Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Arturo Ripstein | El lugar sin limites (Hell without Limits)

a spiral into to death
by Douglas Messerli
José Donoso (Screenplay based on his fiction), Arturo Ripstein (director) El lugar sin limites (Hell without Limits) / 1978

José Donoso Hell Has No Limits (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995; reprinted: Los Angeles: Green Integer, 1999)

Based on the fiction Hell Has No Limits by Chilean writer José Donoso—a book published in English by my own Sun & Moon and Green Integer presses—Arturo Ripstein’s El lugar sin limites, although fairly faithful to the Donoso book, moves at a slower pace, and, in its necessary visual literalness recreation of the book’s world, loses some of psychological dimensions and surrealist-like transitions of the fiction. And, of course, the film has lost nearly all of Donoso’s linguistic patterns, brilliantly recreated in the English of Suzanne Jill Levine’s translation. I’ll point to a single example to make my case. In the final, brutal beating of the central character, La Manuela (Roberto Cobo), which results in the transvestite’s death, the original book presents the scene as a kind of perverse, almost sado-masochistic murder that encompasses the entire hell of La Manuela’s life:

        Before he could move, the men burst through the bushes and fell
        upon him like hungry animals. Octavio, or maybe Pancho first, 
        started lashing at him with fists…perhaps it wasn’t them, but other 
        men who had pierced the thicket and found him and thrown 
        themselves upon him, their hot bodies writhing, gasping over la
        Manuela who could no longer scream, their heavy, stiff bodies, the 
        three of them one sticky mass squirming like some fantastic, three-
        headed animal with multiple limbs, wounded and seething, the three
        fused there in the grass by vomit and heat and pain, looking for the 
        one to blame, punishing him, shuddering gratifications, excruciating
        confusion, la Manuela’s frail body resists no more, breaks under the 
        strain, can’t even moan from the pain, hot mouths, hot hands, slavering,
        hard bodies wounding his, bodies that howl and insult and grope, that 
        monster of three tortuous bodies, breaking and tearing and raking and    
        probing, until nothing is left and now la Manuela scarcely sees, scarcely 
        hears, scarcely feels, sees, no, doesn’t see, and they escape through the 
        blackberry bushes and she left alone by the river that separates her 
        from the vineyards where Don Alejo waits, benevolent.

In the film, La Manuela is chased through the streets of Estación El Olivo by Pancho (Gonzalo Vega) and his brother-in-law, Octavio (Julián Pastor) in Pancho’s red truck, simply grabbed, beaten, and left for dead, with Don Alejo declaring the news that the body is a corpse. The dramatic intensity, the entwining of  hate, fear, and love, having been completely obliterated.

      Despite the good intentions of Ripstein’s film, including the fact that as early as 1978 a director would dare to take up the story of a flamenco-dancing transvestite and his daughter trapped in the outpost of the Chilean countryside, the basically realist pretentions of the film sever most of the supple links in the original between present and past, between the inner and outer worlds of its figures, and transforms it into a slow-moving portrait of its central figure on the day of his death. Indeed, except for a central scene describing how La Manuela has arrived in this no-man’s land and bore a child with then whorehouse owner, La Japonesa (Lucha Villa), this movie is located in the present, as Pancho drives into town after an absence of about a year and honks his horn to announce his arrival, whereas in the book that event occurs the night before La Manuela awakens, when she is unsure whether she has dreamt it or not.        

      That may seem like only a minor difference, but the lack of specific knowledge, the inability to know the reality of one’s own life, is at the very center of this work. Few in this emptying village, in fact, will even face the reality that their beloved Don Alejo, who owns most of the place, is not attempting to return the electric power, which mysteriously has been turned off, but is trying to buy up anything he does not own. The film suggests that if he succeeds he will sell it back to others for a higher price, but the fiction offers a more logical conclusion: that he will tear it down to expand his vineyards. Only Octavio and Pancho seem to realize the truth, while La Manuela’s daughter, the smart manager of the whorehouse, is blind to Don Alejo’s evil intentions—and, at both film’s and fiction’s end—still believes that Manuela will return home in a day or so, without realizing that in a few days, she too will be metaphorically dead, stripped of her home and income


     Nonetheless, Ripstein’s work does succeed in recounting the arch of events which begin with La Manuela’s fears about reencountering the violent Pancho, and, throughout the day, the spiral down, like the dance itself, into her death. Throughout, Pancho is seen as a kind of brute animal, a married man who leaves his wife to the shanty while he roams about the countryside, whoring. Yet the handsome truck-driver, we suspect, has his own secrets. Forced as a child to play with Don Alejo’s daughter, a girl of his own age, and almost seen as an adopted son by Don Alejo’s now insane wife, Pancho has been torn between events that might have blossomed into an adult relationship with the girl while at the same time, playing dolls with her, he is described as a “sissy.” The film omits this tension, but it makes it clear, nonetheless, that Pancho, despite his macho demeanor, is a man of inner tensions, a man, in fact, obsessed with La Manuela, and intent on revisiting her that evening.

      So too is La Manuela obsessed with Pancho, despite her fears scurrying about throughout the day to find enough red thread to mend the flamenco dress he had torn off her body months before. Indeed nearly everyone in this work might be said to be attracted to or caught up in Pancho’s animal magnetism. La Manuela’s Japonesita (Ana Martin) attempts to masturbate him and later flirts with and is nearly raped by him at the whorehouse. Octavio, selling his gas station to Don Alejo, attempts to help out his brother-in-law by giving him most his money to pay off the red truck which Don Alejo has helped Pancho to purchase. Don Alejo, although disgusted with Pancho’s behavior (he had hoped he might get an education and become an important figure) still hopes to control the young man.
      In such a hot-house environment, every relationship is a dangerous one, and, if boundaries are strict they are necessarily surreptitiously crossed. Of course, that is La Manuela’s specialty, waiting until her customers are drunk and happy before appearing in her red dress to dance a ridiculously inept flamenco. She survives in their laughter, playfully teasing them by her very outrageousness, which frees them, perhaps, to escape—at least temporarily—from their sexual identities.
 In hiding when Pancho and Octavio arrive, La Manuela observes Pancho’s abuse of Japnesita, and in an attempt, in part, to save her, suddenly appears to dance. Once more it seems to work, the laughter and mockery turning gradually into infatuation, resulting in a deep kiss between the two men. Octavio’s sudden appearance, after having sex with another of the whores, however, changes everything.  Observing the kiss, he accuses Pancho of being a “faggot,” a role that Pancho, in his personal hell, cannot accept. He has no choice, accordingly, but to destroy the object of his infatuation.
     Don Alejo and his brand of “patronage,” finally, has helped to create this vengeful world in which apparently no one can truly face the truth that they all exist in a hell without limits, which ultimately will destroy everyone.

Los Angeles, May 13, 2013


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