by Sergio de la Mora
Arturo Ripstein Rosen (born Mexico City, December 13, 1943) has one of the most interesting bodies of work. A third-generation Mexican Jew, he is the son of the late producer Alfredo Ripstein Jr. who began producing films in the 1940s until roughly his death in 2007, including El crimen del padre Amaro (The Crime of Father Amaro , 2002), El callejón de los milagros (Midaq Alley , 1995) as well as Principio y fin (The Beginning and the End , 1993) directed by his son Arturo. His mother Frieda Rosen was from El Paso, Texas.
His feature film debut as a director in the Mexican film industry was with Tiempo de morir (Time to Die , 1965), a western with a screenplay written by Gabriel García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes that critiques violent masculinity. Ripstein began filming at age twenty-one at a time when the Mexican film industry—which had been the dominant Spanish language cinema of the Americas in the 1940s and 1950s with an internationally recognized star system—veered into a sharp decline in the 1960s. The industry resisted renewing itself and was instead largely bogged down in low budget, tired genre films made by the same directors (since few directors were permitted into the Mexican film directors guild). In the sixties, as in the rest of the continent, Mexican film was nonetheless undergoing efforts at renovation through efforts like the film journal Nuevo Cine (1961-1962) that took the praxis of Luis Buñuel and the French new wave, as well as the Concurso de Cine Experimental (First Contest of Experimental Film) in 1965, and the opening of the first professional film school in Latin America, the CUEC (Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográfico / University Center for the Study of Cinematography) in 1963 belonging to the UNAM (National Autonomous University). This is the generation to which Arturo Ripstein belonged. He grew up in studios and learned about filmmaking by watching. It is often cited that Ripstein was Luis Buñuel’s assistant during the filming of The Exterminating Angel (1962). To Suzanne Jill Levine (the prolific English language translator of major Latin American novelists) he clarifies that he was Buñuel’s chauffeur. He is of course being humble as Buñuel was a teacher and mentor to the eighteen-year-old. He talks more about this experience at length in my interview with him published in Film Quarterly (“A Career in Perspective: An Interview With Arturo Ripstein,” Film Quarterly, 52(4), 1999: 2-11).
Since bursting on the international film festival circuit with El castillo de la pureza (The Castle of Purity , 1972), based on the real life story of a Mexico City man who kept his family locked up in their house to keep urban corruption away, to his brilliantly dark comic rendition of the Honeymoon Killers, Profundo carmesí (Deep Crimson , 1996), Ripstein circulated for three decades as the foremost contemporary Mexican auteur, the enfant terrible of his generation. He is probably the most well known director of his generation that includes Felipe Cazals, Jorge Fons, Jaime Humberto Hermosillo, and Paul Leduc. He has continued filming though at a less steady pace and the film festival screenings of his new films have taken a backseat to the work of younger generations of Mexican auteurs (Carlos Reygadas, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Julián Hernández, Nicolás Pereda).
Ripstein makes ferocious melodramas that expose and critique family, nation, religion, and patriarchy. He prefers sordid scenarios, tawdry enclosed spaces, loners, losers, obsessive-compulsive lovers drawn to the dark side. Confinement, intolerance, machismo, fatherhood and motherhood, gender and sexual non-conformity are among his recurrent subjects. A delicious dose of black humor runs through much of his work. He is drawn to the grotesque, the absurd and the paradoxical. His films lean toward a tremendista aesthetic consisting of exaggeration, crude scenarios, marginalized characters, and inexorably tragic endings. He is often critiqued for reveling in miserabilism of the poor and popular classes. Visually he is drawn to confined spaces, the family home, mirrors that highlight complex personalities; he is a master of the long take. His sets are sometimes baroque. He made a suicide trilogy in the 1990s that culminated with La reina de la noche (The Queen of the Night , 1994), prefaced as a “sentimental biography” of the ranchera music pioneer Lucha Reyes, called the Mexican Edith Piaf. His last film, Las razones del corazón (The Reasons of the Heart , 2011) is a loose rendition of Madame Bovary set in contemporary Mexico and shot in black and white about a housewife who is obsessively in love with a Cuban saxophone player.
