Journeys and Destinations: The Films of María Novaro
María Novaro is widely considered to be the most successful director to have emerged out of a flourish of female talent in the Mexican film industry since the 1980s. With four features and eleven short films to her credit, she is certainly the most prolific.
Novaro’s reputation as an original talent was secured when in 1991 her second feature Danzón was warmly received by the Director’s Section of the Cannes Film Festival. The film was also featured at other festivals, including Havana where Novaro was named best director, and Chicago and Valladolid where the female lead, María Rojo, won Best Actress honours. After commercial release in Europe and the U.S., Danzón went on to make a box office profit in Mexico, rare for an “arthouse” release.
María Novaro was born María Luisa Novaro Peñaloza, in Mexico City on September 11, 1951. In the mid ’70s she studied Sociology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) during which time she participated in a feminist filmmaking collective as consultant on the production of various documentaries. This involvement in filmmaking inspired her to study film production formally at the Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos (CUEC), also based at the UNAM. During her studies in the early 1980s Novaro made a range of super 8 and 16mm short films. She subsequently worked in the industry as a sound mixer and cinematographer, before becoming assistant director to Alberto Cortés on his film Love Around the Corner (1985). She then launched immediately into her own directing career with her first short film Una Isla Rodeada de Agua (An Island Surrounded by Water). Novaro continues living in Mexico City and is presently carrying over the theme of her last two features – borderlands – to her current project: a novel about Chicano women.
Women in Mexican film
From the late 1970s there were various forces at play in creating a more hospitable environment for female participation in the Mexican film industry. The initial and most influential being the formation of the Colectivo Cine-Mujer (Women Film Collective), of which Novaro was an active member. This collective was dedicated to telling women’s stories on film and to expanding employment opportunities for women in the film industry. Although the collective disbanded in the mid-1980s, its legacy remains significant. A characteristic of all women directors once active in the collective is a strong directorial voice. They each participate actively in the central creative aspects of their projects – directing, screenwriting and editing. Novaro’s own personal narrative techniques, thematic concerns and visual style are evident throughout her oeuvre
Another factor contributing to the large numbers of women in the Mexican film industry during the 1970s and 1980s was the increase in funding of the two main film schools, the Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos (CUEC) and the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica (CCC), and a significant increase in the number of female students admitted. (By the end of the 1980s the majority of students at the CCC were female). A third factor, which Novaro herself has emphasized as significant in her development as a filmmaker, was the demise in the 1970s of the film unions with their explicitly sexist regulations (such as the ban on women working as assistant directors). These changing dynamics facilitated the rise of the current generation of Mexican film directors, of which one third is female. This is arguably the highest percentage in any national film industry.
Classical Mexican cinema abounded with virtuous, suffering mothers and fallen ‘malas mujeres’ (bad women). Novaro’s most valuable contribution is to have definitively rescued the Mexican female protagonist from this earlier simplistic and stifling stereotyping. Indeed, as I will argue, her most distinctive characteristic is the capacity to portray complex, nuanced characters who reside in challenging, ambiguous zones of human experience.
Just as Novaro’s characters resist convenient simplification, she too defies categorization. She is at once celebrated and berated for telling stories of women’s lives without adhering to any one ideological position. Predictably this has lead to debate about whether or not she is a feminist filmmaker, with some critics chiding her for not being so, while others consider her too extreme a feminist, insisting her work relegates male characters to marginalized and demeaned positions. (1) Novaro herself, whilst clarifying that she does not want to be associated with, nor limited by, any one ideological stance, has stated that she considers herself to be feminist in her personal life but not in her work. The high profile lead actress of Danzón, and subsequent Mexican congresswoman, María Rojo, does however consider herself, her work in Danzón and the film itself to be feminist. (2)
Novaro’s central body of work
Novaro’s directorial debut, a 28 minute short Una Isla Rodeada de Agua (1985), both garnered the attention of the film community and introduced the dramatic themes that Novaro would continue to treat in all her cinematic work to date. The film gives a feminist twist to arguably the most famous Mexican novel, Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo, in which a young illegitimate boy embarks on a journey in search of his father. Novaro’s film tells the story of a young girl who travels from the Guerrero coast to the mountains in search of the mother who abandoned her. Her next short Azul Celeste (1987) was an episode of a feature film, Historias de la Ciudad (Stories of the City), and again addresses the theme of a vulnerable female character in search of a relative. In this case it is a young pregnant woman looking, not for her own parent, but the father of her child. Her search will become an exploration of Mexico City, a theme Novaro carries over into her first feature length film, Lola (1989).
