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“Redes” Lives! — The Iconic Film of the Mexican Revolution and what it says to us today

In his most important speech about the place of culture in the national experience, delivered at Amherst College mere weeks before his death, President John F. Kennedy said:

“In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology. Artists are not ‘engineers of the soul.’ It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

Is that necessarily how artists best serve the nation? Truly, it is “different elsewhere.” Outside the US, artists may successfully aspire to become – in Stalin’s phrase – influential “engineers of the soul.” In our hemisphere, the first names to come to mind may be Mexican: Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, powerful and impactful muralists on the left, defining and espousing Mexican identity, agitating with their art for social and economic reform.

It’s a pity that Silvestre Revueltas is not at least as well known as Rivera. I would unhesitatingly call him the supreme political composer of concert and film music produced in the Americas.  His music combines ideology with personal understanding. This is what Octavio Paz meant when he wrote extolling Revueltas:

“All his music seems preceded by something that is not simply joy and exhilaration, or satire and irony. That element is his profound empathy with his surroundings. He occupies a place in our hearts above that of the grandiose Mexican murals, that seem to know all except pity.”

Revueltas’s peak achievements include his singularly arresting score for the film Redes (1936), in which impoverished Mexican fisherman unite to storm the bastions of power. That this film isn’t as celebrated as it deserves to be is partly because until recently it seemed impossible to obtain a decent print. PostClassical Ensemble’s Naxos DVD Redes not only features a pristine print, courtesy of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project; it also features a newly recorded soundtrack by PCE (and its inimitable principal trumpet, Chris Gekker) led by Angel Gil-Ordonez. The impact of Revueltas’s score, in combination with Paul Strand’s lyrical cinematography, is fully realized for the first time.

PostClassical Ensemble’s latest More than Music film (you can screen it above), remarkably embellished by Peter Bogdanoff’s visual presentation, explores the significance of Redes and Revueltas today; we call it “Redes Lives!”

The distinguished Mexican composer Ana Lara beautifully sums it all up by saying (at 1:01:38): “It’s unique in film music, that you can have his very revolutionary music – wonderfully written, wonderfully orchestrated – and at the same time it throws you into the deepest feeling of the human being.” 

To which Angel Gil-Ordonez adds (at 1:00:40) that, because Revueltas combines political militancy with empathy (“always on the side of those who are suffering”), he bears comparison with Shostakovich.

Why did Aaron Copland say: “When I was in Mexico I was a little envious of the opportunity composers have to serve their country”? 

Why did the Mexican government decide to back a film espousing revolutionary change? (The historian John Tutino has the answer at 51:09.)

What impelled the Mexican music historian Roberto Kolb to deny that Mexican composers “were running around in loin cloths”? (46:42)

Is Redes today a call for action? Yes, affirms Lorenzo Candelaria, a leading Hispanic educator and dean of Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music (58:35).

Midway through Redes, Strand admires the pride and resilience of challenged fishermen, hauling their nets in unison, bringing in the catch. His camera feasts on the elemental grandeur of Mexican sky and water – and discovers, in the veins of the fishermen’s muscled arms, a visual metaphor for their rope nets, themselves a metaphor for entrapment. Revueltas does not accompany this sequence; he comments upon it with a chorale. I cannot think of a film clip that more memorably marries music with the moving image 

Reviewing our Naxos DVD, Spain’s pre-eminent contemporary novelist, Antonio Munoz Molina, wrote in El Pais: “The beauty of image and  of sound register as never before. . . . It is like experiencing a masterpiece of painting cleaned of centuries of grime. The exhausted and disillusioned Silvestre Revueltas of his final years would never have imagined such a posthumous tribute.”

A follow-up zoom chat — “The Artist and the State: Political Art in Mexico and the US” – will include a terrific presentation by Gregorio Luke on the Mexican muralists. Also Ana Lara, Roberto Kolb, John Tutino, Lorenzo Candelaria, and Ix-Nic Iruegas Peon of the Mexican Cultural Institute. To register, click here.

For more on “More than Music,” click here.

Coming in September: a More than Music film on Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony as a lens on the American experience of race.


  1. Kathleen Hulser says

    The Redes film features searing b/w cinematography by Paul Strand, wonderfully matched to the score by Silvestre Revueltas. These art forms speak eloquently of injustice, altering how we see the world, and its potential. Elegiac, yet hopeful, the film is a searing reminder of how the hard times of the Great Depression accelerated demands for social change.

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