Latin American cinema has lost one of the foundational figures of the radical film movement which flourished fifty years ago, when the two avant-gardes, the aesthetic and the political – were conjoined. Paul Leduc, who died in Mexico City on October 21st at the age of 78, was the most maverick of filmmakers, in a continent that’s full of them. His public persona was reserved but in private he was far from austere, always an engaging conversationalist with an irreverent sense of humour. I shall miss our periodic meetings, sometimes over a meal in Mexico City, but I cannot now mourn his passing on a personal level without also lamenting his neglect in English-speaking circles. Even his great masterpiece, Frida, Naturaleza Viva (1984), is little known amongst us, and instead of Ofelia Medina’s magical personation of the painter, the screen image of Frida Kahlo is that of Salma Hayek in Julie Taymor’s far inferior biopic of nearly twenty years later.
Paul was always ahead of the game. After studying film in Paris, where one of his teachers was Jean Rouch, he returned to Mexico and started making documentaries. Eschewing the mainstream from the start, Leduc established his avant garde bona fidas with his first feature, Reed, México Insurgente (1973), which employed a minimalist aesthetic, a mix of drama and documentary techniques and an innovative soundtrack, to deconstruct the official history of the Mexican Revolution through the eyes of the North American left-wing journalist John Reed, eight years before Warren Beatty gave us Reed reporting the October Revolution in Reds. An enigmatic film which might be recalled by aficionados of alternative political cinema in the 70s in the UK, where it was distributed by The Other Cinema, it has since disappeared from circulation, like so many other films of the time.
His next big film never even reached the UK. Mezquital (full title: ABC del etnocidio: Notas sobre Mesquital, 1977) is nevertheless a major work of the avant-garde, breaking completely with documentary convention but drawing on fieldwork by anthropologists to pursue a deconstruction of the modern Mexican state. A portrait of the Otomí of the Mezquital Valley, north of Mexico City, the film is an A to Z of indictments against the body politic, organised by chapters in which successive letters of the alphabet name the theme to be treated – A for Antecedents, B for Bourgeoisie, C for Class, D for Democracy, etc. The effect, together with the stylisation of the cinematography, is one of Brechtian distanciation whose very formalism gives palpable shape to the whole complex of power relations which lie behind the visible surface of social reality.
Beautifully photographed by Ángel Goded, the title of Frida, Naturaleza Viva, or ‘Frida, Living Nature’, is a wordplay on the Spanish term for ‘still life’, naturaleza muerte, and the film is a series of visually exquisite fluid tableaux in which Frida, lying on her deathbed, remembers her life. If this sounds like a conventional cinematic trope, there is nothing conventional in the film that unfolds, free from chronological linearity, almost wordless, filled with colour and music, the celebration of life and of solidarity. Because this is a deeply political film which echoes – as all of Paul’s work does – the manifesto ‘Towards a Free Revolutionary Art’, written in Mexico in 1938 by André Breton and two of the men in Frida Kahlo’s life, her twice-married husband Diego Rivera, and the exiled Leon Trotsky: ‘True art is unable not to be revolutionary, not to aspire to a complete and radical reconstruction of society.’ Rivera and Trotsky both figure importantly in the film, but as Zuzana Pick wrote about it, it’s a film that ‘contests the contemporary readings that have confined Kahlo’s exotic femininity to the solitude of otherness by making new connections between history and myth’.*
Music was central to Paul’s aesthetic, and together with dance, is the focus of three wonderful films which followed at the end of the 80s. Barroco (1989) is inspired by Alejo Carpentier’s magical realist novel ‘Concierto Barroco’, in which a nameless Mexican nobleman goes to Venice and encounters Vivaldi, Handel and Scarlatti. Vivaldi is intrigued by hearing about Montezuma and decides to write an opera about it (which he did in 1733). Leduc discards the narrative and translates the novel into a musical tapestry in which different musics of different historical periods – European Baroque, Afro-Latin, Schubert, Rossini, Cuban nueva trova, flamenco – merge and transform, melody into rhythm and vice versa, while music is played on or off screen and the camera glides through changing scenes and locations (Paul’s camera is always gliding) while characters appear and reappear, watching, waiting. I cannot imagine anyone but Paul even thinking of such a film, but once again he was ahead of the game: Vivaldi’s opera Motezuma was thought lost, but was rediscovered in a library in Berlin in 2002.
Two wonderful wordless dance dramas followed quickly, Latino Bar (1990) and Dollar Mambo (1992), the former based on a novel by Federico Gamboa about a prostitute and a stevedore which dramatises the milieu of the lumpenproletariat, the second a bitter musical portrayal of the criminal US invasion of Panama. But the Mexican film industry was in dire trouble and he changed tack, turning instead to computer animation with La flauta de Bartolo (1997), aimed in his own completely original manner at introducing children to the world of music – wordless as always, a universal history of music from its prehistoric origins to modern times, told through a Mexican optic (or rather, Mexican ears). Sheer delight. Watch it here. And its sequel, La pauta de Bartolo, in which Bartolo surveys the music of the twentieth century, here. But of course these are not just children’s films. As well as their visual richness, which takes its cue from iconic Mexican imagery, their take on music reminds me of Adorno’s comment that of course music is a universal language, but without being Esperanto. All musics are here, from ethnic to classical, mariachi to jazz, Schoenberg and Stockhausen to Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones, in a global mix that sees no hierarchy.
Leduc’s last big film, El Cobrador, In God We Trust (2006), based on stories by the Brazilian writer Rubén Fonseca, is a meditation on the pervasive violence of the times. With its action spread from New York to Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, this is perhaps the most enigmatic of Leduc’s films, episodic, symbolic, peopled by emblematic characters. The title character, the Cobrador, or debt-collector, is played by the Brazilian actor Lázaro Ramos, Peter Fonda plays a murderous yanqui millionaire called Mr X, the Italian actor Antonella Costa is a photojournalist called Anna, but nothing here adds up to the coherence of a story. Fredric Jameson, writing in the 1980s, drew attention to a distinctive feature of third world fiction in which, behind the narrative of individual destiny there is always an allegory of the nation, a social and political dimension which transcends the individual libidinal tale of private desire. In El Cobrador, Leduc dispenses entirely with the interior worlds of the characters and delivers only the allegorical part, but in an entirely new key, with a strong affinity to the cinema of Glauber Rocha. No longer the traditional form associated with canonic authors like Bunyan, but exactly as Jameson put it, here ‘the allegorical spirit is profoundly discontinuous, a matter of breaks and heterogeneities, of the multiple polysemia of the dream rather than the homogeneous representation of the symbol.’** The oneiric quality of the film is only intensified by the bold device of interrupting proceedings by returning to a previous sequence and repeating it before resuming, with uncanny effect.
Latterly, Paul’s resolute anti-imperialism took him down yet another new path. In the months leading up to the 2016 US elections, he mounted an internet campaign directed at Hispanics in the USA to mobilise the vote against Trumpian fascism. He was under no illusions about the difficulty of such an endeavour, which he thought of as a structural problem. ‘If everything happens on the web,’ he wrote to me, ‘it’s very difficult for the web itself to find out what’s going on around it.’ But he gave it his best shot nonetheless. He always gave everything his best shot.
* Zuzana Pick, ‘Identity and Representation: Frida: Naturaleza viva’ in The New Latin American Cinema, A Continental Project, University of Texas Press, 1993, pp.89-96.
** Fredric Jameson, ‘Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism’, Social Text, No. 15 (Autumn, 1986), pp. 65-88