Tristana (1970)

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In the Hebrew Pentateuch, the Levitical law lays out a framework of precepts quite clearly that the people were meant to follow. One iteration can be paraphrased like so: If a man marries both a woman and her mother it is perversion. There must be no wickedness among you.

Doing a once over of the Spanish elite Don Lope (Fernando Rey), we see in him a man who came out of nobility and nevertheless lives a fairly humble life for the very fact that he’s never held a day job. He’s upper class by title and pretense only. Subsequently, his moral makeup is very much the same as he nobly provides a home for an orphaned ingenue (Catherine Deneuve).

Like his status, it is nearly all for show. It’s under the pretense of charity and the guise of a gentleman that he takes in the young Tristana, still in mourning following her dear mother’s death. Don Lope touts himself as a gallant defender of the weak and undoubtedly sees himself as a dying breed of man. Still, as his devoted housekeeper, Saturna remarks, when it comes to women he’s got horns and a tail. It’s hardly a secret.

We note the times in Spain during the 1920s or 30s. It is an irreligious generation as reflected in the deterioration and lack of importance placed in the church bell tower which used to be crucial to the daily rhythms of people’s lives. Now they’re too distracted by other pleasures.

Don Lope for one, does not concern himself with issues of money. Haggling is of great distaste to him. Instead in the quiet corridors of some great cathedral, he asks Tristana for a clandestine kiss. It’s the root of his perverse desires. Afterward, he makes troubling statements like, I’m your father and your husband and he seems to wholeheartedly believe them.

So despite the presence of Deneuve, in some respect, the narrative is more akin to Viridiana (1961) than Belle de Jour (1967) with Rey once more involved in a romantic tryst where he seems to be the main proponent of the relationship.

His spiritual beliefs come down to a few basic points including the assertion that Jesus was the first socialist and that the real priests are the men who look after the weak, fighting against hypocrisy and the powerful. He’s not altogether wrong but the words prove ironic coming from his lips. Because we know full well his own seemingly incongruent behaviors.

Still, it’s too true that we can equally criticize the advice of the local priest. However benevolent he might be, his words to Tristana stands in the face of what seems to be inherently right. He knows full well what Don Lope has done and yet he does next to nothing to protect the girl. All he can entreat her is to stay with him because he seems to have changed and treats her well enough.  That is all.

Fernando Rey’s character is obviously problematic to grapple with even if the performance itself is of merit. Because he’s this baffling mixture of old-fashioned values which give the pretense of respectability and honor. He’s not outrightly despicable, masking his indiscretions well. Perhaps because in his own mind’s eye these are hardly sins at all.

In realizing this we’ve come to what’s most problematic about him. Because he’s created his own code, in a sense, since there is no universal moral code that he falls back on. He is a strict adherent to moral relativism. You see, usually religious people, people who grew up in faith have something to check themselves with — Levitical law for instance.

Far from being legalistic, grace was in theory supposed to accord adherents the ability to forgive others but also be forgiven and live in complete freedom if they were penitent. But Don Lope can’t be troubled with religiosity, the commandments, and dos and don’ts of the church are all he sees. They seem so restrictive. Undoubtedly because most of the people living by them misinterpret their intentions and as a result carry on repressed even harshly ascetic existences. And yet in disregarding the same, Don Lope’s own “morals” cause him to step over accepted boundaries.

Thus, his relationship with Tristana from the day he betrays her innocence is forever tainted. And there is no grace there and no sense of repentance as if he actually did nothing wrong, and so he doesn’t really change. It only serves in making his victim more bitter by the hour.

Rey’s performance might be the most crucial but being partial to Catherine Deneuve there’s no question that her transformation from a young grieving woman of such pure naivete is striking. Because she’s so innocent only to become tarnished by Don Lope’s behavior. She’s a far cry from the woman she arrived in his home as — both physically and mentally. It’s taken its toll.

She is plagued by morbid dreams but Bunuel has gotten a great deal more subtle with his surrealist diversions skillfully weaving them into the framework of reality with seamless aptitude. There are individual moments that you don’t realize are actually dream-like until the bubble has burst and you’re out of them.

So the film utilizes a fairly straightforward narrative for Bunuel but that must be taken with a grain of salt. Because it’s contorted along the same lines of subversion and social norms that the Spanish director is usually fond of lambasting with his typical iconoclastic verve. It’s not always blatant in this picture but still evident.

Ultimately it becomes a story of revenge as Tristana finds love with another man (Franco Nero) and yet still feels trapped by Lope. As a result, her heart grows hard and full of resentment toward the old man who ruined her. To return the favor, she is all but ready to ruin him. It’s a lovely sentiment.

In reading some over the career of Luis Bunuel I’ve realized the correlation between him and Alfred Hitchcock in a couple areas. First, they were very much visual filmmakers who knew what they were shooting before they ever got on set. The movie was already inside their heads and made. They simply needed to use the actors and equipment at their disposal to get it done.

Furthermore, thematically since they both had a Catholic background and a slightly sardonic wit, you often see touches of those sensibilities throughout their pictures. Hitchcock in the likes of Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958), also considered themes of sexual obsession and deep-seated vices which Bunuel held a similar preoccupation with. I’ve always held a preference for “The Master of Suspense” but I must still pay my deference to the latter as a tirelessly inventive filmmaker who proved to have remarkable longevity.

4/5 Stars

Living is Easy with Eyes Closed (2013)

Living_Is_Easy_with_Eyes_ClosedI still remember driving through the hills and dales of the English countryside listening to Hard Day’s Night in the family rental car. Back then I had a haircut that could best be described as a mop top. And then during my one visit to Liverpool, I was beyond ecstatic. I’m a fairly reserved person and yet standing in Paul McCartney’s kitchen at 20 Forthlin Road (his childhood residence) what else could I do but bend down and kiss the floor?

So you see, Living is Easy resonates with me a great deal. I’ve had similar feelings, similar joys and epiphanies listening to the Beatles. Even as I have matured and branched out in musical taste there’s no doubt that the Beatles will always be a part of my cultural heartbeat. When I was younger I would say that I idolized them and as I’ve grown older those feelings continually evolved.

That’s why sometimes our hopes are dashed and our heroes fall off their pedestals. We get so close to them — feel like me know them so well — without ever having met them or interacted with them. But they don’t know us and they can’t know us in the same way.

No superstar, musician, actor or athlete can hold up to the kind of scrutiny that we put to their lives. So maybe this is an utterly ludicrous fantasy, a dream wrapped up underneath the unassuming folds of a Spanish comedy-drama. But David Trueba’s film is the perfect summation of our pursuits in life. Going after the long shots just for the sheer invigorating fun of it. For Antonio (Javier Camara) that means meeting John Lennon. For others, probably someone else. It’s no different. I still wouldn’t mind meeting Paul McCartney someday. That’s the point. We can dream and pursue big things.

And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, especially the way Antonio goes about it. He practically is an enigma within the culture he lives in, repressed, fearful and stiff as it is. He breaks all those molds, teaching English with enthusiasm, using the Beatles’ lyrics (most memorably “Help”) as a didactic tool to get his little pupils to think beyond the nominal.

His journey, to find John Lennon in the rural town of Almeria during the filming of Richard Lester’s How I Won the War in 1966, is an inspired heroes journey and the beauty of this story is that he doesn’t go it alone. In fact, being the personable, talkative and genuinely fun-loving man that he is, he welcomes others into his adventure. Belen is a woman struggling to figure her life out as she tries to hide the fact that she’s well along 3 months pregnant with nowhere to turn. Juanjo sports a mop top rather like the one I used to have, except in this case his father doesn’t approve. The familial tension is too much for him and he skips out, looking for something different.

