Saturday, July 14, 2012

Carlos Saura's Carmen

The second DVD in Criterion Collection’s Eclipse Series 6, entitled Carlos Saura’s Flamenco Trilogy, is Carmen: Inspirada en la novela de Mérimée y la opera de Bizet (Carmen: Based on the Novel by [Prosper] Mérimée and the Opera by [Georges] Bizet).  Distributed by Janus Films in 1983, and by Criterion and studiocanal on DVD in 2007, the film exhibits the screenplay and choreography of Carlos Saura and Antonio Gades.  Saura returns as the director and Emiliano Piedra as the producer.  We see familiar faces appear as well as new ones: Laura del Sol plays the self-assertive Carmen; Paco de Lucía—the world-famous flamenco guitarist—plays Paco, the musical coordinator; Pepa Flores contributes her vocal talents; Cristina Hoyos, as Cristina, coaches other dancers in preparation for an upcoming adaptation of Carmen in the flamenco style; Juan Antonio Jiménez plays Juan; José Yepes as Pepe Girón; Sebastián Moreno as the rival, Escamillo; and Antonio Gades as Antonio, the director and ill-fated lover of the play.  To complete the cast of flamenco players, we have two cantaores and three guitarristas, Gómez de Jerez, Manolo Sevilla, Antonio Solera, Manuel Rodríguez, and Lorenzo Virseda, respectively.

The opening sequence shows Antonio rehearsing flamenco steps with several women in a studio.  Each dancer performs perfectly in unison for the director, but he cannot quite put his finger on something.  He has a few dancers perform solos until he hands off the drilling practice to Cristina.  He joins Paco’s group and asks his friend for a favor.  Paco asks Antonio what he can do for him when he goes to Seville.  Antonio requests Paco to keep his eyes open for someone that can play the leading role in their adaptation of Carmen.  “Don’t you like any of these?” Paco inquires.  Antonio replies, “Some of them aren’t bad … but I just don’t see them as Carmen.”  From there, we immediately see the opening credits and a musical excerpt from the operatic version of Carmen.  Thus marks the drive for the movie.

As the movie continues, Antonio finds a young woman that practices flamenco during classes and dances at a tourist trap in the evenings.  (Her name happens to be Carmen.)  Although just an amateur, she attracts Antonio, and he offers her an audition.  She has a rough audition, but Antonio decides to star her as the popular heroine.  Cristina, the best flamenco dancer Antonio has, feels put-upon by Antonio’s caprice and by Carmen’s ineptitude.  He understands that Cristina is the best dancer he has got, but she is too old to play the part in the production.  He needs someone younger, even if it means Cristina has to help her overcome a learning curve.  Antonio pleads with Cristina to work with Carmen, Cristina swallows her pride as she goes to teach her, and Carmen struggles to become the ideal Carmen for Antonio.

As the movie progresses, we see how Antonio’s situation parallels the one experienced by Don José in the novella and opera.  As Carmen dances better, passions between Carmen and Antonio heat up.  Antonio basks in his muse’s light, but problems surface as the rehearsals continue.  Eventually, jealousy takes over the relationship to the point that tragedy ensues, thus the reality of the film mirrors the fiction of the book and opera … or does it?

Saura incorporates the intertextuality of the novella, the opera, and the adaptation seamlessly.  He continues to use lighting, mirrors, and sets naturally, creating a story that is familiar, yet original.  He again uses paralipsis to give the movie audience a privileged point of view, for Saura never tells the audience if Antonio’s production makes it to the stage.  The audience is left to figure out whether Antonio decides to end rehearsals abruptly because of a quarrel or they are just duped into thinking Antonio takes it out on Carmen, being that their fight is just part of the rehearsal.

The dance and musical numbers are the main attraction.  Paco de Lucía and Pepa Flores perform a fantastic number called “No llores más” (“Don’t Cry Anymore”).  Paco de Lucía, upon hearing the seguidilla “Près des ramparts de Séville,” transforms the operatic number into a bulería in no time at all.  An intense dance-off happens between female teams in the cigar factory scene.  Flamenco carries on the celebration for Toñito’s birthday, which turns into an impromptu bull fight among the cast and crew.  A couple of duels rounds out the performances, and a drill leaves onlookers catching their breaths.  It is a hand-clapping good time!

Parents must take notice though: There are a couple of scenes that depicts nudity in intimate and compromising situations.  The act is implied, but American audiences would rate this movie a strong R.  Excluding the scenes, the movie would be a PG.  For those that do want to watch it, they should know that the movie is in Spanish with English subtitles.


Saturday, March 24, 2012

Carlos Saura's Bodas de sangre (Blood Wedding)

In 1981, Carlos Saura directs and releases his movie Bodas de sangre (Blood Wedding) based on Federico García Lorca’s play of the same name.  He works with Antonio Artero, Antonio Gades, and Alfredo Mañas to write a screenplay adapting Lorca’s story into a ballet.  Gades choreographs the flamenco rehearsals and participates with his troupe during the filming.  The performers in this film include Antonio Gades as Leonardo, Juan Antonio Jiménez as the Groom, Carmen Villena as the Wife, Pilar Cárdenas as the Mother, and Cristina Hoyos as the Bride.  Emiliano Piedra carries out his function as producer.  Janus Films, studiocanal, and UGC D.A. International distribute the film at various times.  Bodas de sangre is the first DVD in a volume entitled Carlos Saura’s Flamenco Trilogy, released by The Criterion Collection in 2007.  The Criterion Collection places Saura’s trilogy in the Eclipse Series as volume 6.  On my sister’s book blog, I have written a review about the play itself, which you can peruse by clicking here.

