Saturday, December 03, 2011

Ibermedia at MoMA: Of Love and Other Demons

Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez’s prose has been lauded for their visual quality. A screenwriter and film critic in his own right, García Márquez’s work has inspired many films around the world. Yet, the magical realism he is renowned for is devilishly difficult to realize on screen. However, Hilda Hidalgo makes quite a credible job of it adapting García Márquez’s Of Love and Other Demons (trailer here), Costa Rica’s official submission for last year’s best foreign language Oscar race, which screens today at MoMA as part of Iberoamérican Images, a retrospective tribute to the multinational, intergovernmental Spanish and Portuguese language film consortium, Ibermedia.

Left to the servants to rear, Sierva María is a quiet, earthy child. While she often communes with nature, her affinity does not extend to rabid dogs. When she contracts the disease as a logical result of a bite, the church and the compliant civilian administration conclude she is possessed by the Devil. Consigned to a convent specializing in such cases, her only visitor is the young priest, Cayetano Delaura.

Despite being a relatively permissive Jesuit, the Bishop has assigned Delaura to the case in hopes that a successful exorcism will hasten his advancement. It is a difficult task for him, because neither his heart nor mind agrees with the nuns’ harsh treatment. Of course, he also falls in love with his twelve year-old charge, which is certainly problematic for contemporary viewers (but perhaps not so much during the early Spanish Colonial years). He is still a priest though, yet somehow Hidalgo largely glosses over potential audience objections with imagery that is pretty and suggestive rather than jarring.

Cinematographer Mariana Rodríguez employs dark shadows and warm glowing light in a manner that suggests the chiaroscuro effect in great oil paintings. Likewise, art director Juan Carlos Acevedo’s design team creates a vivid sense of place with grand backdrops, stately in their decay. Indeed, Demons is a rich work of visual artistry, but does it ever hate the Church. Frankly, the Bishop cannot win for losing in the film, which positions him as an even greater villain for punishing Delaura for his relationship with Sierva María (yet, has not the Church been under fire in recent years for not decisively responding to roughly similar scandals?)

If a bit clumsy when offering commentary on the Church and colonialism in general, Hidalgo excels at handling the film’s elements of magical realism, such as the presumptive witch in the cell next to Sierva María,, who we assume visits the girl in her dreams each night. It is hard to say with certainty though, so adept is the blurring of reality in Demons.

Young Eliza Triana shows tremendous poise and range, by turns ferocious and vulnerable, as Sierva María. Quietly compelling as the doubt-wracked Jesuit, Pablo Derqui does his best not to look creepy in his key scenes with Triana. While most of the supporting players are essentially stock figures, including several judgmental nuns and kindly servants, Joaquín Climent brings out surprising emotional depth in the Marqués, Sierva María’s remorseful absentee father.

A finely crafted period drama, Demons is a striking example of Ibermedia’s financing and production acumen. Subtle in some ways, but not it others, it is definitely memorable, well worth seeing this afternoon (12/3) or this Wednesday (12/7). Centenarian Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angélica also screens during the series, making an interesting counterpoint to Demons, with a very different case of supernaturally star-crossed attraction. It is love beyond the grave that Case depicts in oddly upbeat and endearing terms when a photographer falls under the spell of a recently deceased young woman, whose ethereal beauty he is summoned to capture for posterity. A lovely, deceptively simple film, Case is highly recommended when it screens this Sunday (12/4) and the following Saturday (12/10) during the Iberoamérican Images series at MoMA.