January 16, 2012

Abismos de Pasión (1954)

With the release of his controversial yet highly influential feature length debut "L'Age d'Or" in 1930, Spanish director Luis Buñuel had already cemented his place amongst the surrealist movement of his time. Unfortunately, the film was banned due to the protests it generated, so Buñuel began to think about the next film. For his next project, he began to work with writer Pierre Unik in an adaptation of a famous novel: Emily Brontë's "Wuthering Heights". Sadly, the project never took off and instead, Buñuel and Unik began to work in the documentary "Las Hurdes". More than two decades later, Buñuel was now in Mexico working with producer Óscar Dancigers, who had helped him to return to filmmaking after years in exile. In 1954, Dancigers was preparing a comedy starring Irasema Dilián and Jorge Mistral, but the project was suddenly canceled. Still with Dilián and Mistral hired, Dancigers gave Buñuel the chance to make a film if he used those actors in the lead roles. It was in this conditions that Buñuel resurrected his "Wuthering Heights" project.

Titled "Abismos de Pasión" (literally "Depths of Passion"), the film begins in a rich but deteriorated estate located in the Mexican dessert. It is the house of Eduardo (Ernesto Alonso) and Catalina (Irasema Dilián), who live there with Eduardo's sister Isabel (Lilia Prado). Not entirely a happy marriage, the wild temperament of Catalina doesn't seem to get along with the quieter, calm personality of Eduardo, whose biggest passion is entomology. Still, there is relative peace at the household, until one day Alejandro (Jorge Mistral) returns. An orphan raised along Catalina and her brother Ricardo (Luis Aceves Castañeda), Alejandro had ran away tired of being constantly humiliated for his lack of status. Now a wealthy man, Alejandro has returned to buy Ricardo's estate and to see Catalina again. A deep passion exists between Alejandro and Catalina, a passion not unnoticed by Eduardo, who feels threatened by the presence of Alejandro. And this is only the beginning of Alejandro's vengeance.

Like most adaptations of Brontë's classic, "Abismos de Pasión" is focused only on the first half of the novel, though the condensation is far more extreme: it's dedicated only to the events after Alejandro/Heathcliff's return to the estate. Adapted by Buñuel himself, Arduino Maiuri and Julio Alejandro (in his first collaboration with Buñuel), "Abismos de Pasión" is "Wuthering Heights" stripped to its bare bones, to the core of its passion. The past is only mentioned, the future, merely hinted at, what truly matters in "Abismos de Pasión" is the present, in which Alejandro is back and has taken by storm the household of Eduardo/Edgar and Catalina/Catherine. While it could be argued that the script represents only a fraction of the novel, in fact what the writers have achieved is a perfect cinematic summarization of the core themes of "Wuthering Heights". This allows a pretty good development of the characters, not only of the two leads, but also of the microcosm that inhabits the estates.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Buñuel's vision of "Wuthering Heights" is how little it's actually changed from Brontë's novel, and still, it's undoubtedly a Buñuel film. There's truly a perfect marriage between Buñel's idiosyncrasies and his profound respect for the source (explicitly stated in a disclaimer at the beginning). The tone Buñuel conveys is one of depressive decadence, reflected in the stark atmosphere of the Mexican desert. As if it was a limbo, the characters live in the forgotten estate just existing, that is until Alejandro arrives, triggering the passions of both Catalina and Isabel. Without taking sides, Buñuel presents his characters without any sympathy or or apparent romanticism, showing them as the cruel monsters that they are. This is another aspect in which his "Wuthering Heights" rings true: it's a gathering of wicked people, and nobody, neither rich nor poor is free of sin. As in "L'Age d'Or", the theme here is the destructive force that results from repressed passion.

Unfortunately, it's in the cast's performance where "Abismos de Pasión" has its fatal flaw, more specifically, in the lead cast. As written above, Buñuel had no word in the casting as it was imposed to him, and in fact, perhaps with a little more of time dedicated to work it out the result may had been improved. Unfortunately, one element that Buñuel rarely enjoyed in his career was time, and it shows. As the capricious Catalina, Irasema DIlián rings true in intention and presence, and she is indeed a beauty that lights up the darkness of the desert. Unfortunately, the Polish actress is simply unable to hide her heavy accent and ends up lacking verisimilitude as sister of Ricardo and childhood friend of Alejandro (both speaking without accent). As the Heathcliff character, Alejandro, actor Jorge Mistral has some good moments, though he lacks the presence required to carry such a role, and unfortunately, he ends up greatly overshadowed by the supporting cast, who truly rise up to the challenge.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the supporting cast is made up of Buñuel's regulars (or soon to be regulars): the impossibly beautiful Lilia Prado (of "Subida al Cielo") plays Isabel, Ernesto Alonso (of "Ensayo de un crímen") is Eduardo, and Luis Aceves Castañeda (also of "Subida al Cielo") is Ricardo. The three of them are remarkable in their turn, but most particularly Alonso, whom makes a terrific work at making his Eduardo/Edgar a frail effete, in love with Catalina, but unable to match Alejandro's passion. This unevenness in the cast is the Achilles' heel of "Abismos de Pasión", as the difference between the lead and the supporting cast is so abysmal that's impossible not to notice it. It's tragic, as it spoils the experience of what could had been one of Buñuel's most symbolic and visually arresting films. While he keeps faithful to Brontë's text, visually the movie is full of Bulñuel's touches, from Eduardo's bug collection to Alejandro's servant reciting the darkest passages from the Bible, not to mention the mysterious behavior of Ricardo's mute son Jorge (the Hareton equivalent).

Despite its flaws, Luis Buñuel achieves in "Abismos de Pasión" the movie that perhaps gets closer to Brontë's spirit in terms of tone and atmosphere. In "Abismos de Pasión" Buñuel seems to understand that Brontë's novel is not Austen, it's raw, harsh, and cruel. There's wild passionate violence in its words, and Buñuel manages to translate it to images in a more accurate way that Wyler did in his polished 1939 version. It's for these reasons that it's so tragic that the cast involved has failed in their performance. A weak couple of lead actors and a heavy Polish accent undermine the foundations of what could had been a masterpiece, and leave it as only as a merely good film. Fortunately, a merely good film from Buñuel is still far more enjoyable than a merely good film from anybody else.


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