tonight was a special night at the paramount theatre, probably the first night i circled on the schedule when i received it back in may. they screened one of mexico's most action-packed silent melodramas, gabriel garcía moreno's el tren fantasma (1927).
and, as if that weren't enough, michael ramos, leader of the latin lounge outfit charanga cakewalk, premiered a new score of his specifically composed for the event. these live performances are always a highlight of the summer film schedule and this one certainly did not disappoint. ramos' score was lively and paid homage to the traditional mexican popular forms of the day while seamlessly working in the more modern electronic elements his group usually traffics in. it added a level of enjoyment to the film that was undeniable. ramos and his group ratcheted up the tension during the chases and fights, livened up the dances, underlined the pathos of the more melodramatic passages and, once or twice, added their own playful musical commentary on the action taking place onscreen. a fine performance.
the film itself was fantastic. it was my first exposure to garcía moreno and i am eager to see more. he took what, in other hands, would have been a standard love triangle and made it uncommonly adventurous and nuanced for silent cinema. all the actors did their own stunts, some of which were quite difficult and dangerous, including the romantic lead very obviously jumping from a galloping horse onto a moving steam train. the performers' willingness to put themselves in harm's way results in a heightened level of suspense and deeper sentimental attachment to them. you aren't given the subconscious break that usually comes with obvious stunt doubles and cutaways. every narrow escape or drop from a great height is clearly the character that you have become attached to and whose welfare you are emotionally invested in.
the able physicality of the stars is equally matched by the emotional complexity of the villain of the piece. manuel de los ríos plays paco mendoza, one of the rival suitors of the beautiful daughter of the stationmaster. he is also secretly "el rubí", the leader of a gang of bandits and kidnappers who are responsible for the irregularities that the railroad is having investigated. his love for the stationmaster's daughter leads him to put on illogical displays of bravery and play both ends against the middle with the gang, going to such lengths as standing in for an ailing toreador during a bullfight and orchestrating and staging a fake kidnap and rescue to win her affections. the better angels of his nature eventually win out and, in a last sacrificial act, he throws himself on a bomb intended to sabotage the train our young lovers are on and he comes to a sad, bloody, violent and redemptive end. it's a far cry from the typical, one-dimensional, mustache-twirling bad guy that litters the landscape of melodrama.
the look of the film is also remarkable. the vast majority of it was shot on location in mexico so it offers a window to that world you would only usually find in documentary footage. in addition to being freed of the restrictions of a set-bound production and reaping the benefit of the heightened realism of location shooting, it functions as an anthropological document, a vivid slice of life of 1920's mexico. it is easy to give yourself over to the spirit of the proceedings because it takes place in an absolutely habitable universe, as evidenced by the extras who traversed those streets every day and lived under the rooftops that our hero scampered across in an attempt to save maiden fair. it's full of lived-in spaces and faces that make me wish the camera would just constantly pan back and forth so i could see it all without end. many thanks to the paramount theatre, michael ramos and the folks at cine las americas for putting this together. there may be no greater feeling than walking into a theater not knowing what to expect and having a night like tonight. it makes me fall in love with cinema all over again.