In Lola Novaro breaks radically with the previously mentioned binary opposition of female representation in classical Mexican cinema. Here we see a flawed, realistic mother who, through her rejection of her family’s middle class values, ends up having to navigate the harsh reality of life in Mexico City as a single mother. While loving toward her daughter, she feels deeply ambivalent about motherhood and finds it depressingly challenging to raise a child alone, in an aggressive city environment.
Novaro’s career was established and rests on her subsequent feature, Danzón. The film navigates the spaces of the traditional dance hall culture of Mexico, rife with strict gender codes and procedures, and the less contained space of the port side town of Veracruz. The film features marginalized characters and less prescribed ethics, and affirms both for their strengths.
Danzón is fundamentally the story of an engaging woman’s self-discovery. The protagonist Julia Solorzano (María Rojo) is a middle-aged single mother who works as a telephone receptionist. She shares convivial and supportive friendships with her female colleagues with whom she frequents dance halls. It is clear that dancing is the highlight of her life. She relishes the strict codes of conduct prescribed by the danzón (popular dance hall), and in particular the formal respect with which her regular dance partner Carmelo (Daniel Regis) treats her. When invited to dance by a young man, she refuses him, commenting to her friend Silvia that a woman should never dance with a younger partner. When Carmelo doesn’t appear for three consecutive dance meetings, Julia becomes worried and, suspecting he may have returned to Veracruz, his city of origin, travels there to find him. The trip turns out, however, to be more a quest of self-discovery than a search for a friend.
Veracruz, a Southern port city of Mexico with a warm climate and Caribbean flavour, becomes emblematic of the traits Julia will unearth in herself while there. She will experience some respite from the ordered working and maternal roles she fulfills in Mexico City, while realistically remaining mindful of her responsibilities there. We will come to suspect that whilst Julia clearly appreciates the ritualized order of the danzón, perhaps she is at a deeper level also drawn to its underlying forces of rhythm and physicality.
Julia quickly befriends a transvestite Suzy (Tito Vasconcelos) and a group of prostitutes who help her in her quest to find Carmelo. Suzy encourages Julia to emphasize her femininity in her self-presentation, with a brighter wardrobe, jewelry and make up. Novaro is certainly suggesting that it is liberating for Julia to be more expressive of her sensuality. It is testament to Novaro’s comfort with ambiguity, however, that she acknowledges that Julia, donning high heels and red lipstick, is simultaneously more vulnerable to a threatening, unwelcome male gaze and a pleasant sexually charged male encounter. Dressed for the first time in her new attire, she is both harassed by intrusive workmen and approached by an attractive young man with whom she will have an enjoyable fling. She is now free to act outside the conventions prohibiting a woman from dancing with a younger man.
Once Julia has abandoned her plan of locating Carmelo and savored Veracruz for a week longer than originally intended, she returns to her teenage daughter, her friends and her job in Mexico City. She also returns to the dance hall, where Carmelo appears, returned from his absence, to politely touch her shoulder and invite her to dance. Novaro has explained that she thought the danzón was an appropriate frame for the story (3) and she does indeed literally frame the story with an opening shot of dancing feet and an extended final shot of whole dancing bodies, at the centre of which saunter Julia and Carmelo. Margo Glantz has observed that whilst the film begins with fragmented bodies, just dancing feet, by the end of the film we see a harmonious whole. (4) It is here that we find the essence of the story: Julia, who once danced with only one part of herself, now engages her whole self in the dance. As an integrated woman, aware of her own desires, she now confidently gazes into Carmelo’s eyes (in a remarkably long shot) with an expression brimming with energy, composure and possibilities. An ending, typical of Novaro, that invites open speculation into the character’s futures.
