Iyari Wertta’s stylish noir, The Black Panther, combines detective fiction, sci-fi and surrealism to create something completely new but where on earth did it come from?
‘I wanted to make something very different from other Mexican films. Mexico is a big country with lots social problems whereas my film is about imagination and beautiful and crazy things.’ Wertta chose to shoot in black and white not just in homage to fifties noir but also because of the light and shadows that characterise German expressionism.
The protagonist, alcoholic and detective Nico Beamonte hallucinates about Mexican icon Pedro Infante: ‘Every country has someone who represents the nation ideal. We have Pedro Infante; he is brave, drunk, likes women, partying and music and he is a great lover. That’s the Mexican image of a great man. I grew up watching his films and my mother and grandmother still shout when he comes on the TV. When he died it was a national tragedy and there is a conspiracy that he is not dead, like Elvis.’
In the film, Infante, who has been cryogenically frozen is brought back to life by an enigmatic woman and resumes his machismo while Nico struggles with his demons, ‘Pedro Infante is a great man and Nico is a loser. He lives in the past and has nothing in the present. Nico has to think of Pedro Infante to be strong. He is drunk all day, he never eats and he has no motivation. He stays in bed until a man calls him.’
This man tells Nico he must find the Black Panther – but what is this in a film of cats, big, small and stuffed? ‘For me the black panther is a black cat. When I was writing the film my cat died and I was very upset. She was the most important thing to me at that time because I didn’t have a girlfriend, I just had my cat.’ Animals are symbolic to Wertta and provide a counterpoint to Nico’s desolation, ‘When I was a boy I would go to my grandmother’s house and see horses running free but in Mexico City you only see them at the racing. The scene where you see the horse dead is a very powerful image to me.’
The most important scene in the film takes place in a church where an old man tells Nico he has fallen from god’s grace. Wertta joins the dots, ‘in some ways I am Nico and the existential questions Death asks him are questions I ask myself. I don’t know if god exists, I don’t know the meaning of life and I don’t know where I am going. My parents tell me this is because I don’t have sons. They say, ‘I was like you but when you were born, I understood everything.’ It isn’t like that for me, I don’t know if I want to have sons. I’m comfortable with cats.’
The film is dream-like with childhood flashbacks and plays with ideas about the psyche, Wertta explains, ‘Nico confuses reality with dreams. He has no hope and is almost dead because he doesn’t have love or faith, just alcohol.’ At this point Wertta furtively hides his bottle of beer, surely, this isn’t how he feels? ‘No, that was just how I felt at the time.’ Fortunately, this is far behind Wertta, due to the complexity of the special effects The Black Panther was two years in post-production and Wertta also wrote the music. Difficult as it was for Wertta to capture his imagination on celluloid, you’ll discover it was certainly a worthwhile struggle.