During his 73 years of life, Isaac was a schoolteacher, film critic, Olympic swimmer, popular newspaper cartoonist (winner of the Premio Nacional de Periodísmo in 1981), noted ceramic artist, editor of the entertainment section of a Mexico City newspaper, and the first director of the Mexican Film Institute (IMCINE), in addition to directing 13 feature films. These pictures received 44 Ariel nominations and won 11 (plus one special Ariel); 8 of these nominations and the Best Direction Ariel for Mariana, Mariana were earned by Isaac individually. Isaac’s films also won 10 Diosas de Plata (awards given by PECIME, the movie journalists’ group), and his Alberto Isaac, caricature by Freyre. documentary feature Olimpiada en México received an Academy Award nomination in 1969.
Alberto Isaac Ahumada was born in Mexico City in 1924 (some sources cite 1923 or 1925), but after the death of his father was taken to the state of Colima as a very young child, where he was raised by three aunts and an uncle (who ran a movie theatre). Many of Isaac’s films take place in Colima, and he moved back there later in life. Isaac was trained to be a teacher, but worked at this for only a short time before moving on to Mexico City, where he went to work in the sports section of a daily paper. Within two years, he was working for Esto, a sports-oriented newspaper, doing a daily cartoon that was syndicated in more than 30 papers. He would eventually take over the editorship of the entertainment section of Esto, as well as contributing to El Universal, El Sol de México, and Novedades. Among other highlights of Isaac’s early life were appearances as an Olympic swimmer–he was known as « the Arrow of Colima » for his speed–in the 1948 London and 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games.
However, despite Isaac’s growing fame as an artist in the 1950s, he was not content. He started to work in ceramics, he continued his writing and editing. In 1961, interviewed by « La Dama Duende » in Excelsior, Isaac was asked if he was « satisfied with his life. » He replied, « Well, no, I really have a long road ahead of me. » One of Isaac’s interests was filmmaking, but given that it was virtually impossible for an outsider to break into the ranks of film directors (particularly the STPC union, but even those directing films for STIC were usually veterans of other areas of the industry), at the time it was difficult to achieve this goal.
But in 1964, the Técnicos y Manuales section of the STPC film union announced the « First Experimental Film Contest. » The competition was intended to give new talent the opportunity to make films, thus–hopefully–rejuvenating the Mexican film industry, which would in turn provide more work for union members. More than 30 would-be directors signed up, but only 12 features (actually, one entry was only 45 minutes long and one was over 200 minutes in length) were finally presented. First prize went to La fórmula secreta, directed by Rubén Gámez, a 45-minute « poetic essay » (Emilio García Riera). Second prize went to Alberto Isaac’s first feature, En este pueblo no hay ladrones. Made in only three weeks, the film tells the story of a young troublemaker (Julián Pastor in his film debut) who steals the billiard balls from the local pool hall, the only source of entertainment in his small town. Isaac and film critic García Riera adapted a story (Isaac said he chose one that wouldn’t require a lot of costumes or production trappings) by their friend Gabriel García Márquez (not yet the famous writer he would become); other friends, a veritable who’s who of intellectual and artistic Mexico of the day, were given small parts in the picture–Luis Buñuel, Arturo Ripstein, Alfonso Arau, artist José Luis Cuevas, writer Juan Rulfo, caricaturists Ernesto García Cabral and Abel Quezada, actress Elda Peralta, critic Carlos Monsivías, and Isaac, his wife Lucero, García Riera and García Márquez themselves.
Despite the success of the film, Isaac did not immediately make another. It was not until 1967 that producer Alfredo Ripstein Jr., the father of Isaac’s friend Arturo, gave Isaac the chance to make another feature, Las visitaciones del diablo (Isaac repaid the favor by casting Ripstein’s daughter Silvia–who acted under the name Daniela Rosen–in a crucial role).
