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Cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa in the spotlight, and a celebration of Kafka


"Movie theater" scene from the film "Salon Mexico," 1948, Cinematography by Gabriel Figueroa. (Courtesy Coleccion Gabriel Figueroa/Courtesy Coleccion Gabriel Figueroa)

Movie actors are media darlings. Movie directors get a lot of press. Cinematographers, on the other hand, tend to fly lower on the public radar.

But an exhibition at the Mexican Cultural Institute will shine a spotlight on one such artist. “Gabriel Figueroa, Cinematographer: Great Moments in Mexico’s Golden Age of Cinema,” opening Sept. 9, will display film clips, photographs, posters and other items marking the achievements of Figueroa, a seminal figure in that Golden Age (sometimes said to stretch roughly from the 1930s through the 1950s). Known for his distinctive visual style, including dramatic shots of landscapes, Figueroa (1907–1997) collaborated extensively with the Mexican director Emilio Fernández (nicknamed “El Indio”) as well as with the surrealist Luis Buñuel. He teamed with director John Ford for the “The Fugitive” (1947), and he earned a 1965 Academy Award nomination for his work on John Huston’s “The Night of the Iguana.”

“His photography is really important,” says Mauricio Maillé, director of visual arts at Mexico’s Fundación Televisa, whose U.S. affiliate, the Televisa Foundation, is presenting the exhibit in concert with the Embassy of Mexico. In particular, Maillé says, Figueroa “was a main part of how the Mexican film industry, during the ’40s and ’50s, created the national identity of Mexico through films.”

Figueroa touched on the theme of identity by visually underscoring the relationship of people and their surroundings, says Patrick Keating, a film scholar who is on the faculty of Trinity University in San Antonio and has written about Figueroa’s work. The cinematographer is “known for deep-focus compositions where there are significant elements in the foreground, middle-ground and background, situating the character within a larger environment,” Keating says. He notes that Figueroa was also “famous for his skies. There’s even the phrase ‘Figueroa skies’ that describes those really dramatic shots where you can see these puffy clouds against a dark background.”

“Gabriel Figueroa, Cinematographer” is a version of an exhibit that ran in Mexico City and landed, in another iteration, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2013. Maillé, who has adapted the displays for the relatively compact Mexican Cultural Institute space, says the project originated in the discovery of an overlooked trove of materials in Mexico documenting its film history. Wishing to share the archive’s riches with the public, the staff at Fundación Televisa (an offshoot of Mexico’s Televisa media company) chose, as the focus, the long career of Figueroa, who worked on more than 200 films, including Fernández’s “María Candelaria” (1944) and Buñuel’s “Los Olvidados” (1950).

"Man with agave - Composicion con Maguey III" from the film "Una Cita de Amor," 1956. Cinematography by Gabriel Figueroa. (Courtesy Coleccion Gabriel Figueroa/Courtesy Coleccion Gabriel Figueroa)

Figueroa isn’t just a figure of interest to cinema aficionados. A friend of Diego Rivera’s, he participated in the dynamic artistic life of Mexico in the years following the country’s early-20th-century revolution. “There was a very intense dialogue between movies, painting, literature and poetry at this time,” Maillé says. Figueroa and his creative contemporaries, he adds, “tried to work together to create a modern country.”

An homage to Kafka

Does Kafka get sufficient credit for being a wag?

Robert Rehák, the cultural attache at the Embassy of the Czech Republic, doesn’t think so. “Most people know Kafka as somebody very sad, who deals with alienation,” he says. “But Kafka also had a great sense of humor.”

In short, in Rehák’s opinion, it’s wholly appropriate that the embassy’s coming celebration of Franz Kafka should kick off with an exhibit of humorous drawings, lithographs and etchings — pieces contributed by Czech cartoonist Jirí Slíva, who has drawn inspiration from the Prague-born author of “The Trial” and other works. Titled “Kafka & Co.,” the exhibit opens Sept. 3, launching the Mutual Inspirations Festival 2014.

This is the fifth year for the embassy-led festival, an annual multidisciplinary tribute to an influential Czech figure, such as Antonín Dvorák (2011) or Václav Havel (2013). By feting the writer behind the frequently used term ‘Kafkaesque” — a writer who is renowned for his vision of an absurdist, loopily sinister and sometimes bureaucratic reality — the festival could be hitching its rope to the biggest star yet. (O.K., “New World Symphony.” You made your point.)

In addition to the exhibit, the festival will boast an array of offerings, including the concert “Overlapping Worlds,” featuring violinist Alexander Shonert’s renditions of Czech and Jewish music, in sonic homage to Kafka, who was born into a German-speaking Jewish family.

Also on the lineup: a lecture by Rehák on the mythology of Prague and a screening of Vladimír Michálek’s film “Amerika,” based on the novel of the same title, which is not Kafka’s most-read work in America with a “c.”

Part of the festival’s mandate, according to Rehák, is to “show the other sides of Kafka not so well known in the U.S.”

That being said, the Mutual Inspirations programming will include “Metamorphosis,” a new multimedia stage version of one of Kafka’s best-known tales. Alliance for New Music-Theatre is premiering the dramatization, directed and adapted by Susan Galbraith from a script by Steven Berkoff. The production is slated to feature animation, live cello music, vocal improvisation and sound scapes by contemporary composer Hugh Livingston.

Do not expect kitschy visual literalism.

“The danger” in adapting “Metamorphosis” is the temptation to “put [an actor] in a bug suit or whatever,” notes Galbraith.

Instead, she says, her production’s multimedia approach aims to capture the emotional truth of Kafka’s novella — the haunting sense that even a non-insect-like person may have of “being an unlovely creature.”

“Metamorphosis” is the latest Czech-related project for Alliance for New Music-Theatre, which recently sent a double-bill titled “The Václav Havel Project” to the Prague Fringe Festival. (That production had its roots in the Mutual Inspirations Festival of 2013.)

The new undertaking is a little more intimidating.

“For me, Kafka is a little bit like Mount Everest,” Galbraith says.

Wren is a freelance writer.

“Gabriel Figueroa, Cinematographer: Great Moments in Mexico’s Golden Age of Cinema” Exhibit with related events, including film screenings. Sept. 9 – Nov. 3 at the Mexican Cultural Institute, 2829 16th St. NW. Visit www.instituteofmexicodc.org or call 202-728-1628.

Mutual Inspirations Festival 2014: Franz Kafka Sept. 3 – Oct. 31, plus a related event Nov. 8. Various locations. Visit www.mutualinspirations.org.

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