Prolific at twenty-eight feature length films, including two feature documentaries and several short and medium-length documentaries (including a documentary on Luis Buñuel from 1971), as well as experimental films, Ripstein’s filmography does not include the scores of shorts he’s made for the Department of Education of the Mexican government as well as his work in commercial media that includes television soap operas and commercials, what he calls his bread and butter. I would divide his filmography into his first period (1965-1971), a period of apprenticeship in commercial filmmaking as well as independent and experimental cinema when he formed part of the film collective Cine Independiente de Mexico between 1969-1971. A second period (1972-1984), is characterized by his return to commercial filmmaking. A third period (1985-present) marks his collaboration with the screenwriter Paz Alicia Garciadiego. She has scripted every fiction feature film Ripstein has directed since El imperio de la fortuna (Realm of Fortune , 1985), one of their most haunting films. This June she received the prestigious award Medalla Salvador Toscano given by the Cineteca Nacional (National Cinematheque) in Mexico City for her work.
Of the films of his first period, El lugar sin límites (translated in English as Hell Has No Limits , Hell Without Limits , The Place Without Limits ) is one of his most memorable, notably for Roberto Cobo’s depiction of the tragic queen La Manuela. It is Ripstein’s iconic film and marks the first leading role Cobo had since starring as the trouble-making youth El Jaibo in Buñuel’s Los olvidados (1950). La Manuela (Roberto Cobo), an aging transvestite, runs a weathered brothel, with her daughter La Japonesita (Ana Martín). She is the product of a bet between the brothel Madame La Japonesa (Lucha Villa) and Don Alejo (Fernando Soler), the town’s major landowner and political head. (Soler is also a veteran actor of Mexican cinema; he personified the image of the urban middle-class Mexican patriarch.) If La Japonesa managed to get La Manuela to play the male role (penetrate) with her she would be the co-owner of the brothel along with La Manuela. The scheme succeeds. Both father and daughter desire Pancho (Gonzalo Vega) the brutish stud truck driver who has had violent altercations with La Manuela. The film reaches its tragic denouement when Pancho and his brother in law Octavio arrive to the brothel to celebrate Pancho having paid off his debt to Don Alejo who is Pancho’s surrogate father as well as the boss of Pancho’s father; i.e., he was a peon in Don Alejo’s property. At the brothel La Manuel dances for the men in a red flamenco dress and seduces Pancho into kissing her. Catching site of Pancho kissing La Manuela, the brother-in-law Octavio (Julián Pastor) demands that Pancho defend his honor. In the film’s heartbreaking last sequences La Manuela runs out of the brothel toward Don Alejo’s property while the men chase her down in Pancho’s red truck. They corner her and beat her to death while Don Alejo, allegedly La Manuela’s protector, listens to men mercilessly punching and kicking the old queen. The men flee upon realizing that they’ve killed La Manuela. Only then does the town patriarch Don Alejo appear to make a statement about sending the men to jail.
El lugar sin límites has achieved cult status for its daring critique of homophobia and violent heterosexual masculinity. The close-up shot of the kiss between the hyper-masculine Pancho and the queen La Manuela is the first male to male kiss I know of in Mexican film history. The film was ahead of its time and, as Paulo Antonio Paranaguá has observed in his book on the films of Arturo Ripstein, the film had a wider impact among feminist and gay and lesbian circles than the films made up to that point by director Jaime Humberto Hermosillo (at that point Mexico’s only out gay filmmaker) that obliquely address male homosexuality (El cumpleaños del perro [The Dog’s Birthday , 1974]; Matinee , 1976). It is worth remembering that the same year El lugar sin límites was produced Hermosillo filmed his landmark Las apariencias engañan (Appearances Can Be Deceiving) in December of 1977 which centers on a hermaphrodite Adrian(a) played by Isela Vega who was at that time the biggest female sex symbol of the Mexican film industry. The film also features Roberto Cobo in a minor role as a hairdresser who has browsing copies of the gay nude magazine Blue Boy. Censorship kept it out of commercial circulation in Mexico until 1983. It’s circulated very little in the U.S. and is not available commercially; however a new print was struck this year and was screened at the Cineteca Nacional. El lugar sin límites also predates Hermosillo’s Doña Herlinda and Her Son (1984), a comedy of manners that focuses on a sympathetic matriarch that accommodates her son’s bisexuality by inviting her son’s lover to move into the home they share, soon also to be joined by her son’s bride.
