Bechdel Test Canon: Bandidas

One of the best things I found out when doing some research on Volver for the first installment of the Bechdel Test Canon was that Salma Hayek picked up Penélope Cruz from the airport when the Spanish actress moved to Hollywood. Hayek insisted that they become friends, in part, because there were so few Spanish or Latin American actresses working in the industry. The two have remained friends ever since. They even appeared together in a Punk'd episode that involved a prank with a backed-up toilet at a fancy restaurant. I'm so glad that's not a show anymore.

Salma and Penelope Bandidas

A dream the two shared as friends and colleagues was to do a film together. Tired of waiting for the right vehicle to come along, they sought out mutual friend director-writer-producer Luc Besson to help them realize their vision. Neither of the actresses worked extensively in comedy and wanted to expand their range. So they enlisted Steve Zahn, of whom both were enormous fans, to be a part of the project. The final result was 2006's Bandidas, a western buddy comedy set in 19th century Mexico co-directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg and co-written by Besson and Robert Mark Kamen. Sara Sandoval (Hayek), the European-educated daughter of wealthy property owner Don Diego (Ismael "East" Carlo), starts robbing banks with María Álvarez (Cruz), the daughter of poor farmer Pedro (Carlos Cervantes), when Sandoval's father is poisoned by corrupt land baron Tyler Jackson (Dwight Yoakam, sporting Russell Brand's coal-black curls) and Álvarez's father is bullied by his hench men.

Initially Álvarez steals in order to help give back the land Jackson's crew swindled from the Mexican peasantry. Sandoval just wants revenge. As both women are such clear opposites, they initially bicker about petty matters, fight over a shared romantic male love interest, and do a bit of slut-shaming. Sandoval cruelly mocks Álvarez's lack of education and inexperience in the carnal arts. Álvarez writes her partner off as a snob. Both women insist that they are merely working together out of necessity. But opposites attract. They learn a lot from one another and ultimately become friends as well as work associates.

There is a lot you could say about Bandidas' politics, some of which may be reflected in the film's production history. The duo enlists men to help them reach certain goals multiple times. They call upon famed bank robber Bill Buck (Sam Shepard) to train them, resulting in a sequence that involves callisthenic exercises that best display the lead actresses' décolletage and shapely back sides. They also recruit criminal investigator Quentin Cook (Zahn), who Jackson previously employed. They do so by finding him in a hotel, posing as showgirls, and taking incriminating pictures with him that they threaten to hand over to his fiancée Clarissa (Audra Blaser) if he doesn't comply with their demands. This scene, like many, is played as broad comedy. But the male gaze is all over it, particularly in the cheeky burlesque tableaux the pair performs before the camera and when Sandoval teaches Álvarez how to kiss Cook. They also—rather implausibly—both fall in love with Cook, who rejects both of them for his white female bride-to-be. However, several scenes in the film suggest a queer tenderness between them that registers as sweet rather than exploitative.

Salma and Penelope showgirls Bandidas

Finally, while they succeed in killing Jackson and avenging their fathers, they are ultimately motivated by the thrill of the heist and set their sights on Europe not for revolutionary goals of freeing the proletariat but because of the promise of more money. It could be argued that this reliance on men parallels the lead actresses' dependence on male writers, directors, producers, and actors in getting this picture made.

Yet despite its sticky ethics and crude slapstick, I thought Bandidas was fun. I'm often alienated by westerns because so often women are relegated to barely-supporting roles as wives and whores. In addition, so few women of color[1] are represented in those stories (though it isn't a western and takes place in New Mexico 100 years after Bandidas' timeline, I do recommend Herbert J. Biberman's 1954 blacklisted film Salt of the Earth, which tells the story of how a strike against Empire Zinc Company impacts a New Mexican town and stars Rosaura Revueltas as tough, resourceful mother-to-be Esperanza).

I certainly understand that women were limited in their social standing at this time, and acknowledge that some texts seek to provide complex interiors to these wives and whores and expand the range of representation for at least white women—Deadwood and the deliciously Sapphic Johnny Guitar immediately coming to mind as does, with qualification, Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West[2] and the 1994 failed Drew Barrymore vehicle Bad Girls. But that's also bullshit. Women and girls were just as responsible for the physical and mental labor that helped build settlements and countries. Finally, Hollywood westerns so often privilege stories about North American pioneerism, often ignoring the gross injustices waged against Native American populations or representing Native Americans and Mexicans (often white actors in red face) as villains.

BFFs Salma and Penelope

This interpretation is open to challenge. A number of spaghetti westerns were thematically invested in the Mexican Revolution. Following her success during the silent film and classic Hollywood eras, Mexican American actress Dolores del Rio had quite a second act in Mexican cinema, and some of those titles were westerns. Nonetheless, it's still quite rare for women to have any substantial role in a western. Two friends insisted upon parts for themselves and, reflecting their countries of origin and international film contexts out of which they work, made this dream a reality with guns blazing.

[1] While Penelope Cruz may be considered a woman of color within a North American context, it is important to remember that Spanish racial identification is tricky. It is my understanding that, within a Spanish racial and ethnic context, Cruz qualifies as white.

[2] Female lead and feminist badass Claudia Cardinale is Italian Tunisian.

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Bandidas and female Westerns

I like both actresses, so was interested in this, but I found it pretty silly and forgettable. One female-centric Western that I love is Westward the Women. It's about a wagon train of mail order brides heading west--most of the men hired as drivers abandon the train early on, so the women make do without them. There is one upsetting scene where the male head of the wagon train (one or only two or three men remaining) roughs up the woman he likes, there's even a whip involved...and of course she loves him all the more for it. But still, for the time (released in 1951), and that scene aside, it's a pretty positive portrayal of women, and still unusual for having such a large female cast. Sadly, it's not available on DVD.