The main spectacle of the movie follows the theatrical version as far as the plot is concerned.  Dancers tell the story through the use of body movements, gestures, music, and pantomime.  The attraction of the movie comes in the ubiquitous flamenco.  The players expertly execute movements that imbue the atmosphere with grace and spirit, or duende as the flamenco artists call it.  The dancers tap their heels, the guitarists strum their melismatic-sounding strings, and the palmas mark out the compás in vigorous tempos.  The sensuous, heartrending motions of the hands and bodies evoke tears within abysses of melancholy, while at other times they fan out into exultations of bliss.  The strings of the guitars never flag; they are amazingly limber and versatile.  Flamenco adds a heaping portion of sophistication and mien to an otherwise cut-and-dried drama.

Actually, the show does not begin the storyline until thirty minutes into the movie.  During the first half hour, we see the cast and crew preparing for a full dress rehearsal.  A crew member prepares the dressing room and turns on the lights of the theater makeup mirrors before the cast arrives.  When they arrive, they mingle for a little bit before preparing their stations in a leisurely manner.  We see actors ritually set up their makeup boxes, pictures, and trinkets.  After a few shots of actors applying makeup and Gypsies warming up their voices, Antonio Gades applies eyeliner and we hear his inner monologue relate the beginnings of his career.

After some time for putting on makeup and pensively smoking, Gades strolls into the dance hall to warm up until the rest of cast joins in.  Gades instructs the cast members and critiques their performances until he peps them up for a full dress rehearsal.  They break to get dressed in their costumes and then return to the dance hall so we, the movie patrons, like flies on a wall, can see their finished performance.  They begin the rehearsal, the mood changes, and the rehearsal goes through without a hitch.  The credits then immediately roll.

Like other Saura movies, Bodas de sangre depicts scenes of dancers and performers rehearsing their numbers.  In these scenes, the participants converse as though they are privately practicing.  Yet here we are, watching them through a cinematic medium.  This paralipsis produces a sensation that the patron occupies a privileged space.  In other words, the performers are speaking as though they have yet to record or perform their routines for the public.  They may likely go through with the plan, but there is a possibility that they may decide not to perform this work at all.  Under this circumstance, a moviegoer may think, “Well, did you release the film or not?”  The work does not say, but obviously the film is out for all to see.  It is like the artist saying to the moviegoer, “This is a story we decided not to release, but we are going to let you see anyway.”  Hence, the patron effectively has a privileged opportunity to see a performance, even though the whole world can come to watch the movie.  Saura is a master in the art of paralipsis.

If the idea of paralipsis still sounds perplexing, ask yourself this question: Is the performance I am seeing an example of a choreographed rehearsal or is it a rehearsed choreography?  If it is the former, then it is a performance and not a rehearsal in the true sense.  During the rehearsal scenes, the performers act as if they are in a rehearsal.  They fumble, make mistakes, and react to criticism on purpose.  If it is the latter, then it is truly a rehearsal.  The performers, almost tediously, practice routines until they get them right.  Their rehearsals are not meant for the public to see.  The director intends the audience to see the movie as though this were just one of many rehearsals before the troupe performs on some opening night.  The illusion works great, except for one part where the audience sees a microphone on a boom pole slip into the frame.

The characters that appear in the play, but not in the movie, are the Moon, Death, the Father, the Girl, and the Woodcutters (although one could argue the Moon and Death perform flamenco vigorously off camera while Leonardo and the Groom slowly collapse to the ground during their deaths).  The economy of the film strictly prohibits but a few characters to carry the majority of the story.  The surrealistic elements inextricable in the play must make an absence in the film.  The bare minimum takes front stage.

My favorite performer throughout the whole film is Carmen Villena.  She beautifully dances her heart out and acts out her character with sympathy.  Playing as the Wife, she tries everything to gain back her husband, Leonardo, and cautiously suspects the Bride as the accomplice in the affair.  Through dance, she demonstrates the announcement of the lovers’ furtive escape on horse slowly, cleverly, and gorgeously. 

All in all, this is an enjoyable movie to watch.  Some sequences may not be suitable for very young children, although I would feel comfortable showing my older nephews and nieces.  Those who show an affinity for theater, dance, song, or music will enjoy Bodas de sangre.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Second Thoughts on Luis Buñuel's Viridiana

The following review is a continuation of a previous film review, which you can read by clicking here.  One word got me ruminating on this topic for quite some time, and I wanted to jot down my incipient thoughts.  I have learned from school that there are literary movements or interpretations called “theories” that bring a sense of variety to literary discussions.  For example, literary theories can include New Criticism, Feminism, Post-colonialism, Postmodernism, and even Queer Theory, among many others.  These movements come and go like seasonal fashions.  When I think about my niche in a possible literary theory, I have the impression that academicians look for “new” and “original” ideas from prospective graduate students. That is a tall order if we really think about it.  As I develop my skills in criticism, how can I work upon established literary theories and be fresh and original, too?  One fantasy I have is that a future literary theory called “LDS Interpretation” would develop and become a sensation in the world of literary criticism (or “Mormon Theory” if the rest of the world wants a more derogatory moniker reflecting a Sartrean Other).  That would spark my motivation to blaze trails and pioneer research into unknown territory, but my idea may be wishful thinking on my part.  However, if I am to become an original and creative critic, I must take risks.  So, seeing that the following topic applies to the theme of the blog, I hereby contribute an addendum to Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana.  In this possible example of an article using Mormon Theory, I use scriptural sources from the LDS canon to unfold a likely interpretation of a cinematic text.

