Victims of Sin: Dancing in the Dark

<i>Victims of Sin:</i> Dancing in the Dark

Directed by the legendary Emilio Fernández and starring Cuban dancer-actor sensation Ninón Sevilla, Victims of Sin (1951) is a hallmark of the golden age of Mexican cinema and one of the very best examples of the cabaretera film, an offshoot of the popular “prostitute melodrama” genre set in cabarets and involving elaborate music and dance sequences. These films often spotlight the Afro-Cuban dance called the rumba, and a rumbera, a female protagonist and figure of escapist fantasy who exhibits her liberation through her sexuality and uninhibited dancing. But unlike other cabareteras from this period, Victims of Sin provides a twist: the film does not punish the rumbera. This unconventional narrative, on top of its extraordinary star power and musical and dance performances, has put Victims of Sin in a class of its own.

The golden age of Mexican cinema (época de oro) remains one of the most significant periods within Mexican cinematic—and cultural—history. Spanning from roughly 1930 to 1960, it evolved out of the country’s small silent-era industry, which was marked by the distribution of French actualités and the production of films influenced by Italian melodramas and starring performers from Mexican lyric theater. After the advent of synchronized sound at the end of the 1920s, urban audiences began to flock to theaters, hoping to see and hear performers from across the Americas, and the industry burgeoned. During the 1930s, the demand for more films also helped in the development of certain popular genres, notably the comedia ranchera (ranch comedy), starring the singing charro, and the revolutionary melodrama, a genre of historical movies set during the Mexican Revolution (1910–20). One of the most significant, and controversial, of these new genres was the prostitute melodrama. Indeed, Mexico’s first sound film was a prostitute melodrama, Antonio Moreno’s Santa (1932).

Since the Spanish brought Catholicism to Mexico, sex work in the country has been in tension with religious views of sex solely as a means to procreate. This was especially true starting in the nineteenth century, when religious teachings became part of the strict rules of social decorum. Sex work, however, was also considered a necessary evil that would prevent greater problems, like rape or seduction, from threatening the moral order. The legalization of sex work in 1872, and the establishment of special districts known as “zones of tolerance,” allowed for some regulation, but in general these workers maintained an unstable and paradoxical position within Mexican society: they were both revered for their sensuality and seen as carriers of vice. In popular culture, they were depicted as figures of desire and sympathy—and this was especially true in cinema.

The archetypal prostitute melodrama centers on a young woman who, after being seduced by her lover and abandoned by both him and her family, travels to the nearest metropolitan center and is quickly absorbed into its bordello culture. Her circumstances begin to decline, culminating in her death, which serves as a cautionary tale for women who have sex outside of marriage. Santa, based on Federico Gamboa’s popular 1903 novel, introduced this “fallen woman” narrative to Mexican sound cinema and also initiated an important feature that would further shape the genre: on-screen musical performances. Unlike in later cabareteras, however, the musical numbers in Santa and other traditional prostitute melodramas of the thirties and forties are confined to simple performances of boleros and danzones.

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