El lugar sin límites was shot in five weeks between May and June of 1977 under the new president of José López Portillo who inherited a huge public debt, an oil crisis, and a severe devaluation of the peso. With his sister Margarita López Portillo as president of RTC (Radio, Televisión, Cine)—the federal government division in share of cinema, public radio and television—she dismantled the state support for art cinema and instead supported popular film genres with poor production values such as sex comedies, in sharp contrast to the heavy support of art cinema with a social message made under the previous presidency of Luis Echeverría. Mexico cinema, I should add, is periodized by the six-year presidential terms that determine film policy. Mexican cinema has from 1942 when the National Film Bank was created until the complete neo-liberalization (i.e., privatization) of the film industry in the early 1990s, depended on federal government subsidies. Misha Maclaird traces the history of film policy in the recent book Aesthetics and Politics In the Mexican Film Industry (2013).
El lugar sin límites had been approved for state funding during the previous presidential administration but the budget was cut in the next administration when it was filmed. The film was shot at the less well-equipped Estudios América rather than at Churubusco Studios, which had more state-of-the-art production facilities. The uneven production values are evident. He used a heavy Mitchell camera with only three lenses and no direct sound. The sound was added in post-production. Because of the limits imposed by resources, Ripstein opted for stationary shots throughout. The static quality of the camera serves as a metaphor for the stagnant social and political system represented in the film. In an interview included in the Colección IMCINE DVD edition of El lugar sin límites , Ripstein makes a point about how to make the most out of limitations in production. “Limitations help me a lot because in a film industry that is small and poor as is ours you have to learn how to use obstacles to our benefit not against us.”
The film has elicited almost unanimous praise and has been taken up by scholars from a number of critical perspectives. Since space doesn’t permit I will focus on two. Charles Ramirez Berg in Cinema of Solitude: A Critical Study of Mexican Film, 1967-1983 (1992) views Ripstein’s film as a paradigmatic film of the post-1968 crisis facing Mexico’s political and social system where traditional gender conventions have changed and where machismo functioning as a social contract to protect male privilege is called into question. He writes “Machismo was once a well-defined psychosocial position so clearly marked that males easily located it. In its late stages, though, no one knows exactly where it is” (123). The fluidity of desire, gender and sexuality is the limitlessness referenced in the film’s title. The film stages the ways machismo is “coming undone” (124) by depicting how male homosexuality is weakening the solidarity between men, because in this case La Manuela’s solidarity lies firmly with the women. He argues that “the film reveals macho-maricón as a psychological duality within the Mexican male, repressed homosexuality lying just beneath the macho‘s bravura” (123). Maricón is a slur for male homosexual. It is this stereotype of the macho’s repressed homosexuality that the film unmasks.
As I have argued elsewhere, El lugar sin límites is in dialogue with the popular musical sex comedies of the 1970s and 1980s, fichera movies, a spin-off of the cabaretera (dance hall) melodramas of prostitution of the 1940s and 1950s, including the film vehicles starring the blazing Cuban blonde bombshell Ninón Sevilla such as Aventurera (Adventuress , Alberto Gout, 1949). A fichera is a woman that works at a dancehall or cabaret. A common narrative conflict of fichera movies, such as the iconic box-office hit, Bellas de noche (Beauties of the Night , Miguel M. Delgado, 1974), is that the lead male character is suffering from impotence which he regains in the cabaret with the help of either a woman or a male homosexual. The loosely structured comedy skits are joined by musical and dance sequences mostly featuring the tropical sounds of the Sonora Santanera, the orchestra that defined the Cuban and Columbian inflected tropical rhythms, boleros and cumbias, that made this band amongst the most popular among the working classes across the Spanish-speaking Americas in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. These dance sequences are seemingly utopic moments of male heterosexual privilege as they feature group long and medium shots of a dance floor with couples dancing to tropical cumbias. In this very heterosexual context, the gay male comic character, usually a supporting character, serves to prop up the lead male character facing recurrent impotence in film after film. That is why I argue that the joto (slang for male homosexual) is the macho’s sexual other. This is the popular cinema with which Ripstein’s El lugar sin límites is in conversation.
Ripstein’s oeuvre includes a number of collaborations with prominent novelists as well as various remakes of Hollywood and Mexican classic films: Realm of Fortune is a remake of director Roberto Gavaldón’s late ranchera (rural musical) El gallo de oro (1964), based on the Mexican Juan Rulfo’s novella; while La mujer del puerto (1993) is the fourth remake of the classic 1933 prostitution melodrama based on a short story by Guy du Maupassant. Both are iconoclastic in their approach to and interpretation of the original text. With El lugar sin límites he turns to one of the major writers of the Latin American literary “boom,” José Donoso who lived in self-imposed exile in Mexico City in the same apartment building where Carlos Fuentes lived. Fuentes held Saturday get-togethers, which is how Ripstein met Donoso. Ripstein read El lugar sin límites before it was published in 1966 and before he began directing. He claims, “Even before I started to make films I knew El lugar sin límites and I thought it was a good novel.”