When I last had the DVD of Viridiana, there was an extra containing an interview with Silvia Pinal.  In one part of the interview, she retells her concern about Viridiana’s final outcome.  She does not like the thought of a traumatized girl revoking her vows as a nun and jumping into a ménage à trois with Jorge and Ramona.  She brings up this concern to Luis Buñuel and he takes the time to persuade her that the ending is necessary for Viridiana.  The director describes the charitable novitiate’s role as “useless” to society at large.  Buñuel goes on to say that after having a moment of doubt, Viridiana would have children, work the land producing food, and become a skillful contributor to the local community.  So the trauma that Viridiana experiences essentially transforms her from a “useless” virgin to a “useful” mother.

What bothers me is Buñuel’s use of the word “useless” to describe Viridiana.  Granted, her plans to set up a homeless shelter fail because of a lack of planning and a dollop of naïveté, but her efforts are not “useless.”  The word makes her out to be some kind of idler or dimwit.  Further, Buñuel implies that the Catholic religion as a whole cannot meet or support the needs of individual members on the front lines.  In other words, it is too big to waste its power over saving one nun in a predicament.  Others may say Viridiana chooses not to return to the convent out of a vainglorious need to found her own order, yet she tries to return to the convent, a decision that would have ensconced her back into the center of the fold.  Unfortunately, two people prevent her from returning: her uncle, Don Jaime, and her mother superior.  The former assaults her honor and reputation, and even if technically Viridiana still retains her virginity, the church would have balked under the slightest suspicion of impurity.  The latter insists that Viridiana puts on appearances to give gratitude for her uncle’s patronage, despite Viridiana’s pleas to the contrary.  Viridiana’s gut instinct tells her that she is not fit to leave the convent and that visiting her uncle is not a good idea.  The mother superior does not listen and neglectfully sends Viridiana on her way.  If the mother superior had reconsidered sending Viridiana to a family relative the nun hardly knew or trusted, Viridiana would have continued being a “useful” teacher at the Catholic school for children.  Further, if the mother superior and the people higher up had reconsidered sending Viridiana on a public relations errand, she would not have been lost to the world, Don Jaime would not have committed suicide, and revelries would not have ensued to injure property and people.  The problem with Viridiana is not her uselessness; it is because she is useful, a trait that others exploit for their own agendas.

The truly useless people in the film are the beggars and the needy, not Viridiana.  The beggars see her as a means to get material goods, not as a source to learn valuable skills in kindness, spirituality, responsibility, accountability, and self-sufficiency.  Had the beggars truly appreciated Viridiana’s charity, they would not have betrayed her trust and would have given restitution for their offenses.  They would have stayed and cleaned up the mess they had made.  Instead, the majority runs away while a few remain to commit crimes against their benefactress.

One of the most provocative scenes in the movie shows a beggar sexually assaulting Viridiana after knocking out Jorge with a bottle.  The polarity between good and evil contrast strongly.  In Buñuel’s limited scope of the film, the scene suggests the inability of the Catholic institution to protect its functionaries, or at least have the foresight to prevent the possibility in the first place.  It appears in this instance that the world does what it wants with good people.  This disregard to spiritual or holy law seems to go with impunity.  I want to prove otherwise.  I have looked for any doctrine or source that vindicates Viridiana as a “useful” member of society as far as a Christian Deity was concerned.  Whatever the case, Viridiana would be the means through which a universal justice condemns guilty parties.

First of all, I have looked in the scriptures to see if they could shed some light on the question of usefulness or uselessness.  But before I do, I want to clarify an element about Viridiana’s situation.  In the movie, Viridiana, after experiencing two assaults on her person, decides to abandon her goals in becoming a nun and returns to civilian life.  Buñuel would argue that Viridiana’s choice of not returning to the convent evidences doubt as the defining force driving her life.  He uses the word “doubt” to indicate actions his characters experience in life-changing moments.  I contend it is not.  Doubt is too strong a word.  I prefer “question.”  Viridiana questions her previous decisions to be a nun and follows an unknown path.  It is not doubt in the sense that she abandons her work and faith, but a readjustment that is within her power to make.  Viridiana questions her role in the religious and worldly systems, and starts on a different path than she originally anticipated.  Does she forego taking vows?  Yes, but from my LDS perspective and understanding about ecclesiastical authority, Viridiana is perfectly justified in choosing to “produce fruit and be a mother” that Buñuel sets her out to do.  In the end, I agree with Buñuel’s outcome for Viridiana, but I do not agree with his categorization of her before she leaves her post.  If doubt must come into the equation, then Viridiana’s doubt is an anti-faith that is against the institution that failed her and an exercise of free will; but anti-faith implies that Viridiana discontinues believing in God.  Hence, question is a better term.  She can still question an imperfect, man-operated organization without having to lose faith in a religion.  When she takes the time to prepare to make her vows, she rightfully expects the church to provide her with safety and security.  She performed her part of the bargain by complying with her superiors’ demands.  However, the Catholic system fails to pay her due diligence at a time she needs it most.  Viridiana fulfills her part, but the organization does not; therefore, Viridiana is under no obligation to continue upholding her vows while the church fails to uphold its promises.

