemanship – Pico Rivera, he said. (I thought it was a fantasy, but no, it was the real thing, he told me.) I added it to my list of things to do when I’m next in LA. We discussed Thom Andersen’s film Los Angeles Plays Itself, which he has a copy of – I urged him to watch it, as his film would fit right in. I add that his wife, Cuban-Mexican actress Mercedes Martinez, is perhaps the most stunning woman I have ever seen, full stop.

Afterwards we find our more-than-competent handler, Chloe Roddick, who I nickname TTG – tall, thin, and gorgeous – who somehow gets us in a festival van and on to a buffet dinner in the Cultural Center. There is tasty stewed rabbit and a very corny posole with numerous accoutrements: thick crema, chopped onions and chili, salsas. I spy Steve Seid of the PFA and repeat my charge: does he have a copy of The Fool Killer for the Fimoteca Unam? Yes, he says, he emailed them back about a month ago – they have a 16mm copy.

I look in on the downstairs party with Denis DeLaRoca, but it’s my idea of hell – bright lights, loud music, and 1500 people I don’t know. Denis kindly walks me back towards my hotel, helpfully detouring so we pass the 5-cinema Cinépolis Morelia (where much of the festival unspools), less helpfully telling me so many different routes to get there that my head spins. I drop him off at his hotel and continue on the two or three blocks to Los Juaninos. I was invisible while walking with Denis, but alone I suddenly have become extremely attractive, it seems, even in my flat boots. Most people are just asking if I need a taxi, but some have other things in mind. All I want is to sleep soundly so I can have a full day of festival tomorrow, so I decline their offers, cheerfully. I’d rather watch Brief Encounter, it seems, than have one.

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