March 30, 2011

La Hija del Engaño (1951)

In 1950, producer Óscar Dancigers and director Luis Buñuel released "Los Olvidados", a monumental classic about life in Mexico City's slums. While nowadays regarded as a classic of Mexican cinema and one of the crowning gems of Buñuel's career, it stirred controversy at the time of its release, criticized by the authorities and panned by the audiences; and once again, Buñuel's career seemed to verge to the obscurity in which he had been since his exile from Spain. To avoid that, Buñuel kept a low profile and crafted a couple of potboilers to keep working in the Mexican industry, first "Susana" for producer Sergio Kogan, and later "La Hija del Engaño" for Dancigers. "La Hija del Engaño" (literally, "Daughter of Deceit") was special because it was a remake of one of the films Buñuel produced (but not directed) in his native Spain before his exile, "Don Quintín el amargao", based on a popular Spanish play. Writer Luis Alcoriza, another exiled from Spain, simply changed the setting to Mexico and kept the plot intact, as a nostalgic reminder of their Spanish origins.

The story begins in the humble house of Quintín Guzmán (Fernando Soler), an out of luck, yet honest salesman facing severe financial problems. His wife María (Lily Aclemar) feels angry and disappointed, but Quintín finds solace in his baby daughter Martha. One day his friend Julio (Álvaro Matute) offers him a deal in another city and Quintín decides to take it. Forced to return earlier than expected, a shocked Quintín finds María in bed with Julio, and his dormant anger is unleashed. After Julio escapes, Quintín forces María out of his house, demanding her to leave him alone with his daughter; however, María shouts that Martha is Julio's daughter. Quintín becomes even angrier and abandons baby Martha at the door of a rural house outside the city. Years go by, and Quintín has become a ruthless, bitter casino owner. One day he is informed that María is dying, and in her deathbed, she confesses that she lied that day: Martha is really Quintín's daughter. Now, Quintín must find his long lost daughter again, but he is going to reap what he sowed.

As mentioned above, "La Hija del Engaño" is a new adaptation of "Don Quintín el Armargao o El que siembra vientos..." (literally, "Don Quintin the bitter, or he who reap winds..."), a play by Don Carlos Arniches which became a great success during the 1920s in Spain. Writers Luis and Janet Alcoriza adapted it to Mexico, and kept the mixture of drama, romance and light-hearted comedy that made the play so popular. While the plot line sounds like the perfect basis for a powerful and deep family drama, "La Hija del Engaño" carries a fair share of comedic elements that transform the whole thing into a farcical situation, very much in tone with its roots in Spanish theatre. While this mix may sound odd at first, it actually works very well in this story filled with charming characters, witty lines and serendipitous situations. It could be said that the film is a criticism of machismo (and capitalism perhaps, as Don Quintín only succeeds financially when he enters the gambling business), but in the end it is more an entertaining farce than a morality play of some kind.

"La Hija del Engaño" is one of director Luis Buñuel's most conventional films (probably the most conventional after 1947's "Gran Casino"), in the sense that it lacks those subtle touches of irreverence that the surrealist master often added to his films. Even previous potboilers such as "El Gran Calavera" and "Susana" contained a greater amount of Buñuel's idiosyncrasies in them. In this case, given the film's origins in theatre and the fact that it's a remake from a previous film he produced, one could almost state that "La Hija del Engaño" is completely a product of Spanish nostalgia. Crafted in a traditional, restrained way, Buñuel simply lets the performances from his cast to be the driving force of the film, their lines and actions taking greater importance than any surreal visual flare. Still, certain elements make this updated "Don Quintín" to be a particular product of its era: its decidedly urban design, almost "noirish", with Don Quinín becoming akin to a gangster. The work of production designer Edward Fitzgerald is remarkable considering the low budget.

The cast as a whole really makes a great job through the film, making the most out of their characters and creating a new, very distinctively Mexican interpretation of "Don Quintín". In his third film with Luis Buñuel, Mexican actor Fernando Soler leads the cast as Don Quintín himself. As expected, Soler makes a quite powerful and imposing Don Quintín, filling the screen with his presence and creating a surprisingly natural character. This is probably Soler's greatest asset: he makes Don Quintín's transformation from good natured salesman to ruthless businessman quite believable. It would had been too easy to make it a caricature, yet Soler makes the best out of it. Also worth of notice is the work by comedians Nacho Contla and Fernando Soto, who play Don Quintín's henchmen. The enormously talented Soto shines in his role as the lecherous yet cowardly Angelito. Rubén Rojo fares better in this film than in his previous work with Buñuel ("El Gran Calavera"), and at times does become a nice counterpart to Soler's Don Quintín.

Oddly enough, the cast's weakest link are in the two main female roles: as Don Quintín's wife María, Lily Aclemar is too prone to overacting in her scenes. The classic excesses of acting in Mexican melodramas plague her performance and the result is an excessively dramatic rendition that contrasts negatively with Soler's restrained subtlety. Slightly better is Alicia Caro, who plays the daughter of deceit herself. Caro fails to portray the impetuously rebel yet naive personality of Martha, and her scenes at the rural house show a certain tendency to overact. It is only when she is in the big city and shares the screen with Rubén Rojo and Fernando Soler that she rises up to the challenge and truly delivers. The rest of the cast is quite effective, and honestly, the film works nicely despite its flaws and low budget. If "La Hija del Engaño" has a real sin, that would be simply just how conventional it ultimately is. The fact that comes from a respected master of surrealist cinema only increases the slight sense of disappointment one may feel when watching it.

Because while the film is certainly good entertainment of high quality, it's maybe just a bit too typical, too conventional, and too forgettable for its own sake. Even Buñuel himself would later claim that there was little that he could say about it because he just didn't remember much about the film. If anything, one can just feel that the cast and crew enjoyed the making of it, and that, at least in its inception, there was a genuine love from the side of Buñuel and Alcoriza in trying to adapt a cherished work of their youth at home, to their new Mexican audience. While a nice slice of Mexican cinema and a chance to see a different side of Luis Buñuel's work, probably "La Hija del Engaño" would disappoint those expecting a more surrealist kind of work. But as has been said previously in these pages, even Buñuel's most conventional potboilers have a discreet charm of their own.


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