Novaro’s subsequent feature El Jardín del Edén (The Garden of Eden, 1994) was an ambitious, ensemble piece which continues her exploration of themes such as motherhood and female friendship, however, set in Tijuana, its central concern is that of borderlands. Novaro presents various aspects of the borderland experience via four female figures: a white American traveler, a Chicana curator, an indigenous woman and a widowed mother of three. As the critic Maldonado points out, this strategy does not allow for rounded characterization so we are left with broadly drawn types. (5) Rashkin argues that, similarly, the setting of Tijuana is presented as a place emblematic of borderlands rather than as a realistic city where real lives take shape. (6) The film does overstretch its reach and remains somewhat mired down in abstraction. It was not successfully received critically or commercially.
The opening sequence of Novaro’s next feature, Sin Dejar Huella (Without Leaving a Trace, 2000), thematically picks up where El Jardín del Edén left off: on the border. The opening shot depicts one of the protagonists, Ana (Tiaré Scanda), literally crossing the fence from the Arizona desert of the USA into the Sonora desert of Mexico. From there the notion of border is at play metaphorically throughout this story of two strong willed women, who meet during their respective flights from pursuers, and become unlikely companions fleeing their past. Ana, a woman in her thirties, is a specialist in Mayan prehispanic art. She is being pursued by a tenacious police officer who knows of her involvement in smuggling stolen archeological artifacts. Aurelia, a working class mother of two, is being pursued by her boyfriend, whose supply of cocaine she has stolen. Their journeys are as much about escaping their pursuers as they are about freeing themselves from the internal demons that have lead them to their current predicaments. The film is intriguing and original in its inclusion of Mayan characters and settings. It showcases some memorable examples of Novaro’s expressionist flourishes, such as a startling sequence in which out of nowhere we see a red car dive into a transparent lake and, in vertical paralysis, gradually sink south. The lake’s surface is made menacing by reflections of imposing tree trunks. Novaro then immediately cuts to a public hall constructed of brown pillars and red lights, which mirrors the previous image and hence carries over the threatening atmosphere. The film never quite establishes the momentum necessary to compel it forward, but it is a welcome exploration of an unlikely female friendship and the ending, which sees the two women band together, is a strong affirmation of female solidarity.
Each of Novaro’s films is structured around the organizing principle of a physical journey and deals with the themes of motherhood, female friendship and absent males. In Una Isla Rodeada de Agua a young girl embarks on a journey in search of her mother; In Azul Celeste, which leads into Lola, a pregnant woman takes a journey to Mexico City in search of the absent father of her child. In Danzón the protagonist temporarily leaves her teenage daughter in Mexico City to look for her missing male dance partner in Veracruz. The central characters of El Jardín del Edén include a widowed mother of three and an endless wanderer, embarking on one journey after another; and Sin Dejar Huella follows the fate of two single women, one a mother of two, as they travel thousands of miles together.
Throughout the ordeals of all of these protagonists, their primary solace comes from friendships or associations with other women (which includes in the case of Danzón a transvestite who refers to herself in the feminine form). If romantic relationships with men have a place at all in the narratives they are relegated to a marginal role, such as in Lola in which the father is constantly away on tour or Danzón, in which the absent dance partner, whilst being the impetus for Julia’s trip, nevertheless becomes secondary to her voyage of self discovery and is only physically present in the narrative briefly at the beginning and again at the end.
The rhetoric of ambiguity
Given the one dimensional female stereotypes that populate classical Mexican cinema it is admirable that the most successful contemporary female Mexican director should so embrace ambiguity, not only in her conception of female characters, but also in her plot development and construction of images. Her comfort with ambiguity and realism is most evident in her character studies. All of her central characters, and most of the more marginal ones, are rounded and complex. Some, such as the protagonists of Sin Dejar Huella, to such a degree, which in less subtle hands could risk jeopardizing the audience identification with, and sympathy for, the characters. Here both characters are involved in criminal activity and are each potentially endangering the other by their association. Aurelia is putting her infant at risk through her drug dealing; Ana is risking bringing danger to a peaceful Mayan community by her visits. The characters remain endearing even as their erratic behavior disconcerts.
