toward the light
by Douglas Messerli
Julián Hernández and Roberto Fiesco (screenplay), Roberto Fiesco (director) Actos impuros (Unclean Acts) a.k.a. Lewd Acts / 1993
Robert Fiesco’s first film, Actos impuros (1993), translated alternately as Unclean Acts or Lewd Acts (I prefer the latter) is a highly disturbing but yet utterly beautiful film. In some respects, it is not even a coherent narrative but a series of “acts,” just as its title suggests, that have no real explanation.
Julián Hernández’s script was based reportedly on “el estrangulador de Tacuba,” the 1942 Mexico City strangler who lived in the Tacuba district, Gregorio Cádenas. Yet Cádenas who killed four women, at least one with whom he had sex, strangled no men, and certainly was not the handsome Lucifer-like figure, Oscar (Oscar Trejo Lara) who stokes the fires for the baths in which he works. Unlike Cádenas, moreover, who presumably suffered from a possessive mother who, according to the psychiatrists of the day, led him to hate women, this murderer knives and strangles men and women equally without any apparent reason.
We do see him having difficulty completing sexual intercourse with the neighboring woman, Leticia (Yoatizin Hernandez), someone to whom he is clearly attracted, particularly since he takes her a local carnival and, before sex, briefly dances with her (a favorite tool of sexual seduction in Fiesco’s films), their reflection captured in a mirror almost as if it were a TV set.
And we can imagine that he kills the male showering in the baths—a murder we never actually see him commit, only perceiving that he has done so by his cries as he digs the knife he apparently used into the walls of his apartment building—due to his apparent attraction to him as he watches, again in a mirror, the water dripping down the attractive stranger’s naked torso, a scene that, as film commentator Rick Powell has observed, João Pedro Rodrigues might have borrowed for his O Fantasma. Clearly this would be macho figure is somewhat sexually confused. And we can speculate that he lashes out when he discovers himself precisely in that state of mind.
But this is simply speculation. Oscar is a loner, without any clues around him to suggest his past, future, or even present. When not in bed or in the showers, he life is spent shoveling coals into the burner which keeps the showers hot.
In fact, in this film, no one even seems to be aware of his killings. And the focus of this movie is not on the act of killing—we only note it when in the midst of his attempts of having sex with women, the hands and bodies fall slack. As I report above, we never even witness the male’s knifing.
The real fascination of this film lies in the beauty of the working class building in which he lives, in the shadowed and dappled lights that reveal swaths of blues, reds, yellows, and, even more importantly, the beauty of Oscar’s hairy brown buttocks in the midst of sex.
Unlike Fiesco’s later short film, Trémolo (2015) where the director erases any sense of prurience in our observations of the handsome young male bodies, here we are purposely turned into voyeurs, wondering at all times whether Oscar will be able to relieve his sexual frustrations or unable to, will strike out again. There is almost an element of sadomasochism involved, a suggestion that heterosexual sex and homosexual desire will almost always result in death, standard tropes of literature since the beginning of time.
The beautiful landscapes with which we are presented—almost reminding me of a rawer version of the richly colored shades of the later films by Gregory Markopoulos—almost stabilize the violent sexual encounters we observe, as if the monster of this tale might only be able to balance himself by identifying with the landscape he might be able to calm down his demons.
And, in fact, something like that does seem to occur at the film’s end when, after killing the woman he most seemed to love, he throws away his knife, later “picking up” a male with whom he has sex. Their lovemaking is fairly ambiguous, and it is hard to tell whether or not he successfully ejaculates, although he does appear to do so. In any event, despite his hasty departure, he leaves the man he has just fucked alive, as the camera follows him down a heavily shadowed staircase moving out toward the light.
Of course, we cannot know whether he has finally come to terms with his homosexuality or just grown tired, as apparently Cádenas did, of his horrendous acts. But the landscape, if nothing else, suggests a sort of resolution.
Los Angeles, November 27, 2020
Reprinted from My Queen Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (November 2020).