Monday, August 17, 2020

Sebastián Muñoz | El príncipe (The Prince)


on the horizon
by Douglas Messerli

Sebastián Muñoz and Luis Barrales (screenplay), Sebastián Muñoz (director) El príncipe (The Prince) / 2019

Winner of the Queer Lion Prize at the Venice International Film Festival in 2019 the Chilean Sebastián Muñoz-directed motion picture, El príncipe (The Prince) is one of the best LGBTQ offerings I have seen in some years.
     The Hollywood Reporter reviewer Boyd van Hoei did not at all agree with such a sentiment, writing:

A pretty boy — or, to be more precise, an
angular jawline and a head of lush curls in
search of a personality — is thrown into a
dark and dank prison in 1970 Chile in The
Prince (El principe). For most people, this
would be a horror scenario, but this feature
is such a work of homoerotic fantasy,
pilfering liberally from sources ranging
from Un Chant d’amour to Querelle and the
opera omnia of Jean-Daniel Cadinot,
that the protagonist doesn’t mind being locked
away with a bunch of handsy, well-endowed
inmates for even one hot minute. Quite the
contrary, as behind bars he’ll find plenty of
man-on-man action, cute bell-bottoms and
perhaps even the homosexual Holy Grail
decades before the age of marriage equality:
love.

       It’s a rather mean review, bitchy and not even very correct in its easy put-downs. First of all that young man who is imprisoned, Jaime (Juan Carlos Maldonado), upon his arrival in the menacing prison is thrown into the cell headed by one of the most powerful men in this hell-hole, “the Stallion” (Alfredo Castro), a somewhat elderly prisoner who recognizes immediately that the authorities have spent some time in beating the new prisoner before his arrival.
     Moreover, Jaime, who is still very confused about his sexuality, is not at all ready to jump into the bottom bunk bed with the leader, but quickly recognizes, in the Stallion’s warning that his cell requires two things, obedience and respect, particularly given the fact that the man issuing the orders has just moved his previous lover, soon to be described as “the abandoned” (Sebastian Ayala)—who unintentionally names his replacement “The Prince”—to sleep on the floor obviously establishes the situation. Either gracefully accept the elder’s nightly embraces and anal proddings or sleep elsewhere, as the “abandoned” boy later discovers when he dares to challenge the new tasks that the “Stallion” has assigned him. Where to you go when you’ve been kicked out of even a prison cell?

     Besides these facts, it is also clear that Jaime is guilty of inexplicably murdering a man, who we later discover was his very best friend, “the Gypsy” (Cesare Serra). Without fully realizing it, Jaime had fallen in love with this off and on heterosexual and bisexual beauty, and, more cognizant of the fact, he had become obsessed regarding his friend’s heterosexual affairs. In one later flashback, Jaime watches, with rapt voyeurism, his “friend” fucking a local girl, after which, upon their departure, he wallows in the animal smell left in the dirt while masturbating to the memory of the event.
      Having experimented with an older woman, and having demonstrated to his own friends—most of them younger and less sexually experienced that even he is—Jaime is obviously still confused by the series of emotions and events that have swept over him resulting in his jealous-driven slitting of “the Gypsy’s” neck. And in his utter confusion the young boy likely feels that he must suffer any consequences with which he is faced.
      I suspect van Hoei’s reference to the arty French porn director Cadinot is simply a result that, unlike most such gay films, Muñoz is thoroughly unafraid of portraying male nudity and homosexual activities which—at least in the scenes from the uncut version of his film—showed the figures actually producing sperm. In short this director recognizes what gay sex really is and in what that activity results. I’m rather sorry that he was either censored by others or himself in his deletion of Maldonado’s penis actually producing what it was intended to.

     Indeed, throughout the early scenes in the prison, the beautiful Jaime is almost entirely passive the way any young person might be entering an entirely new world after being utterly shocked by his own bizarre behavior and unable to know what he might now expect. Only the loving care of his new mentor gradually releases Jaime’s memories (opening him up into multi-dimensionality) which he has locked away in his mind.
     And yes, the entire prison, including the two handsome boys who sleep over him on the top level of the bunk, is a sort of body-heaving testimony to what happens to highly testosterone producing men and boys when they are locked away without women. Films featuring both men and women shut away in clinks have hinted a same-sex activity since the earliest of LGBTQ films.
     Futhermore, I’d argue this is not truly a film about gay sex, even if Muñoz is not afraid of portraying it. True, as a kind of reward for the boy’s love and his own faith in The Prince, the Stallion does eventually offer up his own arse to the Jaime’s cock. And those boys in the upper bank, a bit like the gay figures in Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane, do seem eternally interconnected at the groin. But there are a great many other ways, in this prison, to torture one another than with open sex.
     In another cell, devoted to the illicit sale of drugs and other goods (coats, pants, cigarettes and food-stuffs), the Stallion’s bête noire, "Che Pibe" (Gastón Pauls) uses even his cute boyfriend Dany (Lucas Balmaceda) as a nearly unapproachable seducer to torment The Prince, who, between Dany’s flirtations and the Stallion’s interceptions experiences a kind of endless coitus interruptus worthy of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.
     And when that doesn’t work, “Che Pibe” takes more direct methods to get the Stallion’s goat through the hanging death of the elder’s lovely cat, Plato, taking down with it all higher logic as the cat’s owner faces off with the prison vendor through a knife fight that eventually ends in both their deaths.
      In his new seat of power, Jaime now can make the gesture of finally taking Dany into his bed to, at least, temporarily protect him from evils that lie within these prison walls that is so dangerous that even the guards refuse to intercede.
      Finally, The Prince presents a world that is not as much a sexual fantasy of those involved, as in Genet or Fassbinder’s conceptions, but as a necessary world created, in particular, by Jaime to serve as an alternative “other” to the fascist world of mayhem and murder which, soon after his imprisonment was created by the rise to power of Salvador Allende and, after Allende’s suicide, the takeover by General Augusto Pinochet. Some days in the reign of Donald Trump, admittedly, I almost wish I myself might be able to enter into a world of my own making. As flawed as that may be, it might certainly be superior to the world in which we now are forced to live.
     Early in the film, Jaime, as if already knowing that whatever he might experience in this new environment will mean abandoning everything in his past, he tells his only visitor (his father, his uncle?) never to return. If he can already perceive that his new world can result in fear and death, at least love, sex, and beauty—along with the respect upon which the Stallion insists, may exist on the horizon.
      By work’s end, the now powerful Prince, it is clear, has learned even from his mentor’s mistakes. When another young boy is deposited in his cell, he puts the newcomer on the floor, and for one more night at least, keeps Dany in his bed.

Los Angeles, August 17, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (August 2020).

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