REVIEWED BY CHARLES LONBERGER
(Published on February 2, 2014 in The Beverly Hills Outlook)
With the release in 2011 of this landmark film, Pachamama Films made an indelible mark on World Cinema and simultaneously took hold of the popular imagination. Produced in Bolivia, it is a direct descendant of 1970′s Mark of the Devil, though it is light years better, being constructed with care, self-awareness and intelligence.
The production, by Amy Hesketh and Jac Avila, is tasteful, yet filled with panache – dramatic, rich and theatrical. As both costumer and make up artist, Hesketh establishes the color design of the production in the black attire of the clergy (suggestive of their dark hearts) and through the red blood on flagellated flesh, an appropriate color scheme, considering the Occult accusations that fly in its screenplay.
The combination of a screenplay and its realization, both saying different things, here does not contradict, but culminates in an entertaining and enjoyable viewing experience.
The screenplay, by Jac Avila, is an accusatory criticism of the Catholic Church in the age of the Inquisition. On more than one occasion, he references the Church’s anti-Semitism (something he had earlier mentioned in 2005′s Martyr) employing a narration from the perspective of a youthful witness who observes false accusations based, in part and in flashback, on the belief that sapphic activities are sinful, with trumped up charges leveled as a means to acquire personal wealth, even requiring the intended victim of said charges to fund their own persecution. By making this youthful perspective the audience’s perspective, it is implied that future generations will turn from such injustice.
It is interesting to observe that scriptwriter Avila aligns the false accusations with the Indigenous populace, something that would have implications in Bolivia’s diverse population makeup as would, given the country’s recent political changes, the depiction of collective theft directed against an individual, wealthy inheritor. In a similar vein, the “force of prayer” is depicted as an act of public aggression produced by a mob mentality. The implications in all of this would not be lost on a contemporary Bolivian audience.
Yet, Avila gives his fiction a happy ending of sorts in having his heroines miraculously resurrected and extracting revenge. His final pan to the heavens suggests that there just may be a deity looking out for us, after all.
But what Avila the scriptwriter condemns, Avila the director celebrates, at least as far as the Inquisition activities themselves go. For, while he does depict the victims touchingly holding hands despite their shackles, he converts a Chamber of Torments into a stage for public entertainment, mythologizing the kiss of the whip by imbuing extended scenes of flamboyant torture with a religious ambiance. One set of shackles is replaced by another, and embers burn, legs akimbo in chains. In truth, the criticism of religious persecution merely provides a context for extended scenes of torture in a fictionalized context to be enjoyed for their own sake.
Avila’s approach is formal and composed, making great use of the spotlighting design of cinematographer Miguel Inti Canedo who is richly atmospheric in his use of candlelight. Avila also makes excellent location use of the national Mestizo Baroque architecture to substitute for Spain. He links his heroines subtly together by including them in the same frame, even when this is not explicitly required by the action. It is hard to tell where reality ends and make-believe begins in his registration of the multitude of tortures his heroines endure.
As is the standard with this film company, the soundtrack is outstanding, as perfect an example of the Bolivian Native Baroque as can be imagined, though there are hints of Albinoni to be heard in it. The Sound mixing of Erly Illanes is likewise exceptional, a thing of cracking whips and crackling fire; church bells peal in the background, with the heroines screaming and wailing from beginning to end.
The casting is exceptional, particularly the one-of-a-kind performance by Amy Hesketh herself as Lutheran Mariana De Castro who is sodomized and “taken down.” Hoisted aloft, lowered onto spikes, strung up and, to all appearances, thoroughly flogged, her body bloodied and branded by hot irons, she “faces up to her Evil.” Her flesh is portrayed as repeatedly punctured; she rides the Spanish horse, and faints. The scenes in which she is roasted on a spit and burned alive at the stake are simply unforgettable, leaving her, as she later remembered, “forever scarred.” Understandably, her character ends up maimed and on a crutch. Her performance reinterprets acting as a form of endurance and physical abuse. Her tears are for real. We do not doubt the look of horror in her eyes.
As her friend, Francisca de la Cruz, Hesketh discovery earthy Mila Joya does “heavy penance” for refusing to fork over her inheritance: She remains defiant, even after being “taken to the dungeon.” This being said, there comes a point when she has had “enough.”
As Fr. Francisco Verdugo, Roberto Lopez is murdered as revenge for his crimes, while Erik Antoine sets things right and closes the book on Inquisition practices. Torturer Eric Calancha gets a real workout.
The previous two releases from this production company, intriguing as they were, were contemporary relationship dramas whose postures were, despite themselves, defensive. By casting this production as a historical fantasy, the gloves came off and no apologies were necessary, resulting in one of the most singularly memorable films ever made.
Note: in an important advance, the dialogue coalesced around a single language, Spanish, translating it conventionally into other world languages via subtitles.