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Arts & Culture

Mexican Noir At The Digital Gym

French poster art for the Mexican noir film "Sensualidad" starring Ninon Sevilla. The film screens Saturday, Dec. 6, at the Digital Gym Cinema.
Producciones Calderón
French poster art for the Mexican noir film "Sensualidad" starring Ninon Sevilla. The film screens Saturday, Dec. 6, at the Digital Gym Cinema.

Newly Subtitled Noir Classics From Mexico Screen Saturday

Mexican Noir
Mexican Noir
KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando previews the Mexican noir double feature coming this Saturday at the Digital Gym.

ANCHOR INTRO: Film noir is a distinctly American film style that emerged in the 1940s. But its influence has been felt around the globe. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando says you can check out some Mexican noir this Saturday at the Digital Gym Cinema.   Film noir conjures up images of dark shadowy streets and even darker motives; seductive femme fatales and tough talking private eyes; and of course plenty of murder, betrayal, and deceit. American noir classics include films like Double Indemnity and Touch of Evil. Writer and noir aficionado D.A. Kolodenko has been collecting noir for decades but felt that he had all but exhausted what American noir of the forties and fifties had to offer. Then while on a trip to Baja he began to wonder if there was any Mexican noir, and sure enough there was. D.A. KOLODENKO: They are very much like American noir films, the shadows and contrasts, and dark streets and often voiceover and all these motifs of noir but also lots of mambo and melodrama and yelling and sex they are so interesting so I think they are really fresh. But most of these Mexican noir films have had little or no play in the U.S. This prompted Kolodenko to launch an investigation and like Sam Spade following a trail of corpses to a femme fatale… Kolodenko tracked down Cuban blonde bombshell named Ninon Sevilla. D.A. KOLODENKO: She would always play a dancer/prostitute from the wrong side of the tracks who has to overcome some obstacles usually in the form of pimps and unscrupulous madams who are trying to take advantage of her and through her ability to dance and sheer determination and spunk she is able to rise up and destroy the people that captured her or avenge those who wronged her. That’s the basic plot of both Aventurera and Sensualidad, the films Kolodenko has programmed for this Saturday’s Mexican noir double feature. Amber Ray was one of the translators he collaborated with to create a new subtitled version of Sensualidad. Ray said she found Mexican noir a lot sexier than its American counterpart, mainly because of Sevilla. AMBER RAY Oh man watching her dance is incredible, she is such a good dancer and has great legs. CLIP Music American noir always had memorable femme fatales but they were usually subordinate to a male protagonist. But in Mexican noir the women were often the leads, says Kolodenko. D.A. KOLODENKO: She may be a femme fatale and just as memorable for being dangerous and a bad woman but in the Mexican films she is often overcoming hardships and she is so strong and not willing to take abuse or if she does she will find a way to get back at them. Plus, the tone could often be more forgiving to the women. Ray says that Sevilla in particular made the bad girl appealing. AMBER RAY: I’ve seen her other movies and when she plays good girl she is not that good of an actress but when she is the bad girl she is so likable even though she is the bad girl. D.A. KOLODENKO: I would hesitate to say she is a good actress because she has no training and she overacts, she’s very emotive, she’s constantly making huge faces like pantomime and yet she seems to believe in her character so much that she is absolutely riveting and compelling and believable she may not be acting but she is giving it her all. CLIP [in Spanish] She had star power and she also understood her characters. Kolodenko says some of the best lines in her films were improvised by the actress. D.A. KOLODENKO: Things like when my nail polish is dry I will scratch you. Kolodenko says people who think of noir films as only American will be surprised by these Mexican films. They capture the noir style and maybe that’s because many of the directors and cinematographers learned or polished their craft in Hollywood. D.A. KOLODENKO: There was this whole group of expatriate Mexicans who came to Hollywood to be in film industry in the 1930s and in WWII Hollywood stopped making a lot of films so a lot of these filmmakers and actors went back to Mexico and there was an opening for Mexicans to start making their own national cinema. Sensualidad and Aventurera are only scratching the surface of Mexican noir. Kolodenko has more films waiting in the wings, some of which he is currently subtitling so they can be shown in San Diego to non-Spanish speaking audiences. D.A. KOLODENKO: One of the things I wanted to do was to bring together a lot of different film communities and cultures and have them come together and celebrate that we are a border town. And to rediscover some Mexican noir classics. Beth Accomando, KPBS News.

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A lobby card for the Mexican noir film "Aventurera," which starred Ninon Sevilla. The film screens Saturday, Dec. 6, at the Digital Gym Cinems.
Producciones Calderón
A lobby card for the Mexican noir film "Aventurera," which starred Ninon Sevilla. The film screens Saturday, Dec. 6, at the Digital Gym Cinems.

Film noir is a distinctly American film style that emerged in the 1940s. But its influence has been felt around the globe. You can check out some Mexican noir this Saturday at the Digital Gym Cinema.

