Professor publishes book on classical Mexican cinema

Rachel Rascoe

Years ago, radio-television-film professor Charles Ramírez Berg wrote film reviews for an El Paso newspaper. When he went searching for books analyzing Mexican cinema, he couldn’t find any, so he decided to publish one of his own.

In early September, Berg published his fourth book on the topic, “The Classical Mexican Cinema: The Poetics of the Exceptional Golden Age Films.” For five years, Berg researched to create the book. It provides in-depth analysis and context for various Mexican films ranging from the mid-1930s to the 1950s.

Growing up in El Paso exposed Berg to Mexican cinema. He developed an interest in researching the topic while writing film reviews for a local newspaper and working as a part-time lecturer at the University of Texas at El Paso.

“I start researching, and it was really hard to find books,” Berg said. “I found that there was one book discussing Mexican cinema, and that was on Mexican history. In terms of Mexican film criticism, there were zero. How could that be?”

Berg said Mexican filmmakers’ attempts to distinguish their work from Hollywood and capture authentically Mexican stories define the classical period. Berg said much of what makes Mexican cinema distinctive is the regional details, such as indigenous plants, religious imagery and wide shots of cloud formations. The book begins with examples of classical Mexican art, leading into the art’s eventual influence on Mexican filmmakers, such as director Emilio Fernández.

“The impetus of what I’m calling the classical Mexican cinema [are] those filmmakers who made films that were specifically trying not to imitate Hollywood,” Berg said. “They did this by saying, ‘Let’s not do that. Let’s try and make a Mexican film on a Mexican subject for a Mexican audience. Let’s try and tell our own story in our own way — not in a Hollywood way.’”

Radio-television-film senior Lucas Doyle, a previous student in Berg’s Mexican cinema class, received class readings from earlier drafts of the new book. Doyle said Berg’s explanations of Mexican cinema were especially valuable in comparison to courses on more widely researched and accessible topics, such as classical American or European cinema.

“When it comes to film, he’s one of the first people to really take an interest in Mexican cinema,” Doyle said. “He grew up in the U.S., so what was so great about that class was that he was able to describe how Mexican films are different from American films. That’s when I was able to understand and appreciate Mexican cinema.”

Tom Schatz, radio-television-film professor and series editor for Berg’s book, said the book’s design surpasses any of Berg’s previously published works. The pages feature almost 300 screen grabs hand-picked by Berg, some providing side-by-side comparisons of Mexican and Hollywood films of the era.

On Thursday night, the UT Fine Arts Library will host a screening of Enamorada, one of the major films discussed in the book, as part of the Fine Arts Library’s “Films in Person” series. Berg will provide an introduction to the film and answer questions about his new book afterward.

Schatz said improvements in technology have made older films more accessible than ever before.

“We live in an age where virtually everything is available one way or another,” Schatz said. “Charles plays a significant role in helping people sort through that stuff and making sure people are watching the films worth seeing.”