Cabaret or whorehouse? If only poor Elena had known the difference!
In the late 1940s, Mexico experienced an economic boom that shifted the cultural and artistic energy from country life — the worn-out world of rancheras and haciendas — into the cities. Movies were inevitably affected by this trend, and Mexican filmmakers quickly responded by creating a new genre to bring the city and its multiple temptations to the masses. This genre was the cabaretera, a bizarre amalgam of music and melodrama and noir, with liberal doses of sex (especially sadism) and what we now would call high camp, set in the squalid whorehouses, cheap bars, and dark glistening streets of “sin towns” like Ciudad Juarez. Not that these were the exclusive backgrounds of the cabaretera; there’s a strong element of class conflict that also demanded contrasting wealthy environments, typically populated by hypocrites, that were just out of reach of the fallen singers and dancers who dominated these films.
The cabaretera became a staple of postwar Mexican cinema and yielded many stars, but none as popular as Ninón Sevilla, a Cuban rhumba dancer who became an international success on the basis of her spirited performances in films with sleazy titles like Victims of Sin, Sensuality, I Don’t Deny My Past, and the unquestioned masterpiece of the genre, Alberto Gout’s Aventurera (1950). Sevilla is not a typical beauty but has ferocious vivacity as both dancer and actress in a persona that dazzlingly combines innocence and sensuality.
The opening scenes of Aventurera (“adventuress”) in Chihuahua show a happy-go-lucky Elena Tejero (Sevilla) with her loving parents in their cozy bourgeois home. When shady admirer Lucio (sexy Tito Junco) tries to lure her on a date, she refuses, saying “I won’t lie to Mama.” Mama, however, has no such compunction. When Elena returns, she discovers her mother in a lustful embrace with a family friend. Dazed and disheartened, she wanders through the streets, and discovers when she returns that her father has shot himself.
The plot of Aventurera kicks into byzantine mode almost immediately, as Elena goes to Ciudad Juarez and tries to find a respectable job. Instead, she’s drugged and forced into prostitution by her admirer Lucio, who supplies young girls to Rosaura (the thrilling Andrea Palma), a crime queenpin who runs a lucrative whorehouse fronted by a cabaret. Elena, as it happens, is a fine dancer and singer and becomes a popular star of the nightclub. She is less successful as a whore, however, refusing to go to bed with the customers and getting into catfights with men and women on the dance floor. Rosaura, of course, won’t stand for such stuff and threatens her with disfigurement or worse.
Elena’s musical numbers display Sevilla’s charms to lurid advantage. The splashiest is “In a Persian Market,” and her body is almost entirely visible through her Arabian “costume” (really just a few threads) as she energetically thrusts at the camera, predating Elvis by several years. This and her other routines combine elements of Busby Berkeley choreography, Maria Montez otherworldly kitsch, and even Carmen Miranda fruit hats. Some of the songs also serve an important dramatic function, particularly the title tune sung by Pedro Vargas, which reminds Elena of the price of being a fichera (trashy B-girl) and stops her in her tracks when she hears it: “Sell your love dearly, it’s the price of your past. And he who wants the honey from your lips must pay the price in diamonds for your sin.”
This bittersweet reminder of the “wages of sin” can’t compete with Elena’s hunger for revenge against Rosaura and Lucio. Her conversion from goody two-shoes to immoral slut continues when Rosaura instructs a scarred, mute killer named El Rengo (Miguel Inclán) to carve up her face. Lucio arrives to rescue her from El Rengo and the “club,” and she becomes an accomplice in a failed bank robbery that lands Lucio in jail. Ever on the move, Elena flees to Mexico City, where she again becomes a star. She meets a respectable lawyer Mario (Ruben Rojo), from “one of Guadalajara’s oldest families.” At this point, the film begins to play its highest cards, with a breathtaking new plot twist about every three minutes.
Aventurera will surprise viewers who associate the ’40s with repression and conventionality. The film’s attitudes, particularly toward Elena, have a distinctly modern feel, in spite of the many period trappings in the form of the musical numbers, the location settings, and especially the cautionary and redemptive aspects of the story. The film unfalteringly supports Elena’s tortured odyssey through the lowest realms of Mexico’s urban nightlife, reveling in scenes of her power as artist and woman even when she’s using it seemingly beyond reason to punish those who have betrayed her. The feminist subtext here is rich and often blatant — really as much text as subtext.
With its velvety black-and-white photography, parts of Aventurera look like film noir or Italian neo-realism, connections confirmed by the film’s fixation on crime and class struggle. At other times, it looks like a Hollywood musical with its transporting environments and camp-erotic suggestiveness. Evident too are aspects of classical narrative — particularly in the singers in the nightclub, a kind of Greek chorus whose songs comment obliquely on Elena’s moral struggles; and in the character of El Rengo, the silent killer who represents implacable fate but emerges with his own peculiar pathos. Aventurera brilliantly manipulates these diverse elements.
In addition to the riveting Ninón Sevilla, watch for wonderful, classic musical performances by Perez Prado and his Orchestra, Pedro Vargas, Ana Maria Gonzalez, El Trio Los Panchos, Los Angeles del Infierno, and Ray Montoya and his Orchestra.