07 June, 2009


Gun collector Luis Bunuel examines the Mexican gun culture in EL RIO Y LA MUERTE

"Al que mata frente e frente se le permite huir y vivir en el monte hasta que se le considere saldada su deuda."

Santa Viviana: A christening. Two male guests share drinks at the happy event until one makes an indiscreet remark. Weapons are drawn, a man is stabbed to death, the killer becomes a fugitive on the other side of the river.

Gerardo (Joaquin Cordero), a successful MD living in a large city is summoned back to his hometown by his mother to defend the family "honor" concerning a generation old "blood feud" which still consumes his name.

Surveying the critical literature on THE RIVER AND DEATH the terms "anti-western", "blood feud" and "easy death" recur. If this does evoke the Mexican tradition of "easy death" it is in the close study of the way the men of Santa Viviana are quick to anger and quicker to draw weapons. Bunuel's vision (this time based on a novel adapted by Luis Alcoriza and himself for Clasa Films Mundiales, S.A.) is, as always, an essentially biological one: the way men turn and draw at the same time seems an inbred physical trait as much as it derived from the Western-movie mythos. Characters living a centuries-old code in what appears to be the 19th Century but is actually the 20th, without any noticeable conveniences that are taken for granted in the big cities.

RIVER... anticipates the "Spaghetti Western" cycle of the 1960s with the images of shootouts suddenly erupting on dusty streets over absurdly complicated matters of "honor" and, as the epigraph above suggests, "debt."

A man rushes into a hospital to slap another who is confined to an iron lung! That could be an image from Bunuel's scandal mongering L'AGE D'OR (1930). Later the aggressor is splashed with his victim's blood which shames him into a final reconciliation.

Bunuel reportedly hated the moral-educative aspects of the material, the faux-happy ending lacks his usual ironic undercurrent. I haven't read Miguel Alvarez Acosta's novel "Muro blanco en roca negra" so I can't report on the film's originality. If one wasn't aware of Bunuel's involvement it might be taken for another mid-50s Mexican melodrama, but for the Bunuel scholar there is much in which to be interested. That doesn't mean it's a masterwork, far from it; but as an illustration of "machismo" in a society where the gun shop is the busiest place in town, it's dead-on. Bunuel, himself an obsessive gun-collector, should know.

Most amusingly, the local priest (the same actor who was the Padre in Bunuel's Sadean EL (1952), packs a gun under his robe and is exempt from a pat-down when the Federal Police are called in to subdue the town. Bunuel's laughter can almost be heard under these scenes. One wonders what Bunuel thought of the final scene with the long suffering mother (Columba Dominguez) watching the two men suddenly reconciling with a bear hug!

Opening and closing with images of the dark, palm lined river banks behind which lie miles of thick jungle into which local killers escape to pay their "debt" after a quick shootout. Essentially a series of duels, wakes, funerals and stand-offs, it's more "Leone" than John Ford in style. A typical gunfight will involve the aggressor pulling a gun, charging his target, who shoots him again and again as the loser lies dying. If the loser gets a shot into the opponent before death, all the better. There are some impressive, subtle plan-sequences scanning the adobe structures with black clad women about as men advance on each other in the middle of the street. One key duel takes place at night in a plaza featuring a crucifix installed at its center. An island cemetery to which coffins decorated with floral arrangements are ferried via rotting boats. Surreal images, no doubt ethnologically authentic, Bunuel mise-en-scene.

El Rio y la muerte de Luis Bunuel Alter's VIVE MEXICO! Cine en 35mm Collection: Multi Region 1-4; 1.33.1; Spanish language; 93m.

Thanks to Robert Guest

No comments: