Before the internet, moviegoers would learn what was showing at their cinema by searching the cartelera, a full-page newspaper advertisement listing films with start times. Films could either be watched in their original language with subtitles or translated into Spanish for viewing.
Many theatres today are small spaces that enthrall audiences through performances rather than spectacular settings or special effects, drawing beauty through performances that leave an indelible mark on them. Some are dedicated to specific kinds of theatrical work.
The Aztecs were among the first Mesoamerican societies to organize themselves into cities and states. Through complex calendar, agricultural practices, metallurgy and social structures they established powerful empires while creating stunning art, architecture and religious buildings.
Theatre was an integral component of Aztec culture. Used both for ritualistic performance as well as public shows featuring musical and drama plays, playwrights often drew on ancient legends and myths as inspiration while having freedom to create new works of their own.
Once the Aztecs had been driven out by Spanish invasion, secular theatre flourished throughout Mexico. It reflected both ancient traditions as well as European romanticism. Later in the 1800s grew a nationalistic consciousness and world legends began appearing in Mexican plays.
Theatres designed in an atmospheric style – which recalls Mesoamerican set design – are among Mexico’s most acclaimed historical cinemas. Auditoria were often pyramidal-shaped with twinkling stars and moving clouds depicted above. San Antonio’s Majestic Theatre stands as an outstanding example of this type of set design.
The Aztec Theatre’s auditorium featured columns fashioned to resemble giant cut stones stepping up from the floor to the proscenium above, as well as walls covered in ornate plasterwork with ornate gold serpents (representing Quetzalcoatl), intricate wave and circle patterns and other Mesoamerican symbols for water and sand – these elements forming its main symmetrical elements.
Interior lighting at the theatre consisted of hidden cove lighting which produced mood lighting to suit each performance or season, from cool blue during hot summer evenings to a warmer red glow in winter. Audience reactions usually included both amazement at its size and fascination at seeing live performances take place before them.
The Spanish Invasion
When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico in the sixteenth century, theatrical performances underwent an immense transformation. Before, dramas focused on folklore and violence; now drama embraced an entirely different kind of Mexico with all of its diverse cultures and identities.
Hernan Cortes, the conqueror, encapsulated this sense of nationhood with his declaration of “New Spain.” To create it, he established towns and wrote laws which helped shape this new culture. For him, conquest wasn’t simply military conquest but an attempt at imposing his system onto indigenous populations who opposed his rule.
Getty Portal hosts a full-text facsimile of Antonio de Solis’ seventeenth-century account of the conquest as one perspective of its conflict; Miguel Leon-Portilla published Vision de los Vencidos (translated as Broken Spears).
499, featuring Eduardo San Juan as its star actor, is both documentary and fiction movie that marks 500 years since the conquest and its effects on modern-day Mexico. We follow an armored conquistador from Veracruz to Tenochtitlan – capital of Aztec empire – on his journey.
Cinema-going remains immensely popular in Mexico despite having one of the highest rates of video piracy worldwide. Selecting where and when to see a film usually involves selecting a theater by name and location; with specific seats often reserved in advance. Multiplex cinemas can provide another good option where films will be shown at various halls at different starting times throughout the day.
The Early 1900’s
Early 1900’s political and social upheaval brought with it theater flourishing across Mexico City. From the Grand Teatro de Mexico to Sculptural Space in the city center, theatrical performances took on various forms from experimental to more realistic styles; Mexican nationalism strengthened and Spanish overtook French as the official language; new thespians were trained to increase demand for plays while Carpas, where humorous comedies were performed, provided them an outlet.
As soon as the first moving pictures were seen on Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope and Auguste Lumiere’s cinematographe projector, audiences started flocking to theaters in Mexico City’s theaters for one-minute international movies viewed through these new mediums – even women began coming. They quickly made one minute movies a popular form of entertainment!
As a result, numerous female thespians became involved with film. One of the most noted filmmakers during this era in Mexico was Luis Bunuel who directed films such as Espaldas Mojadas (Wetbacks) starring Ninon Sevilla and Dos Tipos de Cuidado (1951).
Surrealism thrived in Mexico as its scope expanded and varied. Mexico’s lush landscape, ancient mythology, witchcraft traditions, and work by artists like Kahlo provided surrealist visionaries with ample material. Untethered from Europe’s traditional artistic practices, their work became mind-bending and more complex than Breton ever could have anticipated. For female artists in particular it represented a liberation; freed from rigid gender roles in Europe while simultaneously drawing strength from Mexico’s matriarchal societies which held women magic powers!
The 20th Century
Since the 20th century, Mexican theatre has undergone profound change, becoming more representative of its diverse voices and cultures. Instead of emphasizing folklore or violence alone, contemporary Mexican authors now emphasize Mexicanness by emphasizing unique characteristics associated with national identities.
Laredo saw its first documented professional Spanish-language acting company in 1884; by 1900, touring repertory companies, resident combination companies, and large stock companies from Mexico City were performing in Texas.
Not all touring companies performed full-length plays; some included humorous short comic afterpieces or comedies, which were very popular with audiences in the United States. These performances helped many Spanish-speaking communities recognize and appreciate their cultural ties with Mexico; some companies included both Americans and Mexican actors in their roster of actors.
Some touring companies remained in the United States while others returned to Mexico during and following Mexico’s revolutionary period, 1910. When several such touring companies left due to political unrest and never came back, it marked a dramatic decrease in theatrical activity within America.
After the 1960s, Mexican cinema experienced a period of decline. Notable young directors at this time included Luis Bunuel (El Angel Exterminador, 1962), Arturo Ripstein (Tarahumara 1972, El lugar sin limites 1977), Felipe Cazals (Las Poquianchis 1976 and Rojo Amanecer 1978) and Jorge Fons (Letters from Marusia 1970 and Santa Sangre 1984).
Mexican filmmakers emerged as major influences in international cinema during the late 1980s and 90s. Directors such as Emilio Azcarraga Milmo (Videocine, 1979), Octavio Zuluaga (The Golden Door, 1986), and Jorge Negrete (The Invisible Man, 1973) produced popular cult horror and action films that addressed themes such as revenge or supernatural issues that had previously been neglected in their home countries.
The New Century
Theaters were able to reenter the Mexican market during the late 1990s and 2000s following years of decline due to deregulation, leading to an influx of independent filmmakers who challenged traditionalist views with their unique visions. This movement came to be known as New Mexican Cinema (Nuevo Cine Mexicano) which focused on portraying Mexico with all of its honesty – eliminating melodrama while instead touching upon themes like drug trafficking, immigration and other social issues affecting daily Mexican lives.
The movement has seen a revival of Mexico’s once thriving theater industry, with many older theaters built during the middle of the 20th century either demolished or converted into modern multiplexes with multiple screens and thousands of spectator capacity. Movie-going remains popular pastime in Mexico despite growing online video piracy making it more difficult for box office movies to gain an adequate audience here.
One of the key achievements in New Mexican Cinema has been Neo-Realism’s rise. Filmmakers like Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu have used this style to portray life in Mexico through real life settings; his film Octavio and Susana uses an intimate setting to address poverty issues within Mexico.
The film employs a handheld camera to give it a documentary aesthetic, immersing the audience in their lives as an observer of two protagonists’ lives. This technique belongs to neo-realism’s conventions and helps make this truly national cinema style, committed to subverting stereotypes and misrepresentations found elsewhere in media.