December 03, 2013

Flor de Durazno (1917)

Considered the most important figure in the history of Tango, singer and songwriter Carlos Gardel took the culture of Argentinian Tango across the world, becoming one of the most famous latin american artists at the time of his tragic death (in a plane crash). Of French origin, Gardel spent his childhood at the neighborhood of Abasto, in the city of Buenos Aires, where he began to develop a singing style working at bars and singing at private parties. In 1917, the young Carlos Gardel would make his first recordings, beginning the brilliant career that would take make him internationally famous. Two assets of great importance in the young singer's early success were his great presence and his natural charm, which didn't go unnoticed by the film industry, and that very same year the rising Tango star saw himself debuting in the silver screen. The title of the film would be "Flor de Durazno", an adaptation of the popular novel of the same name, written by Gustavo Adolfo Martínez Zuviría, better known as Hugo Wast. And while the film became a huge box office success, it is far from being the best film in Gardel's career.

"Flor de Durazno" (literally "Peach Flower") is the story of Rina (Ilde Pirovano), a young woman living with her father Germán (Diego Figueroa) in their little farm. Her cousin Fabián (Carlos Gardel) is in love with her, but the young lady has a preference for the young Miguel Benavides (Argentino Gómez), heir of a rich plantation. In time, they grow old, and Fabián manages to conquer Rina's heart, who finally agrees to marry him. Unfortunately, a war forces Fabián to enlist in the army, and so the couple postpones the wedding until Fabián returns. Miguel, now the owner of the Benavides ranch, takes advantage of this to get closer to Rina, using his knowledge and financial position to earn German's trust, as the farmer gets involved in a legal dispute and sees in Miguel a trustworthy advisor. Being now a regular visitor to Germán's farm and with Fabián away, Miguel finds his way to seduce Rina, who ends up pregnant. When Miguel refuses to marry Rina, considering her of a lower social class, she decides to runaway to the capital, where she'll endure misery being alone and poor.

Written and directed by Francisco Defilippis Novoa, "Flor de Durazno" follows with relative faithfulness the plot of Hugo Wast's popular novel, a naturalist melodrama that portrayed the social injustices in the Argentinian countryside. This kind of stories had already found a great success in Argentinian cinema, as proved the classic "Nobleza Gaucha" (1915), film that like Defilippis' movie, took as starting point the conflict between a rich rancher and a humble yet noble gaucho. "Flor de Durazno" follows to the letter this formula, with the humble farmer Rina suffering with stoicism the multiple abuses and humiliations from the wealthy class, having as driving force the undying love she feels for her little daughter. But despite the social theme, the film is pretty conservative, as Rina sees her constant suffering at the city as a penance for the grave sin of falling for Miguel and forgetting Fabián's love, specially since the noble young man remembers her in every trip. The simple plot of "Flor de Durazno" upholds the idea of modern cities as nests of perversion, while the countryside represents purity.

As a film, "Flor de Durazno"'s main characteristic is the simplicity of director Francisco Defilippis Novoa's take on the story, and the agile rhythm in which the story unfolds. Taking full advantage of the natural locations (and the effective work of cinematographer Francisco Mayrhoffer), Defillipis Novoa makes a bucolic portrait of the Argentinian countryside, which is presented as a tranquil place where life is simpler. In contrast, the city is presented as a dirt and chaotic place, where evil hides in every corner and is ready to prey on the dispossessed. Despite the profound simplicity of Defilippis Novoa's use of the camera, there are interesting moments in which the plot turns to Fabián, who sings to remember his land and his beloved Rina. Those moments (that probably where accompanied by a recording of Carlos Gardel's songs) are used by Defilippis to become more lyrical and poetic, moving to the subjectivity of the character's emotions. In his same way, Defilippis occasionally uses cinematic resources like double exposure to illustrate the memories and emotions of his characters.

Without a doubt, the main attraction in "Flor de Durazno" is to watch the debut of Carlos Gardel as a film star but, unfortunately, this first venture of the "Zorzal Criollo" in the film industry leaves a lot to be desired. For starters, silent cinema may not be the best way for a singer to shine (there are rumors of a disappointed Carlos Gardel storming out of the set), and on top of that, his character has pretty much a secondary role during most of the film, as the real star of "Flor de Durazno" is Ilde Pirovano. As Rina, Pirovano carries entirely the weight of the film, and truly makes a commendable job at it, as the young actress moves away from the silent cinema conventions and delivers a more naturalistic performance. The whole opposite is Argentino Gómez' work as Miguel Benavides, who looks terribly hammy in his delivery and makes a caricature of the wealthy villain archetype. The same could be said of the rest of the cast, as the constant through the film is the stagy style of film's early days. Perhaps the only exception (besides Ilde Pirovano) is Diego Figueroa, who manages to give dignity to the role of Germán Castillo.

While the acting isn't really the film's strongest point, of little help is the fact that the screenplay is of an exaggerated simplicity in its development, as the characters are in general a mere collection of classic genre archetypes: the unfortunate victim, her strict father, the wealthy rancher, the wise priest and last but not least, the noble gaucho. Very little is done to develop those personalities in a dramatic way, and director Francisco Defilippis merely focus his efforts in capturing the atmosphere of the story and telling the tale the most efficient way he can. This leaves "Flor de Durazno" as a missed opportunity, that even when it could had served as an exploration of social injustice, ends up as an easy and simple naturalist melodrama where once again the evil rich man abuses of the poor. Of course, a lot of this comes from the very source novel in which the film is based on, as Hugo Wast's novel already carries this and other flaws; but given the novel's commercial success, probably Deiflippis decided to make as little changes as possible to such successful formula.

Like the novel that originated it, "Flor de Durazno" became a huge box office success; however, as mention before Carlos Gardel wasn't too happy with the results. Carlos Gardel would remain focuses on his musical career for more than a decade before trying his hand again in the film industry, as this return would only tai enlace until 1930, when director Eduardo Morera invited him to collaborate in a series of musical short films. Naturally, sound in films was already a reality and that was Gardel's real start as a movie star (silent cinema wasn't the most appropriate way to showcase the talents of Gardel). Despite having some interesting elements, "Flor de Durazno" fails to rise above being a simple rural melodrama. A free adaptation of the novel would be done in Mexico in 1945, this time with Esther Fernández in the role of Rina.


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