Film noir conjures up images of dark shadowy streets and even darker motives; seductive femme fatales and tough talking private eyes; and of course plenty of murder, betrayal, and deceit. American noir classics include films like "Double Indemnity" and "Touch of Evil." Writer and noir aficionado D.A. Kolodenko has been collecting noir for decades but felt that he had all but exhausted what American noir of the forties and fifties had to offer. Then while on a trip to Baja he began to wonder if there was any Mexican noir, and sure enough there was.

"They are very much like American noir films, the shadows and contrasts, and dark streets and often voiceover and all these motifs of noir but also lots of mambo and melodrama and yelling and sex they are so interesting so I think they are really fresh," Kolodenko said.

But most of these Mexican noir films have had little or no play in the U.S. This prompted Kolodenko to launch an investigation and like Sam Spade following a trail of corpses to a femme fatale, Kolodenko tracked down a Cuban blonde bombshell named Ninon Sevilla.

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"She would always play a dancer/prostitute from the wrong side of the tracks who has to overcome some obstacles usually in the form of pimps and unscrupulous madams who are trying to take advantage of her and through her ability to dance and sheer determination and spunk she is able to rise up and destroy the people that captured her or avenge those who wronged her," Kolodenko stated.

That’s the basic plot of both "Aventurera" and "Sensualidad," the films Kolodenko has programmed for this Saturday’s Mexican noir double feature. Amber Ray was one of the translators he collaborated with to create a new subtitled version of "Sensualidad." Ray said she found Mexican noir a lot sexier than its American counterpart, mainly because of Sevilla.

"Oh man watching her dance is incredible, she is such a good dancer and has great legs," Ray said.

The way women are depicted in noir also differs between the two countries.

"In a lot of American Noir the most memorable character would be the femme fatale but often in American noir the femme fatale is the dangerous woman who is the downfall of the male protagonists, but in most of the Mexican noir the lead character is a female. Now she may be a femme fatale but in the Mexican films she is often overcoming the hardships and she is so strong and not take abuse or find a way to get back at them." Kolodenko said.

Plus, the tone could often be more forgiving to the women. Ray says that Sevilla in particular made the bad girl appealing.

"I’ve seen her other movies and when she plays good girl she is not that good of an actress but in these roles she is so likable even though she is the bad girl," Ray said.

"I would hesitate to say she is a good actress because she has no training and she overacts," Kolodenko added, "She’s very emotive, she’s constantly making huge faces like pantomime and yet she seems to believe in her character so much that she is absolutely riveting and compelling and believable she may not be acting but she is giving it her all."

She had star power and she also understood her characters. Kolodenko says some of the best lines in her films were improvised by the actress.

"Things like when my nail polish is dry I will scratch you," Kolodenko cited as an example.

Kolodenko says people who think of noir films as only American will be surprised by these Mexican films. They capture the noir style and maybe that’s because many of the directors and cinematographers learned or polished their craft in Hollywood.

"There was this whole group of expatriate Mexicans who came to Hollywood to be in film industry in the 1930s and in WWII Hollywood stopped making a lot of films so a lot of these filmmakers and actors went back to Mexico and there was an opening for Mexicans to start making their own national cinema," Kolodenko said.

Cuban dancer and actress Ninon Sevilla displays her famous gams in the Mexican noir classic, "Sensualidad," screening this Saturday, Dec. 6, at the Digital Gym Cinema.
Producciones Calderón
Cuban dancer and actress Ninon Sevilla displays her famous gams in the Mexican noir classic, "Sensualidad," screening this Saturday, Dec. 6, at the Digital Gym Cinema.

He went on to explain how noir emerged in Mexican cinema.

"The cabaretera genre is a subgenre of the rumbera film, these are basically musicals, fun musicals, and light comedies but a few of these filmmakers thought it would be interesting to set these films inside the sort of burgeoning new urban night life scene so the night clubs of Mexico City. So they started making these films in these nightclubs and they would use the rumbera format, they would have these scenes with music and dancing but they could tell sort of more interesting stories."

"Sensualidad" and "Aventurera" are only scratching the surface of Mexican noir. Kolodenko has more films waiting in the wings, some of which he is currently subtitling so they can be shown in San Diego to non-Spanish speaking audiences.

"One of the things I wanted to do was to bring together a lot of different film communities and cultures and have them come together and celebrate that we are a border town," said Kolodenko.

And to rediscover some Mexican noir classics and a Cuban femme fatale.

Online ticket sales for the Mexican noir double feature at the Digital Gym are closed but there will be some ticket available at the box office. The VIP tickets include live music, dessert, and access to a Mexican food truck. Proceeds from the screening will benefit OrphaWorld. Kolodenko pointed out that this is fitting since Sevilla's character Aurora in "Sensualidad" was raised in an orphanage.

You can watch the unsubtitled films on YouTube.

'Sensualidad'
'Aventurera'