Having said that, I now investigate into scriptural sources to validate Viridiana’s efforts and qualify her as useful.  I think of charity as one of Viridiana’s useful characteristics.  A number of results come back.  The first result appears relevant, because Viridiana seeks to do good works.  Her short time with the homeless people shows that she has faith in the potential good of people: “And see that ye have faith, hope, and charity, and then ye will always abound in good works” (Alma 7:24).  Abounding in good works implies that they are useful as long as faith, hope, and charity corroborate them.  Viridiana complies with these requisites and does good works to the people that surround her.

I then search for certain keywords in the scriptures.  The citations tend to condemn the beggars that disobey Viridiana’s rules.  By stealing into the main mansion, they have more to fear of becoming useless creatures than Viridiana does.  A New Testament prophet describes their shortcomings and actions succinctly: “These are spots in your feasts of charity, when they feast with you, feeding themselves without fear: clouds they are without water, carried about of winds; trees whose fruit withereth, without fruit, twice dead, plucked up by the roots; Raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame; wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever” (Jude 1:12-13).  This particularly labels the blind man who smashes the dishes on the table upon hearing that his girl is rolling around with a man behind the couch.  The blessing he leaves while passing Jorge during the discovery of their revelry sounds especially empty and hypocritical.

I continued looking up “useless” in my scriptural sources.  I came upon an entry in the LDS Bible Dictionary for Jeremiah.  This prophet bears the same tribulations like Viridiana.  “After Josiah’s death he tried to stem, almost alone, the tide of idolatry and immorality, of self-deception founded on superficial reforms (3:4-5; 7:8-10), and of fanatical confidence in the Lord’s protection, in which all classes were carried away” (BD Jeremiah 711).

The entry continues to discuss Jeremiah as a type of fetish for the escaping Jews.  Viridiana can be seen as a type of fetish.  Buñuel does portray her feet in that fashion.  But in the case of the rapists, she is a fetish that embodies purity and virginity.  They treat her in the same way, almost, as Jeremiah: “After the fall of Jerusalem the Jews who escaped into Egypt took Jeremiah with them as a kind of fetish (43:6), and at last, according to tradition, stoned him to death” (BD Jeremiah 711).  The beggars play along with Viridiana’s philanthropic experiment until they either abandon her or assault her.

Another attribute that vindicates Viridiana is that she truly wants to become better than she is herself.  Her actions speak from the heart whereas her followers go through just the motions.  Unfortunately, her followers, although recognizing that she has a heart of gold, uselessly ignore her admonitions and charity.  Viridiana mirrors Jeremiah again: “The prophet dwells much on the inwardness of the Lord’s relation to the mind of his servants.  External service is useless where there is no devotion of heart and life; superficial reforms were of no avail—a complete regeneration in the national life was required.  He develops the idea of individual fellowship with the Lord (5:1, 7, 26-28; 9:1-6; 18); though the Jewish state falls, the Lord remains, and religion remains in the life of the individual” (BD Jeremiah 711, emphasis in original).  The beggars do not comply with Viridiana’s regimen; therefore, their external service constitute as superficial.

I really do not find an explicit use of the word “useless” in the scriptures, but what about “useful” in the scriptures?  Unfortunately, the word acts in a completely utilitarian sense as it applies to food and beasts of burden: “Nevertheless, wheat for man, and corn for the ox, and oats for the horse, and rye for the fowls and for swine, and for all beasts of the field, and barley for all useful animals, and for mild drinks, as also other grain” (D&C 89:17).  A Book of Mormon prophet uses the word to describe the same as well: “And also all manner of cattle, of oxen, and cows, and of sheep, and of swine, and of goats, and also many other kinds of animals which were useful for the food of man” (Ether 9:18).

I decide to try a different term, because “useless” and “useful” bring back scant results.  I choose “offend,” because the rapists or assaulters offend Viridiana in the master bedroom in an injurious way.  Being an innocent and charitable hostess, she attempts to deflect the forces that take advantage of her.  Although it appears contrary, I stress that a universal justice sides on behalf of “useful” people, even in times of dire straits.  The assaulters do get their comeuppance shortly following their crime.  Jesus warns, “But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).  Mormon continues this line of thought in the Americas: “And it would be better for them if they had not been born.  For do ye suppose that ye can get rid of the justice of an offended God, who hath been trampled under feet of men, that thereby salvation might come?” (3 Nephi 28:35).  Viridiana faints before she gets saved, but she is saved nonetheless.  The offenders do not.

The way Viridiana gets saved after she passes out from her exertion to stop the assault is through her cousin, Jorge.  He, while tied up, bribes the disabled hobo with money.  The hobo takes his offer even though earlier he was waiting for his accomplice to give him a turn with the nun.  He kills him by smashing the offender’s head with an ash shovel.  He gets the money, but the civil guard comes upon the premises shortly after.  It does not take a lot of imagination to conclude that the hobo will be prosecuted severely after that.  (As to the ethical question of Jorge’s conduct in manipulating the hobo to murder his partner, it lies outside the scope of this article.)

Viridiana survives, but psychological wounds remain.  But wounds do not disqualify her standing as a useful person.  Her useful charity ultimately saves her from a worse destiny.  Her charity comes in her favor.  Consider the following:

“And it was the more righteous part of the people who were saved, and it was they who received the prophets and stoned them not; and it was they who had not shed the blood of the saints, who were spared—

“And they were spared and were not sunk and buried up in the earth; and they were not drowned in the depths of the sea; and they were not burned by fire, neither were they fallen upon and crushed to death; and they were not carried away in the whirlwind; neither were they overpowered by the vapor of smoke and of darkness” (3 Nephi 10:12-13).

The two miscreants suffer punishment in a less epic manner, of course, but I am thinking more along the lines like this: “But, behold, the judgments of God will overtake the wicked; and it is by the wicked that the wicked are punished; for it is the wicked that stir up the hearts of the children of men unto bloodshed” (Mormon 4:5).  Some may say that since God allows a person, in this cinematic case, to kill a rapist while in the act as punishment, then they can conclude that God is also wicked, thinking that only the wicked punish the wicked.  No, that is not the case.  It is Jorge who “stirs up the heart” of the disabled hobo to commit the murder.  Jorge certainly is wicked enough to even suggest an idea to a mentally slow creature, for why does not he suggest that he just wrangle the rapist away instead?

The abuse inflicted upon useful people by useless ones seems to indicate a pattern of closed-minded and wretched folk.  Alma, speaking about Zenock, an unknown Old Testament prophet, confirms this practice saying, “And now, my brethren, ye see that a second prophet of old has testified of the Son of God, and because the people would not understand his words they stoned him to death” (Alma 33:17).  The assaulters did not care for Viridiana’s charity and teaching.  Viridiana’s example is very useful for the betterment of the indigents’ lives and circumstances.  The useless folks just decide not the heed the wise nun.

At this point, another question comes to mind: Is Viridiana raped twice in the story or not?  The shots are ambiguous enough to suggest either.  Technically, the answer is no, because we simply do not see it portrayed and Don Jaime tells Viridiana, “I lied.”  However, surrealistically speaking—which I believe is the case in this film—Viridiana does suffer from post-traumatic stress comparable to a rape victim’s.  The Spanish sense of honor and virtue, whether or not Viridiana is at fault, dictates that her reputation, even under appearances, has been sullied.  Imagined or not, her circumstance bars her from returning to an atmosphere that requires purity in spirit and in body to serve as a nun.

Viridiana could have chosen to return to the convent and assert that she is guiltless, but she does not.  She does not, because the prying questions of worthiness from her peers and superiors would distract all of them from the spiritual work at hand.  Unity is the key in any organized religious institution, and, although innocent of any sexual wrongdoing, Viridiana understands the potential harm she could do on its reputation.  She figures the situation would be more secure to trust her capitalist cousin, who appreciates her physical beauty anyway, than it would be under the mercy of a strictly celibate atmosphere.  She fixes herself up as best she knows how and begins “shuffling the deck” with Jorge and Ramona.  Does she make a wrong decision?  Not necessarily, and I think Buñuel portrays that.

Buñuel is an atheist, but I intuit that he graciously allows others to practice their religion according to their consciences.  Buñuel, I believe, contests against the clericalism readily apparent in the culture.  He is, however, not antireligious.  It is certainly in the realm of possibilities that, as a professed atheist, he still holds some religious beliefs.  Father Valentín Arteta Luzuriaga, S.J., plays on this idea in another extra entitled Cinéastes de notre temps on the DVD.  As to what they are or which ones, I do not know.  Buñuel says one thing at one moment and says something else the next.  I do have an idea of one possibility: Buñuel is a cultural Catholic and that can explain a lot of motifs in his films.

When I look at the cinematic and literary clues, I wonder if Buñuel had in mind the last chapter of Proverbs.  Before writing the screenplay Viridiana, does Buñuel consciously or subconsciously envision Viridiana as a modern mother of King Lemuel?  Could it be that Viridiana is just a story a mother tells her son about how she met his father?  The idea is plausible.

Imagine Viridiana telling her experiences to her son and the wisdom she has gained from those experiences:

“The words of king Lemuel, the prophecy that his mother taught him.

“What, my son? and what, the son of my womb? and what, the son of my vows?

“Give not thy strength unto women, nor thy ways to that which destroyeth kings.

“It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine; nor the princes strong drink:

“Lest they drink, and forget the law, and pervert the judgment of any of the afflicted.

“Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts.

“Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.

“Open thy mouth for the dumb in the cause of all such as are appointed to destruction.

“Open thy mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy.

“Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.

“The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil.

“She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life.

“She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands.

“She is like the merchants’ ships; she bringeth her food from afar.

“She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens.

“She considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard.

“She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms.

“She perceiveth that her merchandise is good: her candle goeth not out by night.

“She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff.

“She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.

“She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household are clothed with scarlet.

“She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple.

“Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land.

“She maketh fine linen, and selleth it; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant.

“Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come.

“She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness.

“She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.

“Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her.

“Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all.

“Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised.

“Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates” (Proverbs 31:1-31).

Viridiana has always been a useful member of society.  She is a good person that has had her share of disappointments and setbacks.  She questions her place in the grand scheme of things, but she does not doubt.  Answers and justice may not come when she wants, but they do come.  She needs to be given the compassion that she has sought to give, but which her congregation and her supervisors failed to reciprocate.  Her followers and her superiors are the true useless people.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Carlos Saura's Fados

Duvideo, Fado Filmes, and Zebra Producciones present a musical entitled Fados de Carlos Saura in 2007.  Zeitgeist Films distributes the movie on DVD in 2009.  Carlos Saura, known for his critically acclaimed movies like Tango and Flamenco, directs this recital of songs inspired by the fado genre.  Fado has its origins in nineteenth century Lisbon and consists mainly of melancholy themes of loss, or saudade.  The list of performers that appear in this movie includes, in no particular order, the following: Carlos do Carmo, Mariza, Camané, Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso, Toni Garrido, Lura, Lila Downs, Miguel Poveda, Catarina Moura, Argentina Santos, Cuca Roseta, NBC, SP & Wilson, Vicente da Câmara, Maria da Nazaré, Pedro Moutinho, Ana Sofia Varela, Carminho, Ricardo Ribeiro, Ricardo Rocha, Jaime Santos, and Brigada Víctor Jara.

