A Conversation with Viviana Garcia Besne on Santo vs. the Evil Brain, the Permanencia Voluntaria Archive and More
April 10, 2019
For years, TCMFF’s midnight programs have been relished by night owls who cap off a full day of moviegoing with a selection of oftentimes subversive or outré genre films. One of the two movies playing for TCMFF’s late-night crowd this year is 1961’s Santo contra el cerebro del mal (Santo vs. the Evil Brain). That sounds like the perfect midnight flick based upon the title alone, doesn’t it?
The Mexican-Cuban crime-action picture stars wrestler turned actor Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta as the super heroic Santo. Over the course of more than 50 cult movies, Santo battled the likes of werewolves, Dracula, and Martians—in this film, he’s up against a mad scientist who has figured out how to control minds with the dastardly intent of creating a zombie army. Yes, you read that right.
TCM has brought in two special guests for this screening, film archivists/restorationists
Viviana Garcia Besne and Peter Conheim, both of whom worked to restore the movie. I had the opportunity to ask Besne some questions, not only about this film and the Santo series, but also about the archive she founded, Permanencia Voluntaria, which is located in Tepoztlán, Mexico, near the epicenter of the 7.1 magnitude earthquake that struck the country in September 2017.
Viviana Garcia Besne at work.
How long have you been running Permanencia Voluntaria?
I started this crazy project in 2015 when I realized that there was a need for an institution that will look after popular films with respect.
What has been the biggest challenge in operating an archive focused on saving popular films?
I think the biggest challenge is that this is not only a non-profit and independent archive, but this is an archive that is dedicated to rescuing cinema that has been despised by critics or institutions. So I think in that sense, my biggest challenge is to make people understand that popular culture is important and that we need to stop the tremendous classism we have in Mexico. When people say that these films aren’t worthy of conservation, that it doesn’t matter if they are passed on to future generations for whatever reason, you’re saying to millions of Mexicans that enjoy these films that their judgement is not good. Right now I think that’s the main thing that I need to achieve: to make people feel respect, not only for the films, but for the audience that enjoys these films too.
A selection of lobby cards found in Permanencia Voluntaria from Mexican popular films.
What is your favorite film in Permanencia Voluntaria?
La Mujer Murciélago (The Batwoman), which we are currently restoring. I love the lead character. She is a confident, beautiful woman who drives around Acapulco in a convertible wearing a bikini! The film was shot in my grandmother's house, and it was one of the very few films made by my family that I saw as a child. For years I thought that the monster in the film was hiding in the house, but for some reason I wasn’t afraid of him. I feel a connection to that monster as if I was the Batwoman.
The Batwoman on display inside and outside Permanencia Voluntaria.
Why do you think the Santo movies are important?
Santo is a Mexican super hero who became an international icon. Audiences made him the biggest Mexican film star of his day, starring in more than 50 films. Three generations still enjoy his films.
You recently started learning about film restoration. What was the biggest restoration-related challenge you faced while working on Santo contra el cerebro del mal?
The greatest challenge was the lack of interest from Mexican institutions not only to save and preserve these films for the future but even to appreciate the importance of giving value to popular films. It is incredible that we found no support in Mexico to restore the first movies starring the country's greatest onscreen hero, and that it was eventually done thanks to the support of The Academy and director Nicolas Winding Refn.
Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta as the iconic Santo.
The most challenging part of the restoration itself was neglect. This film barely survived the earthquake of September 2017; we shipped it to The Academy a few days before the earthquake hit us, and the area where the film was stored suffered the biggest damage at the archive. So for that, and the fact that my grandfather smuggled the reels in a coffin out of Cuba while trying to save his production from Fidel Castro’s entry to Havana and all the chaos surrounding the film’s production, I think it’s a miracle that we are able to see this incredible restored version of a film that since its conception has had a rocky road to discovery.
Permanencia Voluntaria following the 2017 earthquake.
Do you have a favorite Santo film?
I personally very much enjoy Santo vs. la hija de Frankestein (Santo vs. Frankenstein’s Daughter). It has an incredible sequence where Santo is at the mercy of the beautiful bad lady. She tries to pull off his mask and kiss him, and each piece of dialogue there is incredible. Of course, El Santo refuses the kiss, which invokes the fury of Frankenstein’s daughter.
There seems to be a lot of interest in the Santo movies recently. Why do you think there has been a surge in their popularity?
Santo in an icon and as such he has an enduring, iconic value. He is also a real hero for Mexicans and at the same time his films are surreal—he fought against Martians, werewolves, drug dealers, Dracula, Frankenstein, the Bermuda Triangle and zombies in Haiti. There is also an element of nostalgia, as people who grew up watching Santo movies seek to recover or revalue that experience.
In what ways do you think Santo contra el cerebro del mal makes a great midnight selection?
Honestly, the best way to enjoy these films is not to take them too seriously and to interact with them, cheer whenever Santo appears to save the day, boo at the villains. This is a completely different way to enjoy a classic. The audience has to participate, and the experience actually depends on the crowd attending. It’s a film that allows us to misbehave at a movie theatre, to feel that the show is more about the communal experience rather than the film itself. Ideal for a midnight screening!
A water damaged negative from 1969's Las Luchadoras vs el robot asesino (Wrestling Women vs. the Murderous Robot). That sounds like another potential midnight movie!
Thank you to Viviana for chatting with me. Be sure to catch Santo vs. the Evil Brain at TCMFF as Friday's midnight movie. To learn more about Viviana's family’s film history, Permanencia Voluntaria and the wonderful work they do, check out this video.