Friday, June 20, 2014

Arturo Ripstein | El imperio de la fortuna (The Realm of Fortune)

russian roulette

By Douglas Messerli

Paz Alicia Garciadiego (screenplay, based on a story by Juan Rulfo), Arturo Ripstein (director) El imperio de la fortuna (The Realm of Fortune) / 1986

If there is one thing Mexican film director Arturo Ripstein brilliantly achieves—and fortunately, he is multi-gifted—it is to capture the character of Mexican and South American idiot-bullies who, living in isolated poverty, play out a machismo ethos that ultimately destroys all of those around them and, eventually, themselves. One might almost argue that such figures of destruction almost obsess Ripstein, as he returns to them time and again, a bit like the American writer Flannery O’Connor focused so many of her works on similar kinds of low-class hillbilly sham artists, rapists, murderers in her vision of the American South.

     At times, given the overwrought realism of Ripstein’s scenes, his films become almost unbearable to watch. Even if you can bear with the low-down dirt floor grittiness of The Realm of Fortunes’ sets, it may be hard for the average film-goer to watch the central character, Dionisio Pinzon (Ernesto Gómez Cruz) drag his dead mother, wrapped in a woven wooden mat, around town, before burying her by hand (and later, digging up her body parts which, in the passage of time, have been dislocated perhaps by wild animals, local farmers, and natural causes).

  Later, Dionisio, who begins the film as a kind of town crier, acquires a game cock, which demands we watch several brutal cock fights wherein, in each case, one of the cocks is decapitated or simply plucked to death. When the dead cocks are tossed out in a nearby alley, old women, obviously with starving families to feed, poorer than even Dionisio, quickly gather them up. Even Dionisio’s beloved winning cock, Blondy—whom he has saved from death—is sacrificed out of vengeance, the handler breaking the cock’s ribs before loosing him into the fighting arena, an act ordered by the local “padrone,” Lorenzo Benavides (Alejandro Parodi).

     Throughout the film, in fact, death haunts this terribly common human being, who ignores the death of his servant-like mother (Socorro Avelar), while attending to his beloved Blondy. Indeed, wherever Dioniso goes, death seems to follow, without him realizing that he and his actions are behind it. Lured into the world of cock handlers and gamblers by Benavides, Dionisio suddenly finds himself with a little a bit a money and a life so transformed that he can suddenly imagine Benavides’ girl, La Caponera (the singer, stunningly portrayed by Blanca Guerra), might even be sexually attracted in him. The scene in which these two haunted beasts come together in the “backroom” warehouse of a tawdry bar is almost impossible to watch, particularly given the beautiful Caponera’s almost total abandonment to lust.

       Whereas the fool Dionisio once had nothing to his name, he now has a vulgar new bejeweled vest, money in his pocket, a casket decorated in ridiculously bad taste, and a “living” amulet in the form of his new lover. After a few more gambling wins, the birth of a daughter, La Pinzona (Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez), and the purchase of a truck, he returns to the  estate (formerly a Catholic boarding school) owned by Benavides in order to bet against his former teacher. He wins everything, including the building, entrapping his wife (just as had Benavides previously) within. Gambling each night away with local thugs, with la Caponera forced to sit nearby, he passes the rest of his empty life meaninglessly winning card game after card game. His daughter grows up practically wild.

     In one final resolute attempt to escape, his wife takes her daughter to a local fair, hoping to link up once again with the small combo with whom she once performed. But in the years she has gone missing, they have taken up with another, younger singer, and sadly reject what they now perceive as an old woman with little charm. Like Mamma Rose in the American musical Gypsy, La Caponera quickly dresses up her daughter to replicate her younger self, but the girl—torn between her mother’s betrayal of Dionisio and the fact that La Caponera cannot ever truly leave her husband—refuses to perform, Dionisio quickly arriving to gather up his two missing “possessions.”

      What this unimaginative and stupid compesino does not perceive is that in his attempt to hold on to all that he has amassed, he has been playing yet another game, this one similar to Russian Roulette. Time and again, in his abusive nights of meaningless amusement he has put an invisible gun to his head that threatens to shatter everything that might be of meaning.  

      In one final long night, with his wife sitting on a couch nearby, Dionisio begins to lose— game after game after game. Slowly throughout the night he loses his vast wealth, and, finally, bets and loses his house. Only at the end of his self-involvement (reminding us of the death of his mother early on in the film) does he realize that during his orgy of gambling, the drunken singer has died. In anger, he kicks her, blaming her for leaving him just as he had previously blamed his mother.

      His amulet gone, he retreats into another room to shoot himself in the head.

     In the final scene we observe his now promiscuous daughter, raised upon a small stage just as was her mother, singing a song about roses. Despite the fact that we see in her actions that she, like her parents, is trapped in the world she inhabits, we also perceive through her beauty and the loveliness of her song just what her mother, La Coponera, proffered to the poor, ignorant beings of the villages she haunted.

    If Ripstein’s film has presented us with stereotyped individuals who seem doomed in their preordained behaviors, we also have been forced, by movie’s end, to lay aside what might have begun as dismissal and disgust as we now lament the death of such misled dreamers as La Coponera and the impoverished Dionisio. In telling their predictable story, accordingly, the director and his writer have also helped to redeem what otherwise might be perceived as empty lives. Dionisio, despite the lurid attractions of money and power which destroyed him, truly only loved two things he encountered in his life, his cock Goldy and his singing wife.. If only he could have more carefully focused upon what he loved instead of being distracted by his in-cultured values. If only we could all say we loved so passionately as he did

Los Angeles, June 20, 2014

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