Viva la Muerte review

:. Director: Fernando Arrabal
:. Starring: Núria Espert, Mahdi Chaouch
:. Running Time: 1:27
:. Year: 1970
:. Country: France


Based on his autobiography Baal Babylon, Viva La Muerte is the first film directed by Fernando Arrabal, an iconoclastic and controversial multi-disciplinary artist considered a genius.

Highly regarded for his prolific work Arrabal, who has nearly 150 books to his credit (short stories and collections of poetry), 70 plays and 7 films, is also the co-creator (along with Roland Topor and Alexandro Jodorowsky) of the famous Panic Movement, a collective celebrating the god Pan through diverse works and performance art mixing various means of expression and artistic movements.

For his first film, a surrealist autobiography, Arrabal chose to exorcise a trauma tied to childhood scars. Stopped at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War for being opposed to the military coup, his father—an officer—was condemned to death and imprisoned until he escaped and disappeared without leaving a trace. By using this premise as the base of his film, Arrabal helps himself to the relationship between a young boy, Fado, (Mahdi Chaouch) and his mother (Anoek Ferjac) to approach different themes, from politics to religion as well as sexuality.

The two protagonists are contrasted, each one is subjected to his own demons, and to forces that make them oppose and attract each other.

Fado is thus under the castrating influence of his mother. Attracted to her, the most beautiful woman in the village, he is ashamed of his own desires and Oedipal impulses, but also of the sexual dynamic that she seems to exert on the rest of the inhabitants (one notes that recent films like Respiro and Malena propose similar interactions by idealizing the Mediterranean woman). As this shame is associated with the concept of sin, the punishment will thus be exerted by the religion. Arrabal then multiplies the symbols, seeming to settle accounts with a rigorous catholic education. Here he depicts Faith as a source of blindness, showing a blind man carrying a cross, and then as an ideological prison: the child possesses this strange toy, a small plane (an object resembling a cross which raises man to the sky) enclosed in a bird cage. Fado also seems to reproach his mother for having denounced his father, and even though Arrabal was too young to have known him, what's visible here is the unquestionable frustration born of paternal absence and the impossibility of the mother for assuming the two roles.

The mother seems to forever reproach her husband, his ideals considered as the cause of the rupture of the family core. Through this religious woman who denounced her husband, one sees an allusion to a "collaborator" Church allied to power and thus to repression. The Church is also opposed to difference, whether it's ideological (communism) or sexual (homosexuality) and banishes it by associating it with hell. The culture is not spared by this ideological repression, since Fado's small theater represents a vehicle of contaminated ideas.

While the story of Fado and his mother is shown and told in a formal manner, the allegories through which Arrabal (or Fado) expresses himself, are a rupture of style, as each sequence has been filmed in video then faded in garish colors. Violence, sexual cruelty, torture and other fine scatological moments rub shoulders here and while they can be shocking and sometimes grotesque, they never sink into total gratuity, as each one carries a message. While the process is original, it proves to be too simplistic and coarse at a time when directors like Raul Ruiz or David Lynch subtly melt the allegories into the account. It is however this naiveté, this raw and direct approach that is the force of this artist's first cinematic work. While his excesses are found in his following films, he eventually gives up the rupture of style in order to distill them in the narrative of his second full-length film, I Will Walk Like A Crazy Horse, an emblematic and controversial work. Already predicting artistic radicalization, Viva La Muerte poses the cinematic marks of a man at the cross of genius and madness.

  Fred Thom

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