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Thursday, 4 November 2010

El (1953)

I have written previously about one of my favourite directors Luis Bunuel and the strange period that he spent in exile between the end of the Spanish Civil War and his triumphant recall to Spain with "Viridiana" in 1961. He did not leave for political reasons but rather to find work, and after a short and fruitless sojourn in the United States, he landed in Mexico in the late 40s, eventually taking Mexican nationality. Oddly enough everyone continues to think of him as a Spaniard and he is most lauded for his later works back in Europe. However his Mexican output runs the gamut from cheapjack quickie productions (where he was definitely a director-for-hire) through some enduring classics.

"El", also known as "This Strange Passion", is definitely the work of a master, even if it is the product of a rushed, three-week shoot. The story of a rich and devout older man (with an apparent shoe fetish) becoming infatuated with a young woman and luring her from her fiance becomes a haunting study of jealousy and paranoia. The film is not a thriller in the Hitchcock sense, but rather a mesmerizing slow-burner, drawing the viewer into the doomed marriage between urbane Arturo de Cordova's Francisco and his feisty wife, the Argentinian actress Delia Garces. Although there is little reason to suspect that theirs will not be a happy life together, one soon begins to notice the cracks: his insane jealousy, his possessiveness, and his obsession that the world is against him as he pursues a hopeless lawsuit to recover his family's lost properties. Any man who even speaks to his wife is perceived a would-be Lothario and any civility on her part is seen as sluttishness and a cue for violence. As they rattle about in their magnificent Art Nouveau home, one wonders how much she will stand before running home to Momma. However, even her dear mother and the family priest are inclined to accept his explanations rather than hers and to take his part.

De Cordova gives a stunning performance. A leading man in Mexican films since the 1930s, he was lured to Hollywood in the 1940s as the next hot 'Latin Lover', but none of his Hollywood movies did justice to the talent he displays here. His is far from a sympathetic character, but his growing madness is fascinating. Bunuel allows us to view Francisco's seemingly hostile world through the character's own eyes, before snapping us back and forth to reality. By the film's end, when Francisco has retreated to the 'safe' environment of a monastery and his wife has remarried, we still can not believe that he has found peace with himself, nor do we know for certain whose child is the young boy in the final scenes.

In closing let me quickly mention a fascinating French film I watched last night, "Avril" (2006). I was not familiar with the director nor any of the cast, apart from Miou-Miou as an aging nun, but the story was beautifully told. Avril is a novice, raised by a strict order of nuns since she was a baby, and locked away to spend her last two weeks in contemplative isolation before taking her final vows. Released by Miou-Miou (whose own motivations become apparent later) and told that she has a twin brother, the artistic Avril uses those two weeks to discover the outside world and to be seduced by the joys of life. And with a potentially cliffhanger ending, the film does not take the usual French tactic of leaving the viewer guessing, but has the grace to indicate its likely outcome. Recommended.
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