These are the crossroads at which they end up riding down winding coastal roads as Antonio slowly puts them at ease with his charms — and an unfathomable enthusiasm for the Beatles. The following interludes of Living is Easy are better seen than explained because they generally unfold with the clarity and everyday delights of real life. And in this case, the Fifth Beatle gets his happy ending. He was rewarded for the disarmingly audacious way he chose to live.

Admittedly, I probably don’t hold up nearly as well against the fandom of Antonio, but if nothing else, I admire the Beatles for their lyricism and the pure, revolutionary nature of their music. I never grow sick of it. And like a great many of us out in the audience, I hope to live out these kinds of adventures with the people I meet along the way. To badly paraphrase Tennyson, it’s better to say you tried and failed than to never have tried at all. Because you never know, you just might get lucky.

For all those who don’t know, the film’s title derives from Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever,” a very personal song in its own right. However, as I scanned the backlogs of my mind, I thought to myself, of all the options, what an odd song to choose. But, in truth, it fits perfectly with the themes of this magical mystery tour. An evocative song for a deeply heartfelt film.

4/5 Stars

Viridiana (1961)

220px-Viridiana_coverLuis Bunuel like another cinematic auteur, Ingmar Bergman, seems to often fill his films with religious imagery and themes, but whereas Bergman appears to have genuine questions about his own spirituality, Bunuel is all but content to subvert all such depictions for his own purposes. He has a wicked sense of humor with the opening crescendos of Handel’s “Messiah” playing over the credits only to come back later when his film is at its most tumultuous.

The story opens, of all places, in a convent with a pretty young novice (Silvia Pinal) preparing to take her vows. But she is ordered by her superior to visit her long-estranged uncle. She is reluctant but goes anyways to his mansion in the country as a courtesy.

There she meets the lonely old man (Fernando Rey), isolated in his great home with only a few servants surrounding him. In young, vibrant Viridiana he finds joy and dare we say, love because in her face he sees the likeness of his now long deceased wife. She embodies the objects of all his passions and desires that he forgot so long ago when he was widowed. However, Viridiana is aloof and will show no affection towards him, ready to stay only as long as she has to. But he wants her to stay, needs her to be by his side forever, obsessing about her, and using all means necessary to keep her in his midst. It’s disconcerting how far he takes things, even lying to his niece that he took advantage of her in her slumber. Now if she leaves the house, she can never be the same woman she entered as, even if what Don Jaime is false. In the end, she does pack her bags in a tizzy and her hopeless uncle takes his life.

Now the life of a nun seems impossible, her life all of a sudden becoming tainted by these events. So she resigns to do the next best thing by taking her Uncle’s home and opening up its doors to the less fortunate — the beggars and the sickly. It’s a nice sentiment, but it doesn’t turn out especially well. She also becomes connected once more with her Uncle’s illegitimate son (Francisco Rabal), who has a more cynical view of the world. He sees her piety with an air of contempt.

In the chaotic interludes that follow, the house is torn to shreds by all the benefactors of Virdiana’s charity. While she is away, they make for themselves a rich feast, “A Last Supper,” pulling out all the stops like table clothes, fine china, and wine. What ensues is utter debauchery that Bunuel plays for laughs all the while Handel reverberates over the din.When Viridiana returns and sees the degeneracy around her she slowly dissolves into a shell of who she used to be. She’s been broken and much to her cousin’s delight, she’s lost her ardor, now jaded by all that is around her.

It’s a depressing conclusion suggesting that charity is all in vain because there is a degree depravity that courses through all people. In some sense, I find a Bunuel film more uncomfortable and disconcerting than most any, because he displays the most surreal, idiosyncratic, and even perverse things as comical. He lacks reverence and reveals the darker side of humanity all with a smile on his face. His style of filmmaking is abrasive because it rubs up against social mores and has fun with the baseness of mankind. If we note that before going forward, it still seems possible to learn from him and be a tad mystified by his work.

4/5 Stars