Review Index


A Less-Than-Admiring Take on the Films of Rafael Corkidi

Here (for once) is a commentary about a director whose work doesnít particularly excite me: Mexicoís Rafael Corkidi.

     Corkidi, of course, is best known as a cinematographer, and Iíll be the first to admit his prodigious talent for lighting and composition borders on genius. Itís appropriate, then, that Corkidi remains best known for four films he photographed but didnít direct. Regarding the features he did helm, the best I can say about them is that all are extremely well visualized.

     Corkidiís photography was the main asset of the experimental ANTICLIMAX (1969), the first and only feature by the famed poet/artist Gelson Gas. While ANTICLIMAXíS overall sensibility belongs to Gas, it was Corkidi who provided the impressively textured black-and-white imagery (womenís bare legs crossing and uncrossing aboard a bus, the protagonist going nuts in a supermarket, etc) thatís so vital to the filmís kaleidoscopic depiction of 1960s-era Mexico.

     The same is true of Alexandro Jodorowskyís EL TOPO and THE HOLY MOUNTAIN, and Juan Lopez Moctezumaís MANSION OF MADNESS, all of which benefited immeasurably from Corkidiís visuals. The desert-set EL TOPO in particular bears Corkidiís fingerprints in its impeccably visualized surreal set pieces that directly foreshadow his self-directed features. Corkidiís work on THE HOLY MOUNTAIN, alas, was apparently marred by friction with Jodorowsky, who claims that Corkidi ďwas a nice person when we made EL TOPOÖthen when we made THE HOLY MOUNTAIN he was very difficult to control,Ē and alleges Corkidi even tried to ďsabotageĒ the film. As for THE MANSION OF MADNESS, Corkidiís bold cinematography was integral to that filmís overpowering aura of surreal insanity.

     Of Corkidiís self-directed features, Jodorowsky has claimed they were all directly inspired by EL TOPO, and dismissed them as ďboring.Ē Iím not entirely sure I agree with the first statement, as Corkidi clearly had a style and point of view that were very much his own (although at least one of his films does owe a sizeable debt to Jodorowsky), yet on the second Jodorowsky is entirely correct, as boring is one thing the following films indisputably are.

     1972ís ANGELS AND CHERUBS (ANGELES Y QUERUBINES) was the first and most famous feature directed by Rafael Corkidi. It begins with a hallucinatory take on Adam and Eve featuring two naked children frolicking in a beachfront Eden. From there the action switches to the interior of a dark castle where a young man falls in love with an alluring gal who comes from a staunchly middle class family living nearby, which leads to disillusionment, death and vampirism(!).
     Quite simply, the film is a bore. Virtually every scene is allowed to drag on far longer than is necessary, regardless of how uneventful those scenes may be (watching a servant woman endlessly circle a dinner table doling out soup is about as interesting as it sounds), and thereís little in the way of a cogent narrative to hold it all together. The film is crammed with striking surreal touches (telepathic puppets, an elaborate religious procession in the middle of a parched desert), but they feel gratuitous. Yet the cinematography, accomplished by Corkidi himself, is stunning.

     ANGELS AND CHERUBS was followed by 1974ís ONE WHO CAME FROM HEAVEN (AUANDAR ANAPU), a religious allegory about a saintly man wandering through a desert landscape, breaking up fights, fucking women and getting in trouble with the authorities. The proceedings are notable for the fact that the characters all have a tendency to break into music numbers in which they lip-synch to old Spanish tunes.
     Corkidi evidently had EL TOPO in mind, even though the film was allegedly based on a Mexican folk tale. Also, the surrealism usually so integral to Corkidiís style has been toned down here, leaving us with an impressively photographed but quite tedious effort.

     1977ís PAFNUCIO SANTO features a young boy in a football jersey wandering through a(nother) surreal desert landscape, where he encounters several famous individuals, among them Frieda Kahlo, Hernando Cortez, Patty Hearst and Emilio Zapata (in the guise of an attractive woman), all of whom (as in the previous film) frequently lip synch to famous operas. Once again the visuals are damned impressive, but the film is otherwise a half-baked, uneventful snooze.

     Finally we have 1978ís DESEOS, which treads the same ground as the previous three entries. As in ANGELS AND CHERUBS the setting is a desert manor that houses a singularly freaky band of eccentrics; as in PAFNUCIO SANTO all the characters periodically break into song, lip syncing to old Mexican tunes regardless of gender; as in ONE WHO CAME FROM HEAVEN thereís a heavy religious subtext, with a constantly masturbating nun and a plethora of crucifixion imagery. Corkidiís visuals, as always, are eye-popping, consisting of a succession of impeccably lit and composed wide shots, but in all other aspects the film, in what had become an all-too-common aspect of Corkidiís work, is a pretentious dirge.

     Most of the remainder of Corkidiís filmography consists of TV documentaries and a handful of little-seen features (including 1984ís long-banned FIGURAS DE LA PASION, 1992ís RULFO AETERNUM and 2010ís EL MAESTRO PRODIGIOSO). Currently entering his ninth decade and evidently retired, Corkidi can be viewed as one the greatest cinematographers Mexico has produced. His skills as a director, alas, arenít in the same league!