A not-so-innocent film

by Thomas Kiely

from Jump Cut, no. 31, March 1986, pp. 6-7
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1986, 2006

"Here's where civilization begins," says the man who has ferried Erendira and her grandmother from their desert solitude to this dusty town at the edge of smugglers' country. It is an oppressive environment. The sun's glare and the khaki color of the landscape are demoralizing. The town's few scattered buildings look like ruins. And a chimerical airplane squats beside the road like some strange desert creature, its predatory eye fixed on these intruders. The town is deserted. When the mailman arrives, the grandmother signals to him and shows him what she is selling: her granddaughter, stretched out upon the ground of their makeshift tent.

Based upon Gabriel Garcia Marquez's story "The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Erendira and Her Heartless Grandmother," Ruy Guerra's ERENDIRA is a political fable about exploitation — the exploitation of labor by capital, of the young by the old, and of passivity by ruthlessness. Yet despite the forced prostitution of the title character, which is the film's central metaphor, Guerra so tightly controls the subject of sexual exploitation that he nearly suppresses it altogether. To sustain the allegory, Guerra never allows the film to sink too deeply into the emotionally explosive story material. His characters are ciphers, his narrative an argument; and much of the film's imagery is patterned, repetitious, and preachy. But distance and selective attention gets the better of him. In the end this tight-lipped satire is nearly as heartless as the grandmother.

The film closely follows the original story's episodic plot. Erendira (Claudia Ohana) and her haughty, imperious grandmother (Irene Papas) live in a preposterously furnished bunker in the desert. The older woman's husband and son — Erendira's father — were smugglers; their bones now rest beside the house, where the pet ostrich roams. In slow pans and zooms, we see the old woman at her piano self-indulgently lost in her memories while Erendira does all the domestic labor in the house. These roles do not end at the limits of consciousness. An exhausted Erendira sleepwalks as she serves dinner. Later her grandmother falls asleep as she issues commands to her passive ward but continues talking anyway, even as her commands become mixed with her dreams. That night "the wind of Erendira's misfortune" blows the young woman's bedroom curtains into a lit candelabrum and burns the house down. "Life won't be long enough for you to pay me back," the old woman tells her. Payback begins that same day. The old woman sells her granddaughter's virginity to a local merchant. When Erendira resists, the man slaps and rapes her.

The old woman leads her charge from the small desert villages to the more populous and colorful towns. Erendira is both the labor and the commodity of this itinerant business. The grandmother collects the money, makes all decisions, and pays (swindles) the Indian servants. As the business prospers, the two women are joined by hangers-on, vendors, musicians, and a mysterious photographer (Rufus, the French performance artist). Soon Erendira meets Ulises, a boy so innocent he resembles an angel. Ulises waits his turn in the line outside her tent, but on this night Erendira collapses and the line is dismissed. Undaunted, he sneaks into the tent after the old woman has gone to sleep. Erendira finds him charming; she teaches him how to make love.

On route to the next town, nuns kidnap Erendira and confine her to a desert mission. The old woman pitches a tent beneath the fort-like mission walls with no plan to recover her granddaughter other than endurance. One day, as the priests forcibly marry Indian men to pregnant Indian women, the old woman stops a boy on his way into the mission. The priests will pay him five pesos to be confirmed, but the old woman offers him twenty if he will marry her granddaughter.

By this ruse, Erendira must return to her grandmother. In a scene set within the mission walls, the young woman tells the camera that she is happy in this little world of silence and routine. Her passivity has found its nest, where duties and roles are rigidly defined. Yet here, free of her grandmother's domination, people are only proximate to each other. It is a world not simply of solitude, but of near solipsism — a daring (and illusory) attempt to escape history and nature.

To undermine any further attempts by the priests to confiscate her money-making resource, the old woman must obtain a letter from someone important testifying to her granddaughter's high moral character. Here Guerra adapts another Garcia Marquez story ("Death Constant Beyond Love") to meet his narrative needs. The grandmother sends Erendira to Senator Onesimo Sanchez, a man dying of some mysterious disease. The crafty woman locks a chastity belt on Erendira, which the Senator discovers cannot be unlocked until he writes the letter. (In the original story, Erendira earns the letter by joining the Senator's electoral campaign retinue).

The business suffers a second setback when Ulises reappears and persuades Erendira to run off with him. As the wind of her misfortune blows once again, Erendira and Ulises head for the border in a truck the boy has stolen from his father. Finally caught, Erendira watches from the halted truck as her frightened, childlike lover suffers a whipping from his father. She regards his ineffectuality and humiliation with an expression of grave curiosity. "Innocent" Erendira fathoms the degree of her oppression. In the close-up shot of Erendira that finishes this scene, we see that she has her grandmother's gaze.

Erendira suffers humiliation herself in the following scene. The old woman will not chance another loss; she chains her granddaughter to the bed. But angry prostitutes, bereft of business because Erendira is in town, march to their competition's tent and haul the young woman out of it over the old woman's curses. A long shot isolates Erendira — naked, alone, shackled to a bed in a public square.

Only the old woman's death will free her. But she cannot kill her own grandmother. Instead she magically summons Ulises and persuades him to do the deed. By now the old woman is quite wealthy. She and Erendira inhabit a large tent beside the sea, furnished even more grandly than the lost desert home. The old woman plays her piano, bathes, and gives orders to her now hardened charge. Visually returned to the beginning of the film like a serpent with its tail in its mouth, the grandmother seems like a closed circle, imprisoning the entire film within the patterned images that define her.

Ulises is so hopelessly innocent and the old woman so monumental that his first two attempts on her life are comically unsuccessful. Finally, goaded by Erendira, he picks up a kitchen knife and stabs the old woman in the back. She bleeds green blood. When Ulises cuts her neck, the image mirrors the slaughter of a hog in the mission as well as the old woman's murder of her lover years earlier, which she confessed in a dream the night Erendira summoned Ulises.

Erendira's palm suddenly acquires lines. She assays the dead woman and her frightened lover with the same cold look, then picks up the grandmother's vest of gold and exits. Ulises stumbles after her, calls to her, and then sprawls upon the ground weeping like a helpless child. "No voice on earth could stop me," Erendira tells us in a voice over as she disappears into the desert. "And no trace of my misfortune was ever found."

Although she carries with her the "fruit" of her labor, the film does not explore the connection between prostitution and the sexual exploitation upon which the trade is necessarily grounded. Ulises aside, men hardly exist in this film. They drift through the narrative like tumbleweeds. Soldiers, smugglers, the photographer, a whole town full of men — this is the desert flora against which Erendira is juxtaposed, a juxtaposition without comment. We sometimes see long lines of men waiting their turn with Erendira, but the camera never explores them, never questions their presence, and never embarrasses them. Rather, they are meant as a dark humorous joke, like the bazaar that springs up wherever Erendira alights, a joke about commodification. The film thoughtlessly presumes that a human being's sexuality, when converted into a purchasable act, is no different a merchandise than a snake-bite remedy. Prostitution is simply a metaphor. The point of the story is that the domineering grandmother owns the business.

When the merchant buys Erendira's virginity, he first weighs her and then haggles with the old woman over a price. The equation is clear: Erendira is the goods; the merchant a consumer. But this is all Guerra has to say about the fellow's presence, desire, motives, feelings, or advantages. The point is that the man purchases sex not from Erendira but from the grandmother, who is the controlling presence throughout this scene. For the rest of the film, any glimpse we have of sexual transactions between Erendira and her clients is focused upon the money the old woman collects at the door. The image amplifies Guerra's metaphor, but it also conceals any other aspect to this business other than the strictly material, Are we meant to believe that sex and power are simply a question of money?

On the other hand, the connection between sex and power contorts Erendira's and Ulises' brief love, to the male's disadvantage. While Ulises lies in Erendira's arms after lovemaking, this young woman who has magically summoned him asks him if he could commit murder. Their contrasting expressions in this two-shot tells it all. Erendira is a femme fatale. Again, when Erendira visits the Senator, the face of sex-linked-to-power is glimpsed from three differing angles. Although Senator Sanchez commands Erendira to remove his boots and although she must approach him on her knees, the scene ends with his confession that he will die weeping in rage without her. And circumscribing them both is the absent grandmother who has successfully manipulated the entire episode. It is a nice paradox, but it is also a deft way to muddy the implications raised at the beginning of the scene. This would not smack of avoidance if the issue of male power were raised elsewhere in the film. But it is not. This film, which catalogs and connects many other forms of exploitation, resolutely avoids acknowledging male exploitation of a victimized young woman's sexuality — although the story provides so many opportunities for doing so

Much of this also occurs in the Garcia Marquez story. Both prose and film strive to remain fable, to be metaphoric rather than veristic. Too great a concentration on the concrete details of Erendira's predicament or on her emotions could shatter the allegory. But Guerra distances himself further from Erendira than Garcia Marquez does, principally by focusing his film upon the grandmother's energetic villainy.

Irene Papas visually dominates the film. In the scene where she beckons the lone postman, we view his arrival from just behind the grandmother, so that she looms in the foreground, sitting upon her makeshift throne, crozier in hand, like a portentous vulture, dwarfing all that passes before her. (In a favored strategy, Guerra repetitiously composes shots like this one to identify power: the grandmother's, the priests', the Senator's, etc.) Again, in the scenes where Erendira and Ulises make love, the grandmother's presence is oppressive. Either the scene cuts back and forth between the couple and the seemingly awake grandmother (her dreams animate her) or else we see the doomed pair from the old woman's point of view. Even when she isn't in the scene — such as when Erendira tours the mission or visits the Senator — something of her lingers, nagging us like background music.

Guerra even gives the old woman a scene meant largely to tug our hearts. As Ulises waits in line on the night they are to meet, Erendira lies in bed, shivering, in shock. But once the camera locates her — again, what we see is what the old woman sees as she enters the tent — the camera immediately includes the grandmother and within moments drops the young woman entirely from view. The scene leans on the old woman's pep talk, her grudging recognition that Erendira will not be able to service any more men that night, and finally the comic way she chases off the awaiting soldiers and vagabonds as though they were stray dogs near the butcher's back door. It is as though Guerra himself only grudgingly acknowledges Erendira's pain, then quickly reminds himself and us of where the film's real focus must lie.

Erendira is diminished by comparison. She is so passive, so obscure a character that nearly all we have of her is the two-dimensional shape we see on the screen. Although it is Guerra's strategy to present her as an object, the film goes further than that and uses her as one visually and metaphorically. Visually, for example, we see Erendira in the merchant's rainy room, the man's hands taking possession of her breasts. The image is replayed three times from differing angles. This formally compliments the three times in the film when Erendira is shown lying on her back nude to the waist (each time an image of her as victim — contrasted to her nightgowned form in the same reclined position near the end of the film when she summons Ulises for murder). As a visual strategy it roils an old problem: is it representation, or complicity?

Metaphorically, Erendira is an object of desire, a pop idol (trucks bear crude bumper boards advertising her charms), and a legend. We see the object and the consumers — the latter entirely without character or name, almost faceless; or the object and the dazzled Senator; the object and the stupefied Ulises. The object simply is, and desire is simply to be assumed. In fact the film asks the audience to make the same assumptions about desire, power, and gender that one might make for a farmer's daughter' joke. And by its choice of focus, the film tries to distract us from questions that are at the heart of the film's subject: Why is a passive woman the desired object in this film, and men the only consumers? Why is a young woman dragged from town to town for the sexual use of men, and the only one blamed for this by the film, another woman? Isn't it easy, when a symbol is needed, to use a woman? Both the story and the film seem entirely too comfortable with Erendira-as-metaphor. She was created passive, meant for work — not just for the grandmother, but for Garcia Marquez and Guerra as well.

The original fiction is partially salvaged by an advantage the prose has over Guerra's attempt to retell it. The narrative voice in Garcia Marquez's story balances characters and events. It is a simple, wholly captivating voice that breaks into the first person at mid-story, connecting the tale to another world — presumably ours — where tales offer gossip, entertainment, meaning. This storyteller informs his tale with a human palpability that becomes lost in the story's translation into film.

A shame, as this is such an earnest translation! Guerra stays so close to Garcia Marquez's narrative that you can't help but wonder if this film is in part an homage to the Colombian author. Images lifted from the story — such as the orange with a diamond at its heart, or the way glasses change color when Ulises touches them — are rendered faithfully. Even Guerra's cutting is often patterned directly upon Garcia Marquez's sentences. And there is value to the film: Irene Papas gives a grand performance as a huge cartoon figure of haughty self-centered malice. Moreover, the love affair between Erendira and Ulises is sadder in the film. Guerra highlights what Garcia Marquez more deftly suggests — the romanticization of adolescence, framed between their two scenes of lovemaking and shadowed by the old woman's ranting. And Guerra even adds some nice touches of his own: the coca-cola box that the grandmother uses as a footstool; trucks as icons of power.

But Guerra sabotages the spirit of the prose. Magic realism, as practiced by Garcia Marquez, applies surrealism's matter-of-fact oddness in a more self-conscious manner. While Buñuel's surrealist imagery sprang from the unconscious, in a language at once ambiguous and apt, Garcia Marquez's version of strangeness is a conscious exercise, striving to decenter meaning by leading the reader astray. Guerra forces images into a consistency Garcia Marquez never intended. He makes meaning explicit and loses the resonance of the prose.

Finally, what should we make of the ending? The narrator's closing words in the story become Erendira's own final words in the film. Is no trace of her misfortune ever found because she seems no longer a passive victim? Has she vanished as a story of oppression, a name, a signifier? (This is the ending to the Garcia Marquez story.) Or are we to assume that she has become her grandmother? Fleeing innocence and murder, she returns to the solitude from which she emerged. Will she finance her own bunker, sink into her own repressed erotic nostalgia, and exercise her own capacity to dominate, abuