Monthly Archives: April 2015
Elena Poniatowska’s work is part of the fabric of modern Mexico. In her non-fiction she’s dealt with the traumatic events that have shaped the nation, and in her fiction she’s been a sharp critic of her country’s culture. Her short story De noche vienes is a humorous attack on the hypocrisy surrounding sex and marriage in Mexico (and elsewhere). A woman is charged with bigamy when it’s discovered that she has five husbands. The official interrogating her is shocked at her behavior, insisting that her actions are an attack the very foundation of civilized society. What shocks him most, though, is the fact that she feels no shame about marrying five different men. They love her. She loves them. She accepted their proposals because they all seemed to need her.
Jaime Humberto Hermosillo’s film, De noche vienes, Esmeralda, expands on Poniatowska’s short story, filling out the characters, embroidering the situations, but staying close to the author’s original intent. He makes it a modern day fairy tale, and at the center is the innocent heroine, whose only sin is that she doesn’t feel guilty about sleeping with five men. Hermosillo does alter Esmeralda’s motivation. In Poniatowska’s story, she feels it’s her duty to help those in need. Getting married five times is her way of helping these five needy men. In the film, Hermosillo explains Esmeralda’s behavior by making her a product of the culture she lives in. Since childhood she’s been led to believe that sex without marriage is a sin. When she opens her closet we see the door is covered with photos from her weddings, and in each picture she’s dressed in immaculate white.
The other thing Hermosillo does is expand on the theme of sexual freedom. The original story stays with Esmeralda and the judge, and we never get to meet her husbands. In the movie we meet all five of them, and we learn that most of them are pretty open-minded about sex. The first husband is an older man who knows he can’t keep up with her in bed, so he accepts that he’s not the only man in her life. The second is a musician, and Esmeralda realizes early on that he’s sleeping around. Another is gay, and in this case she’s helping him hide that fact from his mother. The judge may see her behavior as promiscuity, but it’s really just generosity.
The premise may seem far-fetched, but María Rojo acts the part of Esmeralda with such conviction that the character is completely believable. She doesn’t just play innocence, she radiates it. The judge does everything he can to shame her, and she seems oblivious. She answers his questions with total honesty, a beatific smile spreading across her face when she thinks of how much she loves her husbands. Rojo gives the character such warmth that she wins us over completely.
Claudio Obregón has the difficult job of making us believe that the cranky, uptight judge could slowly melt into one more of Esmeralda’s smitten suitors. He makes the transition totally convincing. Martha Navarro and Antonio Crestani both give ingratiating performances as court employees who quickly find themselves on Esmeralda’s side. Roberto Cobo brings a wonderful sweetness to the role of the aging poet that Esmeralda married on what seemed to be his death bed. And Tito Vasconceles is a joy to watch, popping up over and over again in numerous guises as Esmeralda’s guardian angel.
Hermosillo doesn’t create images so much as he creates scenes. He tends to use long takes, allowing the actors to develop a situation, and the camera slowly roams around them. For the most part, this relaxed, leisurely approach works well, but there are times when I think the structure could be tighter, and that Hermosillo could provide more focus. On the plus side, by not cutting to impose his own pace on the scenes, the director allows the actors to really get into their roles. They can find their own rhythm, and develop relationships in their own way.
The director references Juana de Asbaje and Frida Kahlo, two Mexican women who also broke the rules, and it might be tempting to see the film as an argument for women’s liberation. Certainly you could see Poniatowska’s story that way. But Hermosillo is after something broader. He wants to liberate everybody. In his mind the whole world is held prisoner by guilt and shame. And his message is, you have nothing to lose but your chains. At the end of the film, the judge confesses his love for Esmeralda, and after she encourages his advances, he goes dancing down the street in the rain. He’s let go of his hang-ups. He’s a free man.
We see two blind men walking along a country road. They’re travelling to a resort in the hills where they’ll ply their trade as masseurs, serving clients in the local spas. The way they talk, joke and argue together, we get the sense that they’ve known each other for a long time. In fact, they’ve made this trip together many times, spending their winters working in the south of Japan and travelling north in summer.
This hillside resort, a place where travellers come and go, is the perfect setting for The Masseurs and a Woman, Hiroshi Shimizu’s story of people who have no home. There are the two masseurs, who migrate according to the seasons. There is the young boy whose parents have died, leaving him no choice but to live with his uncle. And there is the woman from Tokyo, travelling alone, unsure of where she’s headed next. Shimizu’s films often focus on people who have no roots. He seems to feel the isolation and loneliness of people who can’t go home.
In The Masseurs and a Woman, Shimizu’s camera roams through the resort, following the various characters as they meet each other, form relationships, and finally drift apart. He moves his camera a lot, but so unobtrusively that you’re hardly aware of it. He stages scenes to create a sense of space, often with actors placed in the foreground and the background, cutting only when necessary. This gentle, unforced approach allows us to observe these people as they eat, drink, walk and talk, and gradually we get to know them.
Shimizu’s characters want to connect with each other, they want companionship, friendship, love, but somehow these things prove elusive. Sometimes they try too hard. Sometimes their insecurity gets the better of them. And sometimes it’s just not in the cards. It’s sad enough that one of the masseurs falls in love with the woman from Tokyo, when there’s no chance they’ll get together. But even sadder is the tension this creates with his longtime friend. They may never again be as close as they were.
The Masseurs and a Woman seems lighthearted to start with, but as the story goes on, and we realize how lonely these people are, the film is slowly infused with a deep sadness. The score, by Senji Itô, also expresses this change in tone. Itô’s music for the opening credits starts the film off with a jaunty feeling. Later he gives us a lilting melody that echoes the quiet beauty of the Japanese countryside. And at the end, the haunting final cue underscores the loneliness that weighs these people down.
The film ends as it began, on the road, but things have changed dramatically. At the beginning, we walked with the two masseurs as they marched along, chatting amiably to pass the time. At the end, we see one of the masseurs running desperately to catch a last “glimpse” of the woman from Tokyo as a cab carries her away. His friend stands by himself at a distance. Shimizu does nothing to lighten the sense of loss. These people are on their own.