Sergio Sánchez Suárez’s “Tequila: the Story Of A Passion”, a standout at LALIFF 2011, was selected as the opening night film of MEXICAN CINEMA: GUADALAJARA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL, at The American Cinematheque.
First time director Sergio Sánchez’s bravura period film “Tequila: The Story Of Passion”, shot for a mere three million dollars, has the drive and style of a classic Hollywood film. The story of a love triangle begins as a bedroom farce and descends to a hellish madness of vengeance that leaves the three main characters dead.
Inspired by “Cavalleria rusticana”, Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and Mexico’s Golden Age films of Emilio Fernández (“Flor silvestre”, “María Candelaria”) it’s the sort of sweeping entertainment Hollywood used to make in the Studio system. Laced with Oedipal issues like the melodramas of George Stevans, Douglas Sirk and Vincent MInnelli, Tequila’s tragedy flows to a climax as inexorable as a flooding river.
Set in Tequila in the 1940’s, the region where the eponymous drink is harvested and distilled, the handsomely appointed period melodrama sails on the operatic score of Carlo Siliotto (” La misma luna”, “Nomad: The Warrior”, “The Flight of the Innocent” “La corsa dell’innocente.”)
Late one night, Sánchez Suárez’s brother Rodrigo fell asleep in front of the TV, playing a version of “Cavalleria rusticana.” The music reminded Sergio of “The Godfather” and he was hooked. Coppola, the son of composer, is an opera fan. Opera Fan Coppola, the son of composer, used operatic themes in his blockbuster Godfather Trilogy. (“The Love Theme From The Godfather”, written by Nino Rota, models a theme from Verdi’s overture to “La Forza del Destino.”) Watching the opera, the idea of Tequila came into focus.
Disguised as a meek peon, his sombrero pulled low over his eyes, Antonio (Unax Ugalde-“Alatriste”, “There Be Dragons”) sneaks into Uncle Vicente’s well-defended Hacienda. Scaling vine covered walls; he enters the bedroom of his aunt and mistress, Lola (sensual Daniela Schmidt- “Sea of Dreams”.) The adulterous lovers linger over their morning farewells. Vicente’s crew returns early and Antonio flees through the now crowded grounds, trampling an old worker in his flight. His fine horse is too fast for his pursuers. Vigilent Vicente worries. Nothing was stolen. Why did the intruder breach the walls?
Only Milagros (Jimena Guerra), daughter of the overseer Leoncio (Jorge Zárate) knows his identity. Pregnant Milagros intends to blackmail him into marriage and visits his mother Remedios to tell her about her future grandchild.
A nouveaux riche couple in a Rolls arrives at the Hacienda. Complaining about the rural conditions, Lola’s snobbish, conniving mother Carmela (Cristina Michaus) refuses to enter Vicente’s house. A well-played heart attack improvised by Sixto (José Sefami), her crafty brow-beaten husband, and she relents.
Forced to wait for payment, a couple of American salesmen, delivering a new still to the Hacienda. join the house party. The ensemble lunch scene with the American engineers mixes comedy and stolen moments before triggering the last act. Adams (John Gilbert) is embarrassed by young Smith’s drunken behavior. Edward Furlong (“Terminator 2: Judgment Day”) plays the boorish American who inflames the already peeved Vicente. The script pokes fun with some reverse racist remarks at the Americans’ expense.
Sánchez Suárez assembled a powerful cast:
Spanish leading man Unax Ugalde-“Alatriste”, “There Be Dragons” is riveting as Antonio, playing with gusto his changes from comic backdoor man to sacrificial lover.
Close-ups of Zárate (“El infierno”), exploiting his pugnacious bulldog chin, are used as graphic elements and Zárate has never been better.
Angélica Aragón, a true Mexican diva, is a fountain of calibrated emotion. Pouring a drink becomes a statement in her hands. Running to her dead son’s side, she collapses into a living Pieta.
Character actor Salvador Sánchez is in his element as the doting uncle driven mad by jealousy. All the emotional ironies ride on his performance.
In a monologue to his adopted heir he describes his familial tragedy. “The day they broke into the Hacienda” and killed Antonio’s father, Vicente rescued his mother from a multiple rape. The struggle lost him his manhood “I was never able to be with a woman again, let alone have children.” He raised newborn Antonio as his heir, sacrificing everything to see him become a man.
Sergio Sánchez Suárez has a masterly way with crowds. The opening set piece when all of the workers on Vicente’s estate chase the mysterious intruder; the bravura finale, a village hanging (shot with local non actors); and the comical dinner table scene introduce actors and actions seamlessly. A Good Friday Passion Play and crucifixion prefigures the final tragedy.
To film the final scene, one of the five camera’s worked the crowd was covered in a sombrero. Mexico has a long history of lynching. The non-actors became so involved in the lynching that Sánchez Suárez could barely get them to stop when he called cut. The film is full of visual poetry: Antonio’s nighttime ride through the agave fields, the train sequence, shot through the windows of a speeding train, as Antonio searches for Lola, and an aerial shot of the train snaking through the green countryside, all stay in your mind.
There was as much tragic drama behind the scenes as in front of the camera. The film honors two fallen comrades “In Memorium”- Pablo Boldó Suárez’s (1990-2008) and Rubén Uriza, Cerda (1948-2008).
Producer Daniela Uriza’s father, Olympian Equestrian Rubén Uriza saved the film when their budget was stolen electronically. Uriza, who competed in Mexico’s Equestrian team at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics, died of a heart attack during production. (His father, also Rubén Uriza, was a gold medalist Equestrian at the London Olympics in 1948.)
Originally budgeted at a million dollars (raised from friends and Tequila San Mateas in Magdalena, Tequila) the money was stolen from Santander bank, hacked as it was being transferred to HSBC. There were no laws against Internet theft in Mexico at the time.
Daniela Uriza and her family Rubén Uriza, his lawyer brother Manuel Uriza, and his son Ruben (the youngest law professor at the prestigious Libre De Direcho) hounded Santander. In the end their money was recovered, the only one of 40 victims who was paid back.
Refusing to be stopped, the team raised another two million dollars from a tax incentive program offered by Hacienda (Mexico’s IRS), Sauza Tequila and Banco Inbursa.
Sánchez Suárez’s 18-year-old cousin, Rescue Ranger Pablo Boldó Suárez, fell from his rooftop apartment in an epileptic fit. At his funeral, Sánchez Suárez reunited with old friend producer Santiago Garcia Galvan who financed the film, and brought Siliotto to the project. The film was shot in three locations, the town of Tapalpa (Jalisco), the agave fields of Tequila, and the Hacienda in El Carmen. The beautiful train sequence was created digitally in a studio.
Silloto’s magnificent score, which drives the action, was performed by musicians from the Querétaro Philharmonic Orchestra. Cinematography by Andronicus Gonzalez, art direction by Rodrigo Sánchez Suárez, costumes by Azin Hernandez, visual effects by Exodo Digital Workshop, special effects by Chovy FX and impressive crowd support from Stunt Coordinator Julián Bucio, First AD Fez Noriega and Second AD Axel Uriegas Duarte (wrangling non-pros) add to this handsome package.