Fados is one of those films that begins with a great idea, but does not have the corporate resources to fund it.  Therefore, many entities are solicited to pitch in.  As a result, a virtually long list of sponsors appears before the actual introduction to the movie.  (I will list the contributors here, because a person that navigates the bureaucratic jungle to obtain finances for any film does an impressive feat.  For each contributor, I will place a link for anyone interested in researching that particular entity.  Since these institutions come from Portugal and Spain, the websites will be in Portuguese and Spanish, although most, if not all of them, do provide English translations.)  According to the opening credits, the film producers are as follows: Câmara Municipal de Lisboa, Empresa de Gestão de Equipamentos e Animação Cultural, Turismo de Portugal (Ministério da Economia e do Emprego), and TVI (Televisão Independente, S.A.).  The film receives support from these institutions: Eurimages (European Cinema Support Fund of the Council of Europe); Programa Ibermedia or CACI (el Fondo Iberoamericano de Ayuda and la Conferencia de Autoridades Audiovisuales y Cinematográficas de Iberoamérica); and Gobierno de España, Ministerio de Cultura, Instituto de la Cinematografía y de las Artes Audiovisuales (ICAA).  TVE (Televisión Española) participates in the making of this movie.  Additional financial support comes from the Instituto de Crédito Oficial that is under the supervision of the Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad and managed by la Secretaría de Estado de Economía.

Having obtained the funds needed to produce the movie, the director effectively husbands his resources to create a simple yet fantastic recital of film, dance, song, music, and story.  Saura uses translucent screens diffusing back lighting in rich, colorful hues.  Shadows of performers on these screens depict a sense of movement and intrigue.  These backgrounds offer an affordable alternative to expensive venues, offering a glossy, postmodern view of fado with simulacra to a twenty-first century international audience.  Saura also uses instantaneous or previously recorded imagery projected onto screens behind the performers.  The technique supposes a sort of metafiction or narrated level.  He uses mirrors to reflect sides and profiles in an eerie symmetrical trompe l’oeil.  You think you are seeing the performance until you realize that it is only a reflection.  This trick gets you thinking about how Saura is able to perform this trick without having the reflection of the camera come into view.  Mirrors also help in the composition of the shots, especially with singers.  The reflections may show a profile, another side, a multiplication, or a complete reversal of a performer, allowing the observer to contemplate the performances in a phenomenological way.  When you think you have gotten used to Saura’s cinematography, you see a change of technique in “Um Homem na Cidade.”  You think, “Are there green screens here?”  No, they are hanging pictures of cityscapes in Lisbon.  You figure this out by the reflections of light on the ebony flooring of the studio.

In numbers that incorporate dances, dancers become affected by light and sound of an archived film.  Dancers, in exchange, project their own shadows upon the image.  Each medium affects the other.  In one of the simultaneous recordings and projections, you see a dance performed and repeated again ad infinitum.  Each projection slightly lags to produce a visual echo on screens and mirrors.  During “Grândola,” dancers take a break and watch a clip showing Amália Rodrigues rehearsing the song.  It is a movie within a movie.  The camera almost imperceptibly zooms in to the projection on the screen until it fills the audience’s screen in full.  Rodrigues’s eye then introduces the next number played by Caetano Veloso, who sings “Estranha Forma de Vida.”  All the dances have either modern, African, folk, ballet, hip hop, or ballroom style.  In “Menina Você Que Tem,” Africans don nineteenth century Portuguese clothing, hold fans, and dance around a simulation of a Portuguese palace.  (I see it as a type of Occidentalism meets Exoticism.)  Does “Foi na Travessa da Palha” show rehearsed choreography or a choreographed rehearsal?  Of course, it is the latter, but the atmosphere lends an intimate and casual feeling as the spectator watches.  It then smoothly transitions into a performance where Lila Downs sings and acts like an intradiegetic-homodiegetic narrator.  The song narrates a love triangle whose two women have a cat fight over the lover.  Better yet, they fight it out in slow motion.  The singer’s avatar wins her lover back.  Not all fado songs are mournful or confrontational.  “Fado Batido” has dancers around a campfire that is strangely burning in the middle of the sound stage.  It is lively, cheerful, and has a folk dance quality to it.

Saura also takes the opportunity to show how fado has impacted the real world.  In “O Fado da Severa,” singers use a sanfona and a panel of painted pictures on a canvas to tell a story of a count that has lost his love to death.  “Revolução” shows scenes of the Carnation Revolution during the 1970s when a dictatorship ended in Portugal.  An iconic movie star during the silent film era gets a nostalgic treatment in “Rua do Capelão.”  Archival footage of Alfredo Marceneiro singing “Tricana” and Amália Rodrigues singing “Grândola” also figure into the historical documentary.  Even Portuguese-singing rappers and hip hop dancers produce their version of fado in “Marceneiro.”

