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Friday, April 30, 2021

Each Madman with his/her Theme (Dir. Juan Bustillo Oro, 1939): Why I Love Mexican Cinema: 3

Cada loco con su tema (Each Madman with his / her Own Theme) is a high-energy and highly intelligent farce from the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema (Cine de Oro). As a farce, it entertains the audience its use of exaggeration, absurdity, and over-the-top performances. However, as in most of Bustillo Oro’s work, Cada loco con su tema uses Expressionistic cinematography and themes from film noir to satirize a genre (pulp horror radio) and to pull in the tradition of the “carpas.” The carpas were Mexican (and also Mexican-American) traveling tent shows that traversed Mexico and the southwest United States from the time of the Mexican Revolution, 1910, through the 1940s. The high-energy theatrical spectacles were intended for working-class Spanish-speaking audiences and as such, they often mocked the wealthy classes and the mores of the rich, especially the elites descended from the Spanish who were granted land and privilege during the Spanish colonial times.  Thus, they could be, and generally were, anarchic and subversive. The brilliant comedian, Cantinflas, got his start in the carpas, where he perfected his “peladito” character, a cheerful and quick-witted street-smart character who finds himself in absurd situations, often deliberately defying conventions of the upper classes (who are indistinguishable from corrupt politicians and organized crime families).

In Cada loco con su tema, there are many levels of mistaken identity and misperceptions due to completely flawed assumptions. The main premise is that a horror-radio show writer with a comical name (Julio César Napoleón ) has driven himself into a state of extreme paranoia by being immersed in crime drama and horror all day, every day. After a nervous breakdown, he is advised to spend a month at a sanatorium operated by his doctor. To avoid possible career repercussions, he takes on an assumed name, Justiniano Conquián , which, coincidentally, is the same name as a mild-mannered and rather befuddled taxidermist who must endure one month in the ancestral family mansion, reputed to be haunted by spirits that drive one mad or to one’s death. Justiniano will inherit the full 6 million pesos. The catch is that he has to emerge from the month both alive and sane.  It won’t be easy. The real Justiniano has the bad luck of having greedy relatives who are eager to push Justiniano into madness or death so that they can have equal shares of the inheritance.

So, with such a premise, there are many opportunities for identity confusion, mix-ups, and comical misperceptions.  Most of the action takes place at the ancestral family castle, where Julio César  and his assistant, Serafin, end up after taking a wrong turn on their way to the mountain sanatorium. Justiniano’s scheming relatives are already installed there. Justiniano arrives a day late, having spent a night at the mountain sanatorium after also taking a wrong turn.


Julio César Napoleón                A successful, but very high-strung writer of horror shows for the radio          

Justiniano Conquián                  A mild-mannered taxidermist who may inherit 6 million pesos

Josefina Larios Conquián          Lovely younger sister of Justiniano

Serafin del Monte                      Julio César’s assistant

Dr. German Casca Conquián     Distant relative who devises a scheme to cheat Justiniano

Augusta                                    The butler’s wife who foretells doom and gloom

Severo                                     The butler, and also, secretly a contender to the inheritance

Lucrecia                                   The scheming wife of one of the contenders to the inheritance

Dr. Luis Jiménez                       Psychiatrist who runs a sanatorium based on his personal theories


Grand Guignol-esque Naturalism:  The Grand-Guignol Theatre was a theatre in Paris that specialized in horrifying spectacles known to make people faint, become sick, and otherwise traumatized. In a way, they can be said to make a mockery of the Greek notion that the efficacy of theatre is in its purifying and emotionally clarifying catharsis. The Grand Guignol productions were extremely popular from the late 19th century through 1962 and exercised a tremendous influence on radio, film, and expressionistic experimental theatre such as that of Antonin Artaud (The Theatre of Cruelty). The theatre was an outgrowth of literary naturalism as pioneered by Zola, Flaubert, and Proust. The spectacles were highly popular, and prided themselves on giving people extreme experiences – something that found its way into French philosophy as well; for example, in the case of Foucault’s quest for “limit experiences.”  Always a bit disreputable and willing to toy with the frontiers of life and death (they often boasted of having a doctor on call for people who needed medical attention due to the intense shock), the Grand-Guignol Theatre became a kind of “guilty secret.” The direct heirs of the horror spectacles were the popular genres in literature and film, which included pulp fiction, horror radio, sensation novels, and horror films. Cada loco con su tema is a parody of the Grand-Guignolesque productions, and in subverting the genre, it also calls into question the true impact of art, and the nature of catharsis in theatre.

Reality is a Deconstruction.  In Cada loco con su tema reality is seriously and repeatedly called into question. Perhaps the most powerful message in Cada loco is the tacit suggestion that reality is a choice, and not something to be independently verified by empirical observation or sensory perceptions. Because they believe that they are in an asylum and that what they are seeing are simply theatrical productions designed to shock them into their senses, Julio César  and Serafin scrunch up their faces, close their eyes, and loudly chant: This is not real! This is not real! The comical aspect is that they are actually closing their eyes to something that is quite real.  When Julio César  chooses to assume the identity of Justiniano Conquián , he is also choosing his own reality. For the “real” Justiniano Conquián , his befuddlement and tenuous grasp on what is going on around him have the opposite effect. For Justiniano Conquián , reality is not a choice, but a slippery slope that slides just beyond his grasp. Taxidermy further illustrates the “reality dialectic” – the taxidermy specimens are real depictions of a life that is no longer a life. They are dead – except for the supposedly taxidermied gorilla, which turns out to be quite alive (albeit not a taxidermy specimen at all, but a man in a gorilla suit).

 This is a brief excerpt of a larger work by Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D.  You may access the article here. 

Julio César Napoleón, a horror radio show writer, arrives home to the sound of “hands up or I’ll shoot!” but does not realize it is his radio that has automatically turned on at the hour of his “Murder in the Madhouse.” Bustillo Oro uses the chiaroscuro of German Expressionism to emphasize the fact that this is a part of the horror genre (or a parody / subversion of it). 

Justiniano Conquián, a mild-mannered taxidermist, learns that he will inherit $6 million pesos if he can manage to survive a month in the Conquián Castle without going insane or dying. 

Dramatic backlighting gives Augusta an unearthly glow, and the light that illuminates her crucifix gives rise to the thought that one needs divine protection to survive a night in the castle

This is a dramatic point of view shot that reminds one of Bustillo Oro’s masterpiece, Dos Monjes. Dr. Conquián takes Julio César’s suggestion to start the evening meal with a prayer – a “Black Mass Prayer” to an absurd extreme. When Julio César enthusiastically joins in, Dr. Conquián impatiently chides him, “Stop blaspheming my blasphemy!”  While the Black Mass is an inversion of Christianity and Catholic rituals, the Julio César’s interruptions and farcical asides are inversions and subversions of the subversion. The result is comical chaos. 

When the loudly blaring radio program, “Murder in the Madhouse,” opens with “drop your gun!” it so startles everyone that they drop their guns. Julio César scoops it up and subdues the scoundrels, the scheming, greedy distant relatives. 

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