Emilio "El Indio" Fernández: 1904-1986: Film Director Biography
Emilio "El Indio" Fernández has been called the father of Mexican Cinema. From his directorial debut in 1941 to his work as an actor in the 1960s and 1970s, he became a national symbol, struggling against the marginalization of Mexico's native population. "His films are moving …," wrote Julia Tuñón in Mexican Cinema, "because they address the difficulties of finding a place, and they are sincere because that struggle is the director's own." As his work shaped the development of film in his own country, it also brought international recognition to Mexican films. "A man of complex personality, withdrawn, and occasionally violent," wrote Carl J. Mora in Mexican Cinema, "Fernández was to be the founder of a 'Mexican school' that achieved international recognition in the late 1940s and 1950s."
Fernández was born in El Seco, Mexico in 1904, and received the nickname "El Indio" because of his mixed parentage of Mexican and Indian. He received a 20-year prison sentence for taking part in the Huerta rebellion in 1923, but he escaped and immigrated to the United States. During the 1920s and early 1930s, he lived in Hollywood, digging ditches and playing bit parts in movies. Living away from Mexico imbued Fernández with a deep love of his country, a feeling that he would later insert into his movies. "I was so nostalgic for Mexico," he told Tuñón, "that I would travel … to the frontier simply to see the desolation of the desert. I cried when I saw the Mexican side … I felt that I was missing half of my soul." In 1933 he returned home after receiving amnesty.
In 1934 Fernández received his first lead role in Janitzio. Because of his Indian features and athletic build, he was frequently cast as revolutionaries, bandits, and Mexican cowboys. In 1941 he directed La Isla de la Pasión, his first feature. "The debut of … Fernández was, in hindsight," Mora wrote, "perhaps the most significant event of the year." He would work closely with cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa to create a beautiful portrait of the natural Mexican landscape. "Fernández maintained that his purpose as a filmmaker," wrote Joanne Hershfield in Mexico's Cinema, "was to neutralize Hollywood's influence and to dramatize Mexico's past and present in order to portray what he believed was an authentic national identity."
Although Fernández's ultimate goal was to create a Mexican cinema, he imported many techniques from abroad. He had become familiar with the work of Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein while staying in Hollywood, and admired the unfinished Que Viva México! "This is what I learned," Fernández told Tuñón of his experience watching Eisenstein work. "The pain of the people, the land, the strike, the struggle for freedom and social justice. It was wonderful!" He was also familiar with Fred Zinneman's Redes, a film that likewise combined drama and ideology.
Fernández drew from these methods to dramatize his concerns for Mexico's native Indian population. "In all of Fernandez's films, race and class appear to be synonymous," wrote Hershfield. "Indians are at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder." The Indianism movement of the 1930s, a movement that considered the native population as the ultimate representatives of Mexicaness, and Fernandez's own mixed parentage, also influenced his approach. "He elevated the Indians to mythic stature," wrote Hershfield, "romanticized their lives, and … linked the meaning of lo mexicano visually and narratively to Mexico's indigenous roots."
Fernández worked quickly during the 1940s, and released a string of well-received films including María Candelaria, La Perla, and Río Escondido. On La Perla, he received support from author John Steinbeck, and two versions of the film—one in Spanish, one in English called The Pearl—were completed. Flor Silvestre represented the first of many collaborative efforts between Fernández, cinematographer Figueroa, screenwriter Mauricio Magdaleno, and actors Dolores del Río and Pedro Armendáriz. "This was the so-called 'golden age' of the Mexican cinema," Tuñón wrote, "the era in which national films were distributed throughout Latin America. … Fernández's films benefited from this success but also, to a large degree, created it."
Fernández received his greatest acclaim as a director with María Candelaria in 1943. "This is a polished, smoothly told film," Bob Mastrangelo noted in All Movie Guide, "that reflects a director who has mastered studio storytelling at its finest." María Candelaria relates the tale of a young Indian girl who has been shunned by the local townspeople because her mother posed for a nude painting in her youth. "It remains a classic of the Mexican cinema," Mora wrote, "and the work that created an international following for 'El Indio.'" Although some criticized the film for presenting a "tourist" view of Mexico, Mora noted, "the film retains a simplicity and lyrical beauty that can still be appreciated over thirty-five years later." María Candelaria was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1946 and won the Grand Prix.
Fernández directed 17 films between 1950 and 1956, ceased directing during the late 1950s, and continued to make films sporadically through the 1970s. Critics complained, however, that his later work lacked the power of his best films of the 1940s. "When he began to have difficulty finding financial backers and accepted commissioned work," Tuñón noted, "his films escaped from the auteurist mould of his better moments."
Throughout Fernández' career, his colorful and volatile personality grew to mythic proportions. "We have to understand that Emilio Fernández," wrote Tuñón, "constructed his life with the same passion as he developed the characters of his films." Because of his reputation as violent, many directors cast him in the roles of brutal villains. Fernández served a six-month prison sentence after killing a farm laborer during an argument in 1976, and was "notorious in cinematic circles," wrote Hal Erickson in All Music Guide, "as the only prominent director who ever actually shot a film critic." Tuñón concludes, "in sum, we have to understand that he was a character worthy of his own films."
Fernández remained in demand as an actor during the 1960s and 1970s, and received parts in Sam Peck-inpah's The Wild Bunch and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and John Huston's adaptations of Night of the Iguana and Under the Volcano. Over the course of his career, Fernández directed 42 films, received 16 international prizes, and won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 1946. Fernádez died on August 6, 1986, in his beloved Mexico City. His films remain beautiful portraits of the Mexican landscape and are synonymous with Mexico's golden age of film. "Fernández's films transcended frontiers," noted Tuñón. "They are considered representative of a hypothetical Mexican cinema school, which was, in fact, what he aspired to."
La isla de la pasión, 1941.
Soypuro mexicano, 1942.
Flor silverstre, 1943.
María Candelaria, 1943.
La Perla, 1947.
Río Escondido, 1947.
Del odio nació el amor, 1949.
Nostros dos, 1955.
El impostor, 1958.
La Choca, 1974.
Zona roja, 1975.
Hershfield, Joanne, and David R. Maciel, editors, Mexico's Cinema: A Century of Film and Filmmakers, Scholarly Resources, 1999, p. 87.
Mora, Carl J., Mexican Cinema: Reflections of a Society 1896-1980, University of California, 1982, p. 58, 65.
Paranaguá, Paulo Antonio, editor, Mexican Cinema, British Film Institute, 1995, pp. 179-182, 184, 191.
"Emilio Fernandez," All Movie Guide, www.allmov ie.com (May 3, 2003).
"Emilio Fernandez," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC. (June 4, 2003).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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