Isaac’s next two pictures were sports documentaries, one about the 1968 Mexico City Olympics–an interesting topic for a former Olympic participant–and the other dealing with the 1970 World Cup in soccer. The latter film, the « official » World Cup movie which was also released in an English-language version as The World at Their Feet, contains a fictionalized framing story..
saac’s most prolific period of film work came during the presidency of Luis Echeverría (1970-76). Echeverría (whose brother was long-time actor and union stalwart Rodolfo Landa) supported the « new wave » of Mexican filmmakers, encouraging them to tackle previously forbidden topics (like politics), and allowed a relaxation of censorship in other areas, such as the on-screen depiction of violence and sex. Jorge Ayala Blanco–no fan of Isaac’s–characterizes Los días del amor as a « typical Echeverrist film that was almost unanimously over-valued » (in contrast, critic Tomás Pérez Turrent says this picture is « without a doubt his best film, the most successful in tone, the one which best amalgamates the filmmaking qualities that Isaac had. »). After the privately-produced Los días del amor, Isaac’s next four films were made by the state-owned Churubusco studios (El rincón de la vírgenes), and by the state-run production company CONACINE in co-production with the private DASA company (Tivoli, Cuartelazo, and Las noches de Paloma), an indication he was one of the « intellectual » filmmakers prized by the Echeverría administration (an additional demonstration of this is the fact that Isaac accompanied Echeverría on a state visit to Chile in 1972).
Isaac’s five fictional features of the 1970s are all period pictures: Los días del amor is set in 1927, El rincón de la vírgenes in the ’20s, Tivoli in the early 1950s, Cuartelazo and Las noches de Paloma during the Mexican Revolution. Tivoli, El rincón de las vírgenes and Las noches de Paloma are comedies, while the others are primarily dramas (Cuartelazo, however, is the only film with virtually no humorous aspects). The sources range from Isaac’s own semi-autobiographical reminiscences (Los días del amor) to stories by Juan Rulfo (El rincón de las vírgenes), the ribald tales of Bocaccio (Las noches de Paloma) to history (Cuartelazo).
Although Isaac would continue to cast friends like Abel Quezada and José Luis Cuevas in small roles, he was beginning to develop something of a « stock company » of actors as well. In addition to Alfonso Arau (who’d had a cameo in En este pueblo no hay ladrones, then appeared in major roles in El rincón de los vírgenes and Tivoli), the young Arturo Beristáin, the versatile Héctor Ortega (who probably appeared in more of Isaac’s films than any other actor), veteran Juan José Martínez Casado, Pancho Córdova, and Dolores (Lola) Beristáin would show up repeatedly in Isaac’s pictures.
Isaac told Beatriz Reyes Nevares about his working style: « I take part in the planning of all the details. In the choice of clothes, in the scenery–although, as is natural, with the help of specialists. With regard to the backgrounds, my wife helps me a lot…There’s a moment in which one gets involved in the technical process, in the finish…I choose to the letter what goes into the credits, I have something to do with the publicity, I meddle in the details of launching the film…in short, I don’t ignore anything at all. » (quoted in The Mexican Cinema: Interviews with Thirteen Directors)
President José López Portillo was not cut from the same liberal cloth as his predecessor Echeverría, and did not look as kindly upon directors like Isaac, Felipe Cazals, Jorge Fons, José Estrada, etc. The new president’s sister, Margarita López Portillo, was installed as the head of RTC, a government commission overseeing radio, television, and cinema, and her conservative views, along with a drastic reduction in government support for film production, began to make themselves felt in 1977-78. Claudio Isaac, interviewed in Proceso, said: « My father [in the newspaper] Esto, severely criticized the policies of Margarita López Portillo in the area of films. Thus all those named Isaac who worked in films were vetados [blacklisted] during [López Portillo’s term of office]. »
After making 5 feature films in the six-year Echeverría period, Isaac directed only three movies over the next sexenio, one at the very beginning (Las noches de Paloma), a little-seen documentary short in 1980, and another feature at the end of the López Portillo era (Tiempo de lobos, 1981). Isaac had told Reyes Nevares in the early ’70s, « I don’t depend on cinema to make a living. » Because he was still working in the newspaper business, during the Echeverría period he could choose his own, personal projects rather than being forced to work as a « director for hire. » Now, not only was he unable to make movies–he told Proceso in 1983 that two potential films were cancelled–he was also fired from his posts with Esto and El sol de México.
Alberto Isaac’s return to feature filmmaking in 1981 came with Tiempo de lobos; produced by Julio Ruiz Llaneza’s Colima Films (in co-production with a German firm). Tiempo de lobos is a drama about the conflicts between a stern patriarchal farmer and his sons , who have returned home after working in the U.S. Eventually, due to political corruption and the older man’s own stubborn attitudes, he winds up living in a shabby Mexico City apartment staring at the TV instead of working the land as he was meant to
In March 1983, Alberto Isaac was named the first head of the newly-created Mexican Film Institute (IMCINE), under the presidency of Miguel de la Madrid. He served several years in this post, finally resigning in 1986 after various frustrating bureaucratic battles (the hardly-unbiased Ayala Blanco says « in view of [Isaac’s] ineptitude » he was replaced in mid-term by Enrique Soto Izquierdo). Isaac did manage to promote another « experimental cinema » contest such as had given him his chance to direct 20 years earlier.
