'El Automóvil Gris': Making an old silent film speak today

Mexican theatre company Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes brings a silent film from Mexican cinema into the 21st century, using a 19th century Japanese performance technique

'El Automóvil Gris': Making an old silent film speak today

When some people think of silent movies, they think of something obsolete or only of interest to film students. When Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes (Certain Inhabitants' Theatre) brings their acclaimed production of El Automóvil Gris (The Grey Car) to Austin next week as part of the UT Performing Arts Center's ArtesAméricas program, they will expand our movie-viewing experience by bringing a silent film from early 20th century Mexican cinema into the 21st century, using a 19th century performance technique.

Based on the true story of a gang of thieves that terrorized Mexico City during the Mexican Revolution, filmmaker Enrique Rosas' El Automóvil Gris was an instant hit when it premiered in 1919. The infamous gang posed as military officials, raided the homes of affluent Mexicans, tormented them, and made off with their spoils in a gray Fiat. Although the Mexican Revolution officially ended in 1917, political and social turmoil persisted for 10 more years (some would say it's never ended). The film's outlaw swagger, political intrigue, and social commentary, presented as cops-and-robbers escapism, resonated in a Mexico where scars from the war were still fresh.

While its "ripped from the headlines" material was an obvious hook, Rosas took his film a step further, using actual victims of the gray-car gang to re-enact their stories in their homes where the crimes took place. The film famously ends with a moment of cinema verité, actual newsreel footage of the gang members at their execution, filmed by Rosas.

But why would a contemporary theatre company undertake a period piece? This is where Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes director Claudio Valdés Kuri would take issue. To him, the past is a living thing, infusing the present whether we are conscious of it or not. Fascinated with history and the silent-movie era, Kuri and his company use a multidisciplinary approach to reinvent El Automóvil Gris for a modern audience. Chief among the production values is the use of Japanese Benshi performers. With roots in Noh and Kabuki, Benshi was a popular method of narrating silent films in Japan. However, the Benshi are more than subtitle readers. They enact all the film's characters, moods, and sometimes movement, a technique that is vocally and physically demanding. As in all silent movies, Kuri infuses the performance with music from the period: Japanese, Mexican, and U.S. ragtime. The result is a rich aural landscape that is not entirely Mexican, not quite Japanese; a film experience with the texture and immediacy of a live theatre event that promises to be stylish, kooky, mesmerizing, and thoroughly entertaining. As Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert said in his 2003 review of the production, "I avoid clichés like 'You've never seen anything like this before,' but the fact is, you haven't."

El Automóvil Gris will be presented in English Jan. 26 and 27, Friday and Saturday, 8pm, in the McCullough Theatre on the UT campus. For more information, call 477-6060, or visit www.utpac.org.

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Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes, UT Performing Arts Center, Claudio Valdés Kuri, AtresAmericas

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