For a few numbers, I leave a couple of impressions.  “Flor di Nha Esperança” is beautifully recorded in a one-shot sequence.  “Fado Flamenco” is an amalgam of, well, Fado and Flamenco, Portuguese and Spanish.  Mariza and Miguel Poveda sing beautifully the song entitled “Meu Fado Meu.”  “Casa de Fados” showcases a medley that hecklers may call a moping competition.  Despite not being able to sing their songs in completion, they do prove their talent.  The last sequence shows a cast practicing a dance number and crew cleaning the studio while Mariza’s “Ó Gente da Minha Terra” plays.  The camera pans across the stage showing equipment used in previous scenes.  The audience member scans the studio until he or she confronts a mirror and a reflection showing the camera’s own image.  When I see this sequence, I get surprised at first, because it breaks the unwritten rule that cameras should not record themselves.  The camera blatantly breaks this rule and adds itself as a character and a narrator.  When it focuses in on itself, I get this Sartrean fear of the Other’s gaze, leaving me with a feeling that I have been caught in a voyeuristic act.  The producing machine rebels against the human consumer.  The gate of the camera, like a sinister cousin of HAL 9000, sucks my soul into its abyss.  What is left in the abyss then fades out to black, completing the musical experience.  It is quite unnerving, but it makes for a great ending.

The extras on this DVD are few and short.  “The Making of Fados” shows performers and crew members giving compliments to their director and appreciation for the chance to work with him.  There are two theatrical trailers and a gallery of photos showing Saura in his work environment.  I am a little disappointed in the variety of extras, but I’ll take whatever information I can get.

There should be no problem for anyone watching this movie, aside from personal taste in music and dance.  Parents need not worry about anything vulgar, violent, or sexual to disturb their children’s entertainment.  It is quite family friendly.  It is as though you are taking your family to see a production of dance, song, and music at a local theater.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Luis Buñuel's Viridiana

The Criterion Collection releases Luis Buñuel’s film Viridiana on DVD in 2006 under license from Video Mercury Films S.A., a company that holds the rights to the film since 1991.  Janus Films distributed the film in the United States in 1962 and Uninci S.A. in Europe in 1961.  Buñuel, of course, directs this film, as well as writes the screenplay with Julio Alejandro.  He casts Silvia Pinal to play Viridiana, Francisco Rabal as Jorge, Fernando Rey as Don Jaime, Margarita Lozano as Ramona, and real people from off the streets of Spain to play a motley crew of beggars and degenerates.  To finance the production of this film, he receives help from the following producers: Ricardo Muñoz Suay of Uninci S.A., Gustavo Alatriste of Gustavo Alatriste P.C. de México, and Pere Portabella of Films 59.  The Criterion Collection also includes very valuable extras, including an interview with Silvia Pinal, an interview with Richard Porton, a trailer from the early 1960s to promote the film in the United States, and an episode of a French series called Cinéastes de notre temps.  The DVD jacket also states that the booklet accompanying the DVD contains an interview with Luis Buñuel and an essay by Michael Wood.  I presume the Michael Wood essay the DVD cover is referring to is “Viridiana: The Human Comedy,” which you can read by clicking here; but as to the interview, I do not have the booklet available to me at this time.

The movie itself tells of a young nun who wishes to take her vows and become a recluse after having studied for some time.  However, before she officially takes her vows, the abbess requests her to visit an estranged uncle, Don Jaime, who financed Viridiana’s education.  She reluctantly acquiesces and visits Don Jaime on his large estate.  While visiting, she tells him that although she is very grateful for his financial sponsorship, she does not have any familial affection for him.  As for Don Jaime, he cannot get past the fact that Viridiana looks exactly like his wife before she died.  Viridiana stays for a few days.  On the eve of Viridiana’s return to the convent, Don Jaime, having fallen in love with the apparition of his lost beloved in his niece, hatches a plan to keep the novitiate at the estate indefinitely.  He does so by requesting Viridiana to model in his wife’s wedding gown.  Although uncomfortable, Viridiana humors Don Jaime.  She thinks she is only relieving his forlornness.  Don Jaime tries to tell Viridiana something, but because of his incapability to ask her directly, Ramona intervenes and informs Viridiana that Don Jaime wishes to marry her.  Viridiana becomes distraught and wishes to leave immediately.  Don Jaime recants ever mentioning the matter and begs Viridiana to stay and have tea.  She returns to the sofa, but she does not realize that Don Jaime has motioned Ramona to slip some sleeping pills into her tea.  Upon drinking the tea, Viridiana faints into a deep sleep and Don Jaime carries her back to his room to make love to his niece/wife, only to have second thoughts and retreat at the last moment.  The next morning, Don Jaime tells her that he has raped her during the night in the hopes that she will finally stay at the residence.  Mortified by the possibility of having been raped, she packs her clothes and leaves.  Don Jaime tries to stop her by saying that he has, in fact, lied, but Viridiana has made up her mind.  She almost gets on the bus to take her back to the convent when she is stopped by civil guards.  They inform her that something has happened to her uncle.  When they return to the estate, they find Don Jaime hanging from a tree, obviously having committed suicide.  Viridiana, traumatized by her uncle’s death, has no choice but to stay, because Don Jaime has bequeathed the estate to her and to an illegitimate son in a suicide note or will.

The second half of the movie shows Viridiana and her cousin, Jorge, as they occupy the grounds and divide the inheritance.  She decides to use her half of the fortune for charitable pursuits while he plans to refurbish the estate and cultivate the land to produce a profitable enterprise.  Jorge lives in the mansion while Viridiana resides in a smaller building to teach and care for several homeless people.  She quixotically nurtures her flock with food, shelter, work, and Christian affection.  Her plans seem to go well until she and Jorge go out-of-town to finish some paperwork with a notary public.  While they are away, the beggars slip into the mansion, have a feast, and, before too long, destroy the dining room in an orgiastic revelry.  At this point, Jorge and Viridiana return to the house and fall into the clutches of a couple of miscreants.  The experience changes Viridiana’s life forever.

Critics have extolled Viridiana as being Buñuel’s finest masterpiece.  The film receives the coveted Palme d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1961.  According to Silvia Pinal, many thought at the time that Buñuel’s film would not be competitive enough owing to the fact that it was about a nun in Spain during the Spanish State.  Too many concessions would compromise Buñuel’s artistic integrity, they thought.  Despite all odds, it became a hit at the festival.  It also received a denouncement from the Vatican’s official newspaper, which prompted a backlash in Spain.  Franco reacted by destroying all the sets or any vestige of Buñuel’s work relating to the “blasphemous” film.  Henceforth the film was banned for many years after its release.  The Vatican’s denouncement also placed an obstacle in the film’s distribution, because many export licenses at the time would not permit “immoral” works to cross boundaries.  A hard legal battle ensued.  At much cost and with the dedicated help of French lawyers, the film was declared of Mexican origin, thereby categorizing this film as a Mexican production and distributing it to audiences in America.

In the interview with Richard Porton, he explains the various motifs seen in Viridiana, even though Buñuel “hated simplistic, reductive interpretations” of his work.  At one point in the interview, Porton explains the use of surrealistic objects in the film:

“It’s almost as if objects derive from everyday life have the potential to be imbued with qualities of the marvelous which was a main attribute of the surrealist ethos that you didn’t need to come up with something fanciful from the imagination.  Surrealism is rooted in everyday life and, if you just look hard enough, there can be a certain type of alchemy which is able to reveal itself in what the surrealists like to refer to as ‘objects of multiple use.’”

These objects of multiple use can be seen in images like the pen knife in the shape of a crucifix, a crown of thorns as an object of worship and as firewood, a dog tied to the axle of a carriage, and a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper as portrayed by mendicants.  One object that has the most uses in this film is a jump rope.  The uses it has include being a toy, a gift, a social icebreaker, a noose, an unholy relic, a belt, and a hold to pull away a rapist.  The wooden jump rope handles that Viridiana holds while resisting the criminal’s advances may even represent snakes in a certain context.  Buñuel may have been alluding to Saint Verdiana’s snakes that penetrated her cell during the latter end of her life as a recluse in an Italian monastery.  The idea adds an intriguing twist to the meaning of mortification of the flesh.  The wooden jump rope handles also represent other violent forces that intend to take advantage of Viridiana’s chastity, religiosity, and corporality.

Unlike other Buñuel films, Viridiana has a good share of music.  Normally, Buñuel eschews music in his movies.  Mozart and Handel figure prominently with choral and organ music, especially Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus during the beggars’ last supper.  I cannot trace the origins of a couple of songs, but when juxtaposed with various scenes, they take on an uncanny quality.  There is even an American-sounding rock and roll song called “Shake Your Cares Away” at the end during a card game.  (I cannot find out if it is a real song from the 1950s or 60s, or one just made for the movie.)  I find these choices significant, because they incorporate a zeitgeist of British and American cultural influences through the medium of phonographic records.  In a time when Spain is beginning to come out of its isolation from international affairs, the record player portrays a special status symbol of wealth and progression.  The presence of the record player invokes nostalgia of an earlier empire that Spain once was as well as promising a renewed cooperation with wealthier sovereignties.   When considering the dictatorial policies of censors at the time, it is astounding to think how many things got past them.  If I had more time and resources, I would look into British and American musical influences in Francoist Spain as well as in film and literature.

I recommend watching the extra feature that shows a short documentary of Luis Buñuel in French called Cinéastes de notre temps that aired on April 4, 1964.  I like this episode because it shows Buñuel in his most natural and personable character.  The interviewer and Buñuel discuss his history and work while overlooking the city of Toledo.  Surrealistic moments happen even during the interview.  The sound of a bus going by and the bray of a donkey off camera interrupt the interlocutors.  Buñuel suggests showing the donkey passing by in the final edit, which the producers do.  The interview holds a treasure trove of information about Buñuel and several of his works and experiences.

Georges Sadoul, a participant in this episode, recounts a story he heard about Buñuel to the interviewer.  It accurately describes Buñuel’s personality and artistic intentions.  It also explains perfectly the reaction his film has on Franco’s reputation and status.  This is what he relates below:

“His son Juan Luis told me a story that I adore, because it’s Buñuel in a nutshell.  He said, ‘My father had an idea of making a bullet, since he made his bullets himself, with such a weak charge that when the bullet was fired at him, it would slide off his clothes harmlessly.  He worked on it for months, and finally one day he said, “I’ve done it!”  To test-fire it, he took the precaution of lining up several dictionaries and old phone books.  He fired.  The bullet went through the target, through the phone books, through the wall and into the neighbor’s!’  That’s Buñuel in a nutshell.  When he makes a film, he says, ‘I hardly put anything in it!’ and it explodes.”

I like this movie for its thought-provoking allusions and interactions, a few of which I have just mentioned in this review.  Although it is not my favorite Buñuel movie, it is worth taking a couple of hours to view it once or twice.  There are thematic elements that can be shocking or disturbing for more sensitive viewers, but I would rate this film as PG-13.  Teenagers should be accompanied by adults while watching this film so as to answer any artistic or moral questions they may have during the film.  It will be a good exercise in critical thinking skills and interpretation.