Let’s start by talking about the title of this film. It’s taken from Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. Faustus asks Mephistopheles where hell is located. Mephistohpeles replies….
Within the bowels of these elements,
Where we are tortur’d and remain for ever;
Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscrib’d
In one self place; for where we are is hell….
The movie is set in “the place without limits (el lugar sin limites)”. In this case hell is a small, impoverished Mexican town. The story centers on Manuela, an openly gay man living in a brothel with his daughter and a handful of other women. In the first scene we see Manuela waking up in fear. She hears a truck outside, and knows that a bully named Pancho is back in town. This sets the tone for the whole film. An air of desperation hangs over everything. The inhabitants of the town are all mired in unhappiness of one kind or another, even the wealthy “patron” who owns almost everything and everybody. What do they do about it? They lie to each other, manipulate each other, and try to drown their sorrows in booze.
This film is as cynical as anything Luis Bunuel ever made, but director Arturo Ripstein imbues it all with a painful melancholy, a heartbreaking sadness that you won’t find in Bunuel. I make the comparison because Ripstein worked on some of Bunuel’s Mexican films as a young man, and the two men were close for many years. But while Bunuel maintains a savage detachment, Ripstein seems to be very much involved with his characters. In spite of their flaws, he’s still moved by their struggles. The film is based on a novel by Jose Donoso. Ripstein shoots it in a straightforward manner, keeping the cutting simple and allowing the actors to pull you in. There is no underscoring, and the silence increases the air of desperation.
The cast is strong in general, but Roberto Cobo especially stands out. He does something very difficult for an actor. He makes himself truly vulnerable. Manuela has no defenses. She lives her life by clinging to fantasies, naively hoping that others will treat her kindly. In many ways the film reminds me of Tennessee Williams, and Manuela could almost be an updated Blanche DuBois. Manuela suffers the same fate as many of Williams’ characters. She’s destroyed by the cruelty of the world she lives in, the place without limits.
Released by Strand Home Video, in Spanish with English subtitles.