None of the countless movies I have ever seen – domestic or foreign — prepared me for the 1934 Mexican film “La Mujer del Puerto” (“The Woman of the Port”). If you watch the movie without knowing anything about it – as I did – you may think the plot is drifting aimlessly. But it’s not.
In case you don’t recall, I randomly ordered old foreign films – the earliest I could find — when I subscribed to Netflix as an escape from the usual Hollywood fare. “Mujer” arrived shortly after “Vamonos Con Pancho Villa!” as part of my meandering through Mexican cinema. The movie deals with a theme that has yet to be explored to any great degree in American films and makes “Vamonos” look like a romp in the park.
Aside from the plot, one the biggest surprises of “Mujer” is the technical sophistication. The film is beautifully photographed by Alex Phillips and contains some of the most powerful images I have seen in a long while.
Victorio and Rosario in “Mujer,” which is beautifully photographed by Alex Phillips.
“Mujer,” directed by Arcady Boytler, with a script by Antonio Guzmán Aguilera, owes a great debt to Leo Tolstoy and Guy de Maupassant, two writers who aren’t known for happy endings, particularly Maupassant, whose short story “The Port” forms the second half of the film.
The movie consists of two tales that have been grafted together and could easily stand alone. The first 30 minutes deals with Rosario (Andrea Palma), a young woman who is gleefully in love with Victorio (Francisco Zárraga) despite the disapproval of her ailing father, Antonio (Fabio Acevedo), a coffin maker in the town of Cordoba.
The doctor tells Rosario that her father needs medicine, but they are too poor to pay for it. She turns to Victorio for some money and catches him with another woman. Her father’s employer, Basilio (Antonio Polo), offers to help her but his price is too high, and in the end, Rosario finds a pharmacist who takes pity on her.
Rosario’s father, Antonio (Fabio Acevedo), is a coffin maker.
In the meantime, Antonio, having overheard the exchange between Rosario and Victorio, arms himself with a hammer and coughs his way upstairs to confront the unfaithful boyfriend, who pushes him down to his death.
So far, we have a somewhat sudsy soap opera. But “Mujer” contrasts the tragedy with a festival in which hundreds of people in costume celebrate Mardi Gras.
In what is one of the most powerful sequences I have seen in a long while, a wagon carrying Antonio’s coffin – with Rosario following as the only mourner – is surrounded by crowds of people in grotesque masks urging one another to “Kill the bad mood!” (according to the subtitles). The crowd ignores her pleas for respect but eventually the people remove their masks and join in the funeral procession, and we fade out on Rosario alone at her father’s grave.
The rest of the film picks up with Rosario as a prostitute in the port city of Veracruz. A group of sailors lonely for women and liquor after being at sea wander into Nicanor’s waterfront saloon for music, dancing and drinking.
There are frequent montages in “Mujer” and one of the most effective of them combines a plaintive song by film composer Max Urban with images of Rosario’s encounters as a prostitute. The lyrics – at least according to the subtitles, are: “The pleasure I sell to men of the sea… they leave me at dawn, my love goes with them…”
Rosario and Domingo Soler, who tells her his name is “uno mas.”
To the unprepared viewer – like me – the plot seems to drift along, showing Rosario’s decline, but her encounter with one man (when she asks his name, he replies “uno mas”) brings the ultimate shame and disgrace. Tearfully, Rosario runs to the waterfront and stands gazing at the pounding waves.
Perhaps it is my naivete in never encountering “Mujer” previously, but I can’t say that I have ever heard about the film (for the record, The Times never reviewed the movie, although the paper carried ads for the 1949 remake). Anyone preparing a film series should consider including “La Mujer del Puerto” – it deserves a wider audience. It is beautifully filmed and tells a dark, dark story.