September 17, 2011

El Arte de Engañar (1972)

In the late 60s, director Carlos Enrique Taboada directed two of the most popular Mexican horror films ever, "Hasta el viento tiene miedo" in 1968 and "El libro de piedra" the following year. Great examples of Gothic horror, the films quickly earned a cult status amongst fans as two gems of Mexican horror. Taboada would return to Gothic horror later in his career, finishing what later would be known as his "Gothic cycle", a thematic tetralogy of horror quite popular amongst Mexican audiences. However, Taboada's career was not limited to the horror genre, as he tackled war films, thrillers and most commonly, drama films. Starting with a popular adaptation of Yolanda Vargas Dulché's "Rubí" in 1970, Taboada began to craft a series of drama films concerning personal relationships with tragic consequences. 1972's "El Arte de Engañar" is one of those films, though one that seems to try to be more of an erotic thriller. Unfortunately, Taboada's skill for Gothic horror did not work that well in other genres.

Literally translated as "The Art of Cheating", "El Arte de Engañar" is the story of a couple of con artists, Fabián (Julio Alemán) and Estela (Anel), who dedicate themselves to blackmail wealthy married women. The scheme begins with Estela locating a target, which is seduced by Fabián while Estela chronicles the affair in photographs, which then become the material for the blackmail. Their business goes well, until one of their victims, Ana (Sonia Furió), commits suicide out of guilt and shame. Fabián is somewhat affected by this, though he keeps going as Estela has a new target for him, Teresa (Queta Lavat), whom he meets at a party. However, he also meets Teresa's young daughter Rebeca (Verónica Castro) and falls in love with her for real. Wishing to start a new life with Rebeca, Fabián wants to stop his business, but Estela doesn't take too well Fabián's new relationship, since she has feelings for him as well. To complicate things, Ana's husband Mario (Rafael Baledón) is determined to discover the identity of Ana's lover in order to take revenge.

The screenplay for "El Arte de Engañar" was written by director Carlos Enrique Taboada himself and several of his usual themes appear in the film. Guilt, obsession and vengeance play a big role in the story, as well as the theme of past actions returning to haunt the characters. In "El Arte de Engañar", Taboada explores the idea of redemption in the character of Fabián, who tries to find peace with Rebeca after his crimes. Nevertheless, Taboada's somewhat bleak and sombre vision about mankind permeates the film, as things get increasingly complicated for his protagonist as time goes by. Interestingly, the overall tone is not exactly moralistic, but pessimist. However, this pessimism is not based on the idea of his characters as victims of an inevitable fate, but instead as victims of each other's ambitions. In "El Arte de Engañar", Taboada sets up a strong drama with complex characters and a good dose of eroticism. Unfortunately, the result film is less than stellar.

Both the best and the worst elements of Carlos Enrique Taboada's directing style can be appreciated in "El Arte de Engañar". On one hand, his great domain of the purely visual elements of cinema shine in his narrative. When the story moves only via images, the film really gets going and, as in his Gothic horror films, atmosphere plays an important role in the film. The work of cinematographer Raúl Domingez is a tad subpar, with some scenes being either too dark or too bright, and pretty trivial compositions; however, Taboada manages to achieve some pretty good moments in the film, moments that showcase an interesting use of color (akin to Italian cinema of the time). Taboada's weak side is perhaps the excessive importance given to the dialogs, as if the writer/director had been too enamored with his text (a common trait in Taboada's films, but particularly obvious in "El Arte de Engañar"), too determined to have everything said, despite having the skill to say it with images rather than with words.

It doesn't help to the end result the fact that the performances are pretty average for the most part. As Fabián, Julio Alemán is stiff, wooden, lacking the charm that his character requires to be believable. His change of heart when he falls in love with Rebeca lacks some verisimilitude due to this, seeming forced and without chemistry. Young Verónica Castro (later a star of Mexican TV) is equally guilty of this, as her turn as the innocent Rebeca is hammy and over the top, with a style better suited to soap operas. As Estela, Anel fares slightly better, though her performance is just average and uninspired. Perhaps the saving grace is Rafael Baledón as Rebeca's father Mario. While better known as a director, Rafael Baledón delivers a strong performance that puts to shame the rest of the cast members. Though perhaps this is more a testament about the poor performances of the main cast than about Baledon's acting skills. Sonia Furió is another exception, displaying her talent as the aging rich lady Ana.

In the end, "El Arte de Engañar" is built over a promising screenplay with a premise of redemption, betrayal and passion, but director Carlos Enrique Taboada fails at delivering such promise, and the result is just an slightly better than average thriller with poor acting and a careless production. Interestingly, it is when the movie gets into the more sleazy thriller aspects when "El Arte de Engañar" improves, as in the chronicling of Fabián and Estela's business or later Mario's determination in his manhunt. It is only when the story focuses on the romantic angle when it somehow falls flat. As if Taboada wasn't really interested in the romantic relationships, and had his mind in the darker areas of the human mind. In fact, it could be said that "El Arte de Engañar" doesn't show any interest on Taboada's side, with its careless production and lack of emotion. This great contrast between this movie and the director's Gothic horror films point not to a lack of skill, but to a lack of interest.

"El Arte de Engañar", or "The Art of Cheating" is not exactly a terribly bad film, it's actually just a slightly better than average one. However, it's certainly a big disappointment considering the level excellence achieved by Taboada's horror output. Slow, tedious, and even ultimately uninteresting, "El Arte de Engañar" is an average film that lacks the energy and dynamism of Taboada's horror films, and that far from being the erotic thriller it attempted to be, results being a badly crafted drama closer in tone and style to the Mexican soap operas of the time. Sadly, a dull and disappointing film, "El Arte de Engañar" is definitely not the best place to find the usual stylish vision of director Carlos Enrique Taboada.


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