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Archive for the ‘Expressionism’ Category

Two Monks / Dos Monjes, Mexico 1934.

Posted by keith1942 on August 21, 2017

This was part of a programme at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2017 presenting ‘Revolution and Adventure: Mexican Cinema in the Golden Age. The programmers Daniela Michel and Chloë Roddick explained in the Festival Catalogue;

“This programme aims to offer a broad spectrum of work that explores some of the most significant political, social and cultural moments in Mexican history. beginning with the nascent sound cinema of the early 1930s, the selection encompasses a variety of styles and genres through the 1940s, 50s, and early 60s.”

It appears that film production in Mexico took off in 1933. And this early sound film is both intensely interesting and seems to have been influential. The curators again,

“The beginnings of sound cinema in Mexico in the early 1930s saw the birth of a strange new genre that might reasonably be called ‘Mexican Gothic’. Arguably, in part, a more subtle and obscure response to the violence [that] had been imprinted on the collective psyche by the Revolution, films like the Spanish-language remake of Tod Browning’s Drácula (1931), …”

This film certainly combines some of the key features found in Gothic, horror, death and romance. It also includes tropes and motifs common in the genre, with unexpected revelations, gloomy and threatening buildings, religious paraphernalia and characters who suffer and/or swoon.

The film opens in a monastery where Brother Javier(Carlos Villatoro) appears to be in the process of some sort of mental breakdown. His condition is exacerbated when a new arrival, Brother Servando, appears.  He recounts the experiences to the Prior is an extensive flashback.

Javier is an affluent young man living with his mother Gertrude (Emma Roldán) with a particular talent for music and composition. He is smitten with the young women staying with his neighbours, Ana (Magda Heller). Their relationship develops but it is hampered by Javier’s delicate health: he appears to suffer from some sort of consumption. An old friend Juan (Victor Urruchúa) returns to the town. As the marriage of Javier and Ana approaches Javier discovers Ana and Juan in a compromising situation. In the ensuing fight Ana is accidentally shot by Juan.

As the flashback ends Javier tells the \prior that he searched for ‘Ana’s murderer’ everywhere and finally ended up in the monastery. Low and behold Juan appears in the guise of Brother Servando. The Prior now questions Juan/Servando who also confesses in another long flashback.

Much of this presents the same detail as in Javier’s confession, but from a different angle. What we do learn is that Juan and Ana were lovers prior to his leaving the town. On his return,

“like a bad dream”

he finds her ands Javier engaged. We also learn that Javier’s ill-health means that a shock could kill him. Hence Juan and Ana repress their re-wakened love until the night when Javier discovers them. Juan is planning to once more leave the town and this is his farewell.

The second flashback ends and we follow as Javier goes to the chapel, followed by Juan, the Prior and the other monks. Javier then expires playing the chapel organ.

The story is oddball but full of the themes that delighted surrealists: romanticism, repression, dream worlds, and fetishistic objects. The Catalogue notes informed that

“French surrealist and writer André Breton was reportedly taken with the film, which he saw during a visit to Mexico, dubbing it a “bold and unusual experiment”.”

However, there is also the influence of German expressionism

“evident in the film’s moody, nuanced use of black and white, and the photography of celebrated Mexican photographer Augustin Jiménez, which together create a strange, distorted atmosphere.”

So the film combines the obsession with desire [surrealism] with the dark eruptions of the psyche [expressionism].

The monastery in particular is full of chiaroscuro. And the religion objects, especially the crucifixes, are weirdly distorted. The mansion where Javier lives with his mother has odd objects, including a strangely elongated clock. And the camera constantly presents characters framed through window bars and grills. The sets are frequently oddly angled, and the camera mirrors this with low angle shots. In a real coup Javier and Juan are presented in alternative black and white clothing’s in the two flashbacks; emphasising the ambiguous nature of the revelations. There is the mother/son relationship, to become a staple of film noirs. And the final dramatic organ sequence became a staple of the horror genre.

The film was screened from a DCP in Spanish with English sub-titles. The restoration was part of the World Cinema Project of The Film Foundation.

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