Saturday, November 13, 2010

Triskaidekaphilia: Prisoner 13

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Searching around for these movies with 13 in the title has led me to some interesting and unexpected places, and with the 1933 Mexican film Prisoner 13, I was introduced to director Fernando De Fuentes, an extremely influential figure in Mexico's cinema golden age of the 1930s and '40s. I had never heard of De Fuentes before, but he made dozens of movies over the course of two decades, of which Prisoner 13 is the second. It's also the first in a loose trilogy about the Mexican Revolution, with a story about a corrupt and selfish military colonel who pays dearly and ironically for his arrogance. The plot is a little overheated, and the pacing is kind of off (the colonel's estranged wife and son are key characters who disappear for nearly half the movie), but there are some powerful depictions of the corruption and chaos of the revolution.

De Fuentes is a strong filmmaker, although it's sometimes hard to tell in the murky, scratchy print of this film that's available on DVD. He uses several long tracking shots across the faces of condemned revolutionaries that give a simple but powerful sense of desperation, and another tracking shot earlier in the movie to illustrate the range of daily life. He might have done a little too good of a job depicting the complexity of the revolution on both sides, since he was required (by the government, at least according to an IMDb commenter) to tack on a ridiculous "it was all a dream" ending, which pretty much invalidates the entire film. If everything leading up to that teeters between affecting and overwrought, the ending tips the scales, and closes the movie with a feeling of uselessness.

I get the impression that Prisoner 13 might be more valuable for its influence and historical value than for its potential as entertainment, but it's still worth seeing. Wikipedia says that the New York Times called De Fuentes "the Mexican John Ford," which means I might want to check out more of his films.

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