Defining Unity in El Compadre Mendoza

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El Compadre Mendoza (1934) is the second film in the Mexican Revolution trilogy by Fernando de Fuentes. It centers on Rosalio Mendoza, a Mexican landowner during the revolution who survives by befriending both the armies of Huerta and Carranza and the Zapatistas. When the situation becomes untenable, Mendoza is forced to choose sides. He can remain loyal to the Zapatista godfather of his son or secure his financial security with the army.

In the second film of the Mexican Revolution Trilogy, De Fuentes takes a very different stance from the ones we have seen in his other films. His two other films in the trilogy decry the factionalism which destroyed the ideals of the revolution. If leaders hadn’t eaten their own, Mexico would be a much better country. Rather than decry factionalism, this film implores the viewer to pick a side. To stand on both sides is not destroying factionalism but creating a false and destructive sense of unity. There is really only one good answer in De Fuentes’ film: stick with the Zapatistas.

Emiliano Zapata

Born on August 8, 1879, Emiliano Zapata was orphaned at the age of 17. After serving six months in the army, Zapata was discharged to a landowner to train his horses in Mexico City. There he found that the horses were treated better than the peasants of his hometown. A man of the people, Emiliano Zapata became a leading figure in Anenecuilco, where his family had lived for many generations, and he became involved in the struggles of the local peasant farmers. During this time, and for many years to follow, Zapata continued to faithfully campaign for the rights of the villagers, using ancient title deeds to establish their claims to disputed land and then pressuring the governor of the region to act.

Zapata started to use force, simply taking over the disputed land and distributing it as he saw fit. Initially, Zapata supported Madero but split with him because he called for the complete surrender of rebel forces in Morelos and spoke against Madero with his Plan de Ayala in November 1911. Zapata’s actions opened a floodgate and many more spoke out. By 1913, Madero was dead and Huerta was the president. Villa and Zapata defeated Huerta and unfortunately, Carranza became president in the messy aftermath. In early 1916, Carranza sent Pablo González, his most ruthless general, to track down and stamp out Zapata once and for all. González destroyed villages, executing all those he suspected of supporting Zapata. On April 10, 1919, Zapata was double-crossed, ambushed, and killed by Colonel Jesús Guajardo, one of González’ officers who had pretended to want to switch sides.

In chasing a union with Colonel Guajardo, Zapata met his death. For De Fuentes, this kind of unity was two-faced. The ending scene plays out an almost identical scenario to Zapata’s own. Mendoza tricks the godfather of his son, Felipe, to talk with a Carranzista general who would like to switch sides. This death brings Mendoza financial security as Felipe’s body held a hefty ransom. The death of Zapata brought Carranza enough stability to reinstall liberalism as the country’s ruling ideology. But the question remains: did this violent event really bring peace? The last image of Mendoza’s face shows a broken man, wracked with guilt and Carranza would be assassinated by 1920. Unity in Mexico was very far from a reality.

El Compadre Mendoza

We’re given clues to this fact from the start of the film. When the Zapatistas first arrive at the ranch, Mendoza gets his servants to put up a framed picture of Zapata. Then, Mendoza drinks with them, pledges his allegiance, and they thank him for his loyalty. The next scene is virtually identical except he is talking to the army and has a Huerta picture hanging up. These side-by-side identical scenes prove to be unsettling. This is not an act of unity but deception. By trying to seem genuine with both men, he seems much more fake.

When Mendoza agrees to aid the Carranzista colonel, he tells Felipe that he is coming to him with a patriotic proposal as this is what the colonel told him. When Felipe agrees with the plan, he shakes Mendoza’s hand and quickly the camera cuts to an identical shot of Felipe shaking the colonel’s hand. That cut shows us Mendoza is not serving a patriotic end. He is simply aligning himself with Carranza. These handshakes may appear to symbolically end factionalism, but they are just aiding the enemy.

De Fuentes does not simply critique Carranza and Huerta, but he shows what real unity is through the Zapatista character of Felipe. Felipe shows that real unity comes from when you stick to your guns and ideals. If you choose a side and stick to it faithfully, you can inspire many. On one visit to Mendoza’s ranch, he describes how when he is with them he forgets about the war, but he never forgets about his ideals. He never betrays his personal beliefs. When other Zapatistas try to kill Mendoza or tell him to burn down the ranch and take his wife, Felipe doesn’t flinch. 

El Compadre Mendoza

That stoic nature is contagious. The movie makes it all too clear that although Mendoza’s wife and Felipe would never betray him, they have developed romantic feelings for each other. Likewise, Mendoza’s son (also named Felipe) shows more respect and love for his godfather than his own father. Little Felipe yells out “Viva Zapata” when the Carranza soldiers come and dresses as a Zapatista. This doesn’t happen because his godfather strategizes to turn Mendoza’s son against him. He simply leads by example and sticks to his principle. This optimism has created real unity. It is an optimism that can inspire new generations like little Felipe.

Unfortunately, this is not an optimistic story. The ending is incredibly bleak. De Fuentes wrote, “We believe that the Latin audience is sufficiently cultivated and prepared to withstand the full force of reality’s cruelty and harshness. It would have been very easy to finish with a happy ending of the kind we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in films from the United States, but it is our opinion that Mexican cinema should be a faithful reflection of our grim and tragic way of being—if we want, that is, to have a cinema with its very own characteristics, and not a cinema that is a poor imitation of what comes to us from Hollywood.”

El Compadre Mendoza

In the end, Felipe is dead, and with him, the revolution, too, dies. Mendoza’s wife and his son leave the ranch before this occurs but close-ups on their faces as they ride away in the carriage, show that hope has left them. Somewhere deep down, they know that the revolution has been forced to compromise for the sake of fake patriotism. Felipe’s last appearance on screen is as a corpse hanging up at the entrance of the ranch. Is this what unity brings? This form of patriotism seems less revolutionizing and much more macabre. Mexico’s foundation is not on steady ground and its heroes are being left behind.

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