February 21, 2008

El Fantasma del Convento (1934)

For the Mexican film industry, the decade of the 30s brought the opportunity to finally grow up and develop after almost two decades of living under an unstable political climate. It also meant the arrival of sound to film-making, which offered new opportunities to give a Mexican identity to the country's cinematography. In those difficult early years of the sound era, director Fernando De Fuentes was one of the most important filmmakers and a true pioneer who set the basis for many of the classic elements of Mexican cinema. In 1934, De Fuentes joined Juan Bustillo Oro (later a famous director on his own account) to direct together one of their best films, "El Compadre Mendoza"; interestingly, after making that movie, the two directors decided to make each a fantasy film: Bustillo Oro made "Dos Monjes", and De Fuentes directed "El Fantasma del Convento".

The film is the story of Alfonso (Enrique del Campo), his best friend Eduardo (Carlos Villatoro) and Eduardo's wife Cristina (Marta Roel); three friends who during a trip through the woods get lost by night. As they look for a way out of the forest, they find a mysterious monk (Victorio Blanco) who offers to take them to the ancient monastery where the Order of Silence lives. At the monastery, the abbot (Paco Martínez) offers them food and a bed to sleep, but the group finds that strange things take place at the old convent. As an explanation, the Superior tells them that the convent is haunted by the ghost of a monk who made a pact with the devil to steal his best friend's wife. The abbot's story only increases the fears of the friends, particularly Alfonso's as his hidden affair with Eduardo's wife and the guilt he feels will come at play in a nightmarish night.

Written by De Fuentes, Bustillo Oro and Jorge Pezet, "El Fantasma del Convento" is essentially, an attempt to bring the very rich tradition of Mexican ghost stories to the silver screen by bringing the legends to the present (Mexico in the 30s). The clash between the naiveté of modernity and the dark secrets of the past is at first sight the main ingredient of the movie, but in reality the plot is more a character study than a horror film, basing the horror and suspense on the characters' psychology. Since the relationships between them are the main focus of the film, the three characters are very well developed, specially Alfonso, whose personal demons arise after listening to the abbot's tale, which seems to be a metaphor for what goes in his mind. It's all set up as if the horrors of the monastery were a catalyst for Alfonso's descent to hell and back.

"El Fantasma del Convento" is a very atmospheric movie that effectively combines the very rich tradition of Mexican ghost stories with the eerie, surreal atmospheres of American Gothic horror of the time. Like De Fuentes' previous film, "El Prisionero Trece", it also showcases the big influence that Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein left in Mexico after his visit to the country, with De Fuentes using clever editing and a surprisingly dynamic camera-work (by Ross Fisher) to convey the ominous atmosphere of claustrophobia that the characters feel. De Fuentes portrays the bizarre descent to madness of his characters as a progressive incursion into a surreal world, climaxing in a wonderfully nightmarish scene where he makes the most out of his limited special effects. Max Urban's music is the icing of the cake in the creation of a powerful film of almost supernatural beauty.

While the main characters are very well portrayed by the cast members, the supporting cast seem to be made of actors without real training, or at least too used to the silent style of acting. Enrique Del Campo is quite effective as Alfonso, the brave and extroverted young man trapped in a love triangle with the his best friend's wife. As the apparent leader of the group, he is very convincing and manages to carry the film without effort. Marta Roel is also very good as the tempting Cristina, more than happy with the idea of abandoning her shy and cowardly husband for his brave and manly friend. As Eduardo, the most introverted of the group, Carlos Villatoro is excellent in a subtle performance as the naive man, unaware of his wife's unfaithfulness. Paco Martínez is quite creepy as the abbot, although sometimes it seems like he overacts a tad too much.

If the film has any real problem, it would definitely be the fact that it's not really well known, as it is certainly a very unusual movie for its time. Void of any kind of comic relief, "El Fantasma del Convento" is first and foremost, a tale of horror, and De Fuentes make sure to keep things serious to maintain the mystery and suspense of the story. Due to this, the film is a bit slow, although due to the very subtle way the story unfolds (things are often told rather than shown), it truly works better this way. Granted, the acting may not be the best in a Mexican film (some of the actors playing the monks seem to be reading their lines from cue cards), and the low budget is very notorious at certain key points; but despite all its shortcomings, "El Fantasma del Convento" is a remarkable horror film that with nothing more than style and intelligence, manages to create a story quite ahead of its time.

After 1933's "La Llorona" (the first Mexican horror film), "Dos Monjes" and "El Fantasma Del Convento" finished the job of giving a Mexican flavor to the horror genre, effectively starting a brief yet very interesting early "Golden Age" of Mexican horror. While best remembered for their more commercial posterior work, the contribution of directors De Fuentes and Bustillo Oro to the development of Mexican cinema are enormous, as their constant exploration of diverse themes makes them two of the most important of the pioneers of the early days of Mexican film-making. With its very unique somber tone and its focus on its characters' psychology, "El Fantasma del Convento" is easily one of the most interesting horror films of early Mexican cinema (and of the whole decade of the 30s in general).


1 comment:

J Luis Rivera said...

I saw the ghost as some sort of divine punishment (or warning) to Alfonso.