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Rio Escondido (1948) tells the story of Rosaura Salazar, a young teacher with a heart condition, who is called upon by the President to travel to the deserted town of Rio Escondido and educate the people there. Once she arrives, she has to fight the evil landlord, Don Regino, who has transformed the town into his own property. In the end, Rosaura is forced to kill him and subsequently suffers a heart attack. She dies shortly after receiving a letter from the president thanking her for her service.
The previous Emilio Fernandez film I discussed, Maria Candelaria, was one that was marked by Mexico’s president at the time, Manuel Ávila Camacho. His administration completed the transition from military to civilian leadership, ended confrontational anticlericalism, reversed the push for socialist education, and restored a working relationship with the US during World War II. Maria Candelaria is a film that reveres clerical figures and compares socialist values to mob justice. When Rio Escondido was released Mexico had a new president: Miguel Alemán Valdés. He was the first civilian to hold the presidency for a full term after a series of revolutionary generals.
His administration is remembered for the young, college-educated politicians appointed to his cabinet; for corruption in high office; for an emphasis on state-supported industrialization; for the reform of the government-controlled party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI); for the decline in the number of military officers in political office; for additions to the National University; and for increased ties between politicians and business elites. With that being the case, this film looks past the Mexican Revolution.
It declares that the Mexican people should be looking towards other, less divisive leaders than Pancho Villa or Emiliano Zapata. We have to look towards the future and find peace in reform, not revolution. This necessity is prefaced at the beginning of the film when Rosaura is walking to the President’s office. Several of the objects in the presidential palace speak to her including Diego Rivera’s mural The History of Mexico, and finally two paintings in the Ambassador’s Room, one of Benito Juárez and the other of Miguel Hidalgo, with an authoritative off-camera voice. In front of Mexico Today and Tomorrow, the third part of Rivera’s tripartite mural, the omniscient voice interprets the mural’s narrative of class struggle and state repression.
When Rosaura enters the Ambassador’s Room, the off-camera voice continues, “Yes, this is [a portrait of] Juárez, that little Indian shepherd and later president who fought against the European invaders and who dedicated his life to the service of his people. And this [Mexico’s national hymn begins to play] is Hidalgo, the elder priest who broke chains and sounded bells, and who gave to his people their first flag.” In all the Mexican history depicted in these artworks, the revolution is glossed over and it is these two men, Juarez and Hidalgo, who stand out. Then, when she meets with the president, he reiterates the importance of fixing Mexico’s problems, regardless of party. This is a dig at the divisive sectarianism of the revolutionary era and a plea for a new one to begin. Rosaura is a part of a new generation of educators under Alemán’s philosophies. Only one year before the release of the film, Article 3 of the constitution had been changed from saying that public education was to be “socialist and exclude any religious doctrine,” to saying that it “will tend to develop harmonically all of the faculties of the human being, and foster in him love for country, and the awareness of international solidarity.” This is exactly what Rosaura does.
She distinguishes herself from other leaders or educators of the past when she gets to the town. There she declares that more than the violence and fear that lives with these villagers, it is the ignorance that is their worst enemy. This ignorance should not be fought with a bloody revolution but with slow and effective education. This non-violent attempt is hard to keep up when confronted with the evil landlord, Don Regino, who claims that “here, there is no other president but me.” In other words, Alemán’s reforms have no business in Rio Escondido. His words seem to almost set up a Wild West showdown, but that doesn’t happen. Rosaura does not want violence. In an act of karma after refusing to burn the house of a woman deceased from smallpox because he does not want to lose property, Don Regino is infected and the doctor, a friend of Rosaura, decides to treat him on two conditions. He must reopen the town school and help everyone get vaccinated. Don Regino has no choice but to oblige, but the violence does not end there.
Don Regino’s thugs use violent force to round up the Indigenous villagers for their vaccination. Still, Rosaura is able to stop the violence by enlisting the help of a rather clueless Priest to peacefully round them up with the sound of the Church bells. Pretty soon, all seems well in Rio Escondido. The town gets vaccinated and the school begins to run properly under Rosaura’s watchful and benevolent eye. She even teaches the kids about Benito Juarez, an indigenous man, not unlike them who first received an education at age 12 and went on to change the country. By now, even Don Regino seems changed and pleasant, but it is all a facade. In reality, Don Regino is enamored with Rosaura and sees the chance to own another property by making her his mistress. When he informs her of his plans, she is disgusted but still believes she can invoke education as an act of revenge against him.
When he shows up at the school, she makes an impassioned and corporatist speech against him. She declares, “This man, who is the municipal president of Río Escondido, like so many other authorities in Mexico, is only concerned with satisfying the pettiest of his ambitions and his basest instincts. . . . [His] time is over because now we have at the head of the government of Mexico a president who has resolved that his people regenerate, a president who aspires to end the terror spread by people like this one [pointing to Don Regino], and who wants Mexicans to help him build a fatherland so big and salubrious that it will be everyone’s pride and sacred joy.” These words sting, but not enough. Don Regino cuts off the water supply and kills Rosaura’s adoptive son when he tries to steal some. Fernandez questions whether good-spirited reform can kill a tyrant. In the end, it isn’t enough but Fernandez also makes it clear that there will be no more violence to follow.
When Don Regino goes to Rosaura’s house and attempts to rape her, she takes a gun that her doctor friend had left her and shoots him. The indigenous villagers, having heard her screams, rush to her house where they find Don Regino’s thugs and they swiftly kill them. In the excitement and terror of the moment, Rosaura suffers a fatal heart attack. Even though Rosaura got rid of the evil in the town and did it for the right reasons and as a last resort, she still has to die. Her sacrifice opens the door for Alemán’s dream of a new Mexico to become a reality. She dies the second she receives a letter from the president thanking her for her service. Rosaura has killed the beast and herself so that this violence can only be a faint memory, not something that lingers and affects the lives of others.
One major improvement from Maria Candelaria, is, in fact, the humanization of the indigenous people and the fact that they are not forced to sacrifice themselves as well. Though an indigenous crowd gets together to murder people they believe to have dishonored them, similar to Maria Candelaria, their reasons are far more understandable. Don Regino’s thugs have beaten them all their lives and though Rosaura has to die for her violent but reasonable act, they do not. Rosaura signed up for this kind of sacrifice, they did not so they may live. They can even thrive with the knowledge that men like them, Benito Juarez, have been able to rise up and change the world. Rosaura, like Christ, has washed away their sins so they may live freely with the knowledge that change is possible.