Novaro’s embracing of the ambiguous is most daring in her multifaceted treatment of issues relevant to the predicament of women. She refuses to simplify the complexity of the female experience in the interest of conforming to a particular ideological position. A consistent feature of her work is her acknowledgment of the many complex sociological forces that influence women’s lives, while simultaneously emphasizing the role free will and individual psychology have played in the unfolding of her protagonists’ stories. Lola and El Jardín del Edén, for example, deal with women whose roots were in the middle classes, but whose choices have driven them to precarious economic situations. Whilst acknowledging the marginality and vulnerability of these women, Novaro still insists on the element of choice involved in, for example, Lola ending up in compromising sexual situations.
Throughout her oeuvre Novaro nuances issues surrounding the sexualized gaze. Each of her films include incidents of an intrusive, degrading male gaze, but also of a welcome, male gaze and a desiring female gaze. A typical instance of Novaro’s creative use of the film medium to texture this issue occurs in Danzón as Julia’s colleague and daughter are walking through the streets of Mexico City discussing how upsetting Carmelo’s absence is to Julia. This reference immediately brings to mind the only image we have to date of Carmelo: dancing and watching over Julia in a respectful, non-sexual way. Precisely as this image is referenced, an intrusive man leers at the two women and makes an insulting sexual comment. We realize why Julia appreciates Carmelo. At a later point in the same film Novaro presents a male gaze which falls between Carmelo’s and the insulting man’s. Julia meets a handsome young man, whose gaze indicates his attraction to her, but is in no way threatening. It is suggested that this gaze, far from objectifying Julia, is actually liberating to her. In response she is initially shy and hesitant, embarrassed by her own attraction. However, after the two have made love, in a beautifully composed long shot, replete with low-key lighting, Julia sits, cigarette in hand, calm and assured, as she admires the contours of her lover’s body. Her gaze has become eroticised. We see that she will now integrate the erotic into her own sense of self and on her return see Carmelo accordingly.
Julia’s reunion with Carmelo on her return to Mexico City has generated debate. Some critics have read it as a return to, and implicit condoning of, the patriarchal order; Julia’s new awareness representing nothing more than a subversive gesture within a social order whose rigid boundaries remain intact. (7) An alternative reading, however, acknowledges Julia as an independent subject, who in exercising self-determination, can now integrate her maternal self, her sexual desires and her unconventional choice to place a courteous, respectful dance partner at the centre of her life. It is not made explicit that the relationship will adhere to normative dictates, such as marriage, or even that it will become sexual.
Novaro’s ease with ambiguity is certainly evident in the endings of all of her feature length films. She manages to take the film to a point of plot resolution, while retaining open possibilities. None of her films end with a strictly determined conclusion. In Lola the protagonist and her daughter walk together along a beach of Veracruz which, as a unified maternal image in an inviting natural setting, is a welcome contrast to the fragmented cityscape in which they have been so harassed. Clearly Novaro is suggesting an optimistic future, but after the relentless social realism of the narrative to this point, we cannot be confident that their circumstances will necessarily improve. Even if Veracruz does prove a less harsh environment their destinies in the new setting are left unknown. Danzón returns the protagonist to Mexico City after her trip to Veracruz but leaves the nature of her relationship with her dance partner ambiguous. El Jardín del Edén ends as the central character is about to return to the United States, but just as she is due to board her bus, she casually indicates she will instead take another trip to an undisclosed destination. Sin Dejar Huella, like Lola, ends with the two protagonists together on a beach. Again the implication is that they have left behind the destructive elements of their past lives and chosen instead a more wholesome future. However, given how tenaciously they were pursued throughout the narrative, we cannot be rest assured that they will easily attain a tranquil existence.
It is precisely by navigating the gray areas of human involvement that Novaro successfully captures the nuanced realities of female experiences in contemporary Mexico and allows for portraits of complex women that transcend national boundaries.