Catherine Grant is particularly concerned with expanding the notion of Ripstein as sole author of the film, noting in particular the role Manuel Puig played as an uncredited scriptwriter. In her article, “Becoming ‘Arturo Ripstein’? On Collaboration and the ‘Author Function’ In the Transnational Film Adaption of El lugar sin límites ,” Grant examines the multiple translations of the Chilean novelist José Donoso’s 1966 novella by focusing on the various hands that authored the script. It is known to those who follow Ripstein that he first called on the Argentine novelist Manuel Puig, who lived in Mexico for a number of years in the early seventies, to adapt Donoso’s novella to the screen. (His adaptation, concluded in the fall of 1976, is included in Manuel Puig, Un destino melodramático. Argumentos (Buenos Aires: El Cuenco de Plata, 2004). When Puig dropped out of the project Ripstein invited three other writers to collaborate on the script. All three are Mexicans. They are: the poet José Emilio Pacheco (with whom he had previously collaborated on the scripts for The Castle of Purity and El santo oficio (The Holy Office ), as well as Cristina Pacheco, and Carlos Castañon. There was a fifth person (counting Ripstein) who also worked on the script: an anonymous and uncredited Mexican friend of Puig’s who translated Puig’s Argentine Spanish to a Mexican Spanish. Ripstein mentions him in an interview with Emilio Garcia Riera, the eminent historian of Mexican cinema (page 184).
Puig’s initial script takes up nine pages in print. While this script treatment contains all the major narrative elements and structure that Ripstein used, the script is mostly descriptive and includes almost no dialogue. The film in contrast is pretty chatty and tells the story through dialogue rather than letting the images carry more of the narrative weight. A misunderstanding or mutual distrust between Puig and Ripstein led Puig to pull out of the project and request that he not be credited for the script. It is unclear when exactly he was left out of the project and it is also unclear how much more work Puig did on the initial treatment because, according to Ripstein, Puig was responsible for the wording of La Manuela’s narration during “The Legend of the Kiss” dance sequence where she seduces Pancho (see Emilio Garcia Riera, Arturo Ripstein habla de su cine con Emilio Garcia Riera (1988). It is a magical sequence that invests an unprecedented degree of subversive power in the male transvestite in her ability to seduce her virile object of desire. However this dialogue is not included in Puig’s aforementioned published script treatment. I take it that Puig worked on the script more and added dialogue, including the monologue that makes up “The Legend of the Kiss” which retells the Sleeping Beauty story as a young man being asleep and wakening to a woman’s kiss. So why and how did Puig go uncredited in the film titles? According to Puig’s biographer Suzanne Jill Levine “Manuel feared mainly that Ripstein would turn the gay character into a caricature, while Ripstein felt that Manuel was trying to make La Manuela too exaggerated and Pancho super-macho, and believed that his directorial interpretation of Donoso’s feelings about machismo and sexual underdogs was more nuanced. As Manuel saw it, Ripstein’s psychological realism and expressionist touches—mirrors, dark interiors—tried to reflect an inner life but were oppressive; his camera direction tended toward “artsy” static tedium” (Suzanne Jill Levine, Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman: His Life and Fictions, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000, page 287).
According to Levine, Puig was also afraid that the film would be censored if his name were attached to the project since his homosexuality was well known and there were upcoming presidential elections in Mexico. This was for Puig a “rehearsal” for the adaptation of his novel Kiss of the Spider Woman because it also involved “the challenge of bringing a sympathetic queen to a wider audience” (Levine, 286). When Puig saw the finished film, he changed his mind and asked that he be credited in the film titles. But it was too late.
The awards El lugar sin límites has won include: four Arieles (Mexico’s equivalent to the Oscar), including best picture, best actor (Roberto Cobo), best supporting actress (Lucha Villa), best supporting actor (Gonzalo Vega). It was awarded a special jury prize at the 1978 San Sebastian Film Festival.
Sergio de la Mora teaches in the Chicana and Chicano Studies Department at the University of California, Davis. He is the author of Cinemachismo: Masculinities and Sexuality in Mexican Film (University of Texas Press, 2006). He has also contributed essays to Left in the Dark: Portraits of San Francisco Movie Theatres (Charta, 2010) and Latsploitation, Latin America, and Exploitation Cinema (Routledge, 2009).
A selection of Arturo Ripstein’s films can be found on DVD at Amazon.com.