Mexico City’s Plaza Garibaldi is the epicenter of mariachi music. Bands flock to the historic square, especially on weekends, to sell their songs. It’s been this way for a century, though its heyday has passed. The golden age of mariachi was actually intimately connected to the golden age of Mexican cinema, and the popularity of the “charro” genre in the 1940s and 1950s. Given that this particular style of music has always been related to the cinema, it’s perhaps an especially suitable documentary subject. German filmmaker Doris Dorrie went to Plaza Garibaldi to make Que Caramba es la Vida, which makes its world premiere at SXSW this week.
Yet Dorrie did not make a broad portrait of music in Mexico City. This is a film about the women of mariachi, an underrepresented but bold presence on the Plaza Garibaldi. Que Caramba es la Vida begins as a profile of María del Carmen, a ranchera singer who is not the least bit shy in her claim to be the best voice on the square. She lives with her mother and daughter but spends a great deal of time away at gigs. Dorrie is interested in this tension, the fact that most female mariachis lead two lives. Unlike the men, who labor exclusively as musicians, the women are expected to come home and fulfill the obligations of the wife and mother.
This domestic problem threads its way through the rest of the film, as Dorrie moves away from del Carmen. She interviews the members of the oldest all-female mariachi band, founded in 1958. One of these women actually went on a South American tour while pregnant and was forced to stay in Montevideo and give birth while her colleagues went on to Paraguay. Their very image is a subversive one, all dressed in charro outfits and holding instruments, ready to fire up a crowd. Que Caramba es la Vida is full of snapshots of women remaking their roles, both in public and in private life.
Dorrie has more mixed success in her attempt to use these mariachis as a thematic gateway to the plight of all women in Mexico City. She gets some very poignant moments out of her subjects as they talk about their hopes for their children, growing up in society increasingly afflicted by drugs and violence. Many of these musicians come from long lines of mariachis, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to make a living. Yet other scenes, including a brief foray into the complex problems of kidnapping and prostitution around Plaza Garibaldi, seem out of place in their ambition to provide even more context.
The musical sequences, finally, have an unexpected power. Some of them are thrilling simply as performances, particularly those with del Carmen’s stirring vocals. Others are less memorable, which is perhaps inevitable when featuring so many different musicians. The best scenes are actually those that highlight the affect that these musicians have on their audience. Dorrie follows one band as they perform in a cemetery on the Day of the Dead, taking requests from those who have gathered to honor the lost. One family, clearly still grieving over the death of a child, is brought to tears by the music. The details of their tragedy are not explained, and such facts are unnecessary. The power of just the right song, wailed by a mariachi voice over the weeping violins, is self-evident. Dorrie’s eye for audience, more than her ear for music, helps show these women as essential members of Mexican society.