Friday, October 8, 2010

"We are here to serve": Mario Camus's LOS SANTOS INOCENTES

For whatever reason, I have always found it difficult to fathom that a civilized European nation lived under a dictator until 1978. My friend Raúl Ansola tells me that the flourishing of Spanish art in the 1980s is a direct result of the democracy that emerged after Franco’s death in 1978, and that Spanish films benefited from the loosening of the state censorship under Franco’s regime. You can feel a kind of sigh, a loosening of the belt, in Mario Camus’s Los Santos Inocentes (1984), from the 1982 novel by Miguel Delibes. While the subject matter is relentlessly grim, there is a sense that the filmmakers were relieved to be able to show things as they really were—nothing is sugar-coated, nothing is evaded. The family at the heart of Los Santos Inocentes suffers, and the viewer suffers along with them, and yet it is as though the very act of speaking, of saying the truth, is redemptive enough to make the pain worthwhile.

The film concerns Paco (the excellent Alfredo Landa) and his wife Régula (the equally brilliant Terele Pávez), who work on the estate of a rich Extremaduran family headed by the odious but occasionally charming Iván (Juan Diego). They have three children, the handsome Quirce (Juan Sachez), the quiet but fiercely observant Nieves (Belén Ballesteros), and a severely mentally and physically handicapped younger daughter, called only “Tiny Girl” (Susana Sánchez). Joining the group is Régula’s mentally slow brother Azarías, played with heartbreaking simplicity and sweetness by Francisco Rabal. The brilliantly structured narrative gives four of these family members—Quirce, Nieves, Paco and Azarías—a piece of the story, a section from what is essentially their point of view, and it details the slow and painful decline of this very dignified family as they struggle to make the most of what life has thrown at them. Paco is slavishly devoted to the horrid Iván, despite the fact that he is treated by his master as little more than a dog; at one point, in his attempt to aid his master with his birding, he gets down on all fours and sniffs the ground, claiming to be able to detect the scent of a shot and wounded partridge—apparently it works, for said partridge is soon retrieved. Régula, when in the presence of her masters, almost always says some variation of “We are here to serve,” and her deference and quiet calm are almost uncanny—nothing seems able to break this woman’s stoic reserve. Their children Quirce and Nieves leave home over the course of the story, but both are so quiet, so uncommunicative that one wonders just how much growing up in such an environment has damaged them for life—they might physically get away from the scene of the crime, but the psychological damage has been done. Azarías has a gift and facility with birds, and over the course of the film raises a young bird from infancy and trains it to respond to his calls. He’s a bit of an embarrassment to the family, for he tends to rub his hands in his own urine when he pees outdoors (he claims that it keeps his hands from getting chapped), and he shits on the lawn of the estate, until Paco decides to start taking him out on horseback at night so that he can take care of this business in the dark and under the cover of trees. That said, the family also staunchly defends him, especially the often-exasperated Régula, who nevertheless looks at him with deep and abiding love.

The family in the manor house is interesting, for they are not portrayed in the manner I was expecting. Iván has moments, as I said above, of considerable charm. But ultimately his selfishness and brutishness outweigh any kind of sympathy I had for him. This is the kind of man who is so concerned with his own performance at hunting that he requires Paco, in a horribly painful series of scenes, to act as his second with a severely broken leg. And yet, he can look with concern at Paco, whom he has known all his life, after all. Played with more consistent coarseness are Don Pedro (Agustín González) and his slutty, lazy wife Purita (Ágata Lys), who is having an affair with Iván. Visiting the house for a First Communion is the Señora Marquesa (Mary Carrillo), who looks like an old, bleached-blond Anaïs Nin and who is so imperious that she terrified me on sight. She doles out cash to the servants, who stand timidly in line and pay her compliments; while she says some nice things to Régula, I was waiting for her to do something vicious. She never quite does, but her presence left me very uneasy; one can only guess what the servants thought while she was around. In one horrible moment, the servants all stand under the Señora’s balcony and call out compliments, while she stands, Evita-like, looking down at them.

The most striking thing about Los Santos Inocentes is the calm manner in which Paco and his family seem to accept their fate. There is no breast-beating, no hand-wringing, no late-night, candlelit conversations about how much they wish things were different. These are people who are surviving, striving to get through with as much grace and dignity as possible. They don’t seem to have any concept of yearning for something more. Perhaps they’ve realized they’re just never going to get it, so why hope? Early in the film they move from a small, dilapidated shack to a slightly larger dilapidated shack. It’s heartbreaking to see Quirce and Nieves so mesmerized by a single, functional lightbulb—they turn it on and off, entranced. This is a film with a striking soundtrack: the music, by Antón García Abril, is stunning, alternating between a frenetic drumbeat to end each character’s section and an incredibly sad violin piece; the soundtrack is often pierced by loud sounds—the pitiful screaming of “Tiny Girl,” Azarías’s joyful shouts of “Hey!” to owls he sees in the trees. Visually, the film takes place mostly outdoors, with a bleak but often beautiful landscape to counter and sometimes augment the actions of the characters. The acting is simply stunning—there’s not a bad performance in the piece, and Landa and Rabal shared the top acting prize at the Cannes Film Festival. I don’t want to say anything else about the plot, but suffice it to say that there are several moments of gut-wrenching sadness—images of some of these characters’ faces will be with me for a very long time.

Again, there’s something affirming in all of the sadness in Los Santos Inocentes—affirmation that a time would come when these stories could be told, affirmation that bad people do in fact often get what’s coming to them, affirmation that despite everything, at the end, Paco and Régula are still standing, and still have each other, after losing so much else.

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