Lavaderos (The Washers) (1981) short
Sobre Las Olas (Above the Waves) (1981) short
Encaje y Azucar (Sugar and Lace) (1981) short
Es La Primera Vez (It’s the First Time) (1981) short
Conmigo la Pasarás Muy Bién (With Me You’ll Have a Good Time) (1982) short
7 a.m. (1982) short
Querida Carmen (Dear Carmen) (1983) short
Una Isla Rodeada de Agua (An Island Surrounded by Water) (1985) short; also Screenwriter
Pervertida (Perverted) (1985) short; also Screenwriter
Azul celeste (Light Blue) (1987) short; also Screenwriter
Lola (1989) also Screenwriter
Danzón (1991) also Screenwriter and Editor
Otoñal (Of Autumn) (1993) short; also Screenwriter
El Jardín del Edén (The Garden of Eden) (1994) also Screenwriter and Editor
“Edredando Sombras” (“Entangled Shadows”) (1998) episode of Cuando Comenzamos a Hablar (When We Began to Speak)
Sin Dejar Huella (Without Leaving a Trace) (2000) also Screenwriter
Ana María Amado, “Entrevista al Colectivo Cine-Mujer”, Imagenes 8, July 1980, pp. 12-19
Victor Bustos, “María Novaro: De Lola a Danzón”, Dicine 40, July 1991, p. 10-11
David William Foster, Mexico City in Contemporary Mexican Cinema, Austin, University of Texas Press, 2002
Margo Glantz, “Danzón: Los Pies de las Mexicanas”, Nitrato de Plata 17, 1994, pp. 18-21
J. Hershfield & D. Maciel (eds.) Mexico’s Cinema: A Century of Film and Filmmakers, Delaware, Scholarly Resources, 1999
J. Hershfield, “Women’s Pictures: Identity and Representation in Recent Mexican Cinema”, Canadian Journal of Film Studies 6, no. 1, Spring 1997, pp. 61-77
John King, Magical Reels, London, Verso, 1990
Daniela Michel, “Entrevista con María Novaro”, Milenio, 24 May, 1992
Veronica Maldonado, review of El Jardín del Edén, Dicine 65, January-February 1996, pp. 26-27
Elena Poniatowska, Nada, Nadie: Las Voces del Temblor, Mexico City, Era, 1998
Alejandro Medrano Platas, Quince Directores del Cine Mexicano, Mexico, Plaza y Valdés, 1999
Elissa Rashkin, Women Filmmakers in Mexico. The Country of Which We Dream, Texas, University of Texas Press, 2001
A. Reyes, Medio Siglo de Cine Mexicano, Mexico, Editorial Trillas, 1987
Teresa Solís, “Cineastas Mexicanas”, Pantalla 12, November 1990, pp. 24-27
Gabriela Yanes Gómez, Una Mirada al Espejo: El Cine de las Hermanas Novaro, Puebla, Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, 1999
Compiled by author and Albert Fung
Counter Patriarchal Vision Quests in Maria Navarro’s Danzón
Academic piece on the film.
The House of World Cultures
Brief biography and information about her work.
Bottom half of page contains a bibliography.
A Spanish page on Navaro that includes a list of resource material.
Without A Trace
A review of the film.
Women Make Movies
An Island Surrounded by Water available here.
Click here to search for María Novaro DVDs, videos and books at
- Elena Poniatowska, Nada, Nadie: Las voces del temblor, Mexico City, Era, 1998, p. 45
- Daniela Michel, “Entrevista con María Novaro”, Milenio, 24 May, 1992
- Victor Bustos, “María Novaro: De Lola a Danzón”, Dicine 40, July 1991, p. 10
- Margo Glantz, “Danzón: Los Pies de las Mexicanas”, Nitrato de Plata 17, 1994, pp. 18-21
- Veronica Maldonado, review of El Jardín del Edén, Dicine 65, January-February 1996, pp. 26-27
- Elissa Rashkin, Women Filmmakers in Mexico: The Country of Which We Dream, Texas, University of Texas Press, 2001, p. 190
- Poniatowska, 1998, p. 47