Alberto Isaac’s son Claudio had followed in his father’s footsteps, both as an artist and filmmaker. Claudio–who had cameo roles in several of his father’s films–directed his first feature before he was 20 years old, Crónica íntima (1976). But he too had his career interrupted by the López Portillo blacklist (and, oddly enough, during the de la Madrid administration it was hard for him to get projects because of the possible appearance of nepotism due to his father’s new position!). Lucero Isaac, the director’s wife for 14 years (and Claudio’s mother), not only worked with Alberto Isaac on many of his films, she was also a sought-after production designer who won 4 Ariel awards during her career. Her last film with Alberto was Tiempo de lobos, on which she shared art direction credit with her son Claudio.
In 1986 Alberto Isaac returned to filmmaking with what would become his most successful film, at least in terms of the number of Ariel awards it received (8, plus one special Ariel for child actor Luis Mario Quiroz), Mariana, Mariana. Ironically, the film was originally to be directed by José Estrada, but that director’s untimely death led to Isaac’s return to active film-making after an absence of 5 years. Despite the fact that Isaac did not initiate the project– based on a novel by José Emilio Pacheco–it is certainly similar in tone to his earlier work, and is yet another period piece (although there is a framing story set in the 1980s, the bulk of the film takes place in 1948).
Maten a Chinto!, a black comedy-drama made in 1988, reunited Isaac with Pedro Armendáriz Jr., Héctor Ortega, and Gerardo Quiroz, who had all appeared in Mariana, Mariana. Set in the 1940s in the port city of Manzanillo, it deals with the unexplained violent outburst of Chinto, a hotel manager, who one day suddenly starts killing people and precipitates a hostage situation in his hotel.
The last feature film completed by Alberto Isaac was 1994’s Mujeres insumisas. Despite receiving 16 Ariel nominations in 15 categories, it won only two prizes (Best Editing and Best Supporting Actress), as Arturo Ripstein’s La reina de la noche and Sin remitente by Carlos Carrera took 6 and 4 prizes, respectively. This film deals with three women living in a small town in Colima who–fed up with their oppressed lives as wives and mothers–strike out on their own. Eventually, they wind up happy and fulfilled running a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles!
Prior to his death, Isaac was working on the script for a new movie, entitled « Señas de identidad » (Signs of Identity). Based on « Historia de un muchacho mexicano » by José Emilio Pacheco, the film was to deal with the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968 (also the topic of Rojo amanecer, Jorge Fons’ 1989 picture). Aided by a grant from the Fondo Nacional de la Cultura y las Artes, Isaac had announced–less than a month before his death–that he was nearly ready to begin pre-production work on the film. Ironically, shortly after the 1968 killings–now generally conceded to have been committed by government « death squads »–Isaac began working on Olimpiada en México, a government-sponsored documentary record of the Mexico City Olympics, and (as noted above), he was later on good terms with President Echeverría, long suspected of having some complicity in the government repression of ’68 (as secretary of Internal Government under the Díaz Ordaz administration).
In addition to this project, Isaac had been collaborating with Emilio Carballido on the script of an adaptation of the play « Vicente y Ramona. » His son Claudio said Alberto Isaac had dedicated himself to painting in recent years; before, as a well-known newspaper cartoonist (whose works were collected into a book in 1990), he didn’t have the time or inclination to devote himself to painting, but now he was able to work on this aspect of his artistic expression without worrying about criticism or outside pressure. In 1993, Isaac’s book « Conversaciones con Gabriel Figueroa » was published, yet another example of his varying interests and abilities.
Alberto Isaac, a man of many talents and careers, not the least of which was that of film director, died of heart failure en route to a Mexico City hospital on 9 January 1998. After his death, Isaac–as per his wishes–was cremated and his ashes scattered in the ocean by his companion during the last 14 years of his life, Julieta Sanjuan.
With the death of Alberto Isaac, Mexico lost a modern Renaissance man, and one of its most talented and respected filmmakers.