- Public Spectacles of Violence: Sensational Cinema and Journalism in Early Twentieth-Century Mexico and Brazil by Rielle Navitski
Rielle Navitski's study of violence in early-twentieth-century Mexican and Brazilian cinema is an ambitious and wide-ranging exploration of the period's visual culture in its many forms. Immersive in scope, the book analyzes the mediums of modernity, encompassing newspapers, postcards, magazines, and several genres of film. This critical mass of mass media can sometimes feel disorienting, but Navitski's chrono-thematic approach gradually uncovers her core thesis: early twentieth-century Mexican and Brazilian film fixated on violence because the countries' immediate history was violent—as was the process of industrialization—and fictional, cinematic displays of violence helped citizens disentangle clear moral messages from convoluted actualities (14). Navitski's introduction does an exceptional job narrating the countries' tortuous routes to independence, although attempts to distinguish her distinct contributions sometimes become mired in the sheer abundance of her material.
Navitski's text is divided into two parts: the first addresses depictions of violence, sensationalism, and melodrama in Mexico; the second reexamines many of these themes in the Brazilian context, while also examining regional cinemas outside the São Paulo–Rio de Janeiro corridor. By far the [End Page 233] longest chapter is her first, which takes up the content and cinematic legacy of Enrique Rosas's 1919 film El automóvil gris. Connecting the violence portrayed in the film to the grisly legacy of the real-life "Grey Automobile Gang," Navitski analyzes how the film's reportage aesthetic left viewers uncertain as to whether they were watching a reenactment or real events (32). She convincingly demonstrates the importance of El automóvil gris in Mexican cinematic history, placing it within a larger genre of films depicting revolutionary violence (50), and tying it to a fixation on criminality and criminal taxonomies in the illustrated press (43). Her argument could be considerably strengthened by the inclusion of additional images, but this is likely an editorial limitation rather than an authorial deficiency. The chapter's final section on women seems slightly disjointed, but as a whole it is a well-developed case study.
The second Mexico-located chapter brings to the fore tensions between Hollywood film importations and local film producers. Navitski skillfully navigates the influence trap, demonstrating ways Mexican cinema actively resisted American tropes—principally those of the lazy Mexican "greaser" and the sensual "señorita"—while also yearning after its action-packed dynamism (88). Navitski highlights the nationalist verve exhibited by Mexico City–based filmmaker Miguel Contreras Torres in his El Zarco and De raza azteca (101), and in Gabriel García Moreno's El tren fantasma (105). It would be nice to see Navitski acknowledge ties to larger artistic and cultural discourses, but, admittedly, she is already juggling a wide range of material.
Despite El tren fantasma's critical success, Mexican regional cinema was ultimately not self-sustaining. This is a problem Navitski revisits in her third chapter on crime cinema in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Recalling her first chapter, here Navitski focuses on two true crime-cum-movie narratives (Os estranguladores and A mala sinistra) whose production and reception parallel that of El automóvel gris and demonstrate Brazilians' similar appetite for cinematic violence. Most of the chapter, however, is given to a discussion of various modes of turn-of-the-century print media—including the crônica, police blotter, illustrated magazine, newspaper, and folhetim—detailing how the consumption of these various forms served to demarcate social stratifications and reinforce social hierarchies based on gender and socioeconomic class (142). This focus is both relevant and insightful in the context of Brazil's conservative social climate.
The symbiotic nature of early-twentieth-century news and film is a recurring theme as Navitski recounts how sensational events became fodder for local filmmakers, and how domestic film industries and movie stars attracted the attention of newspaper journalists (86). This entanglement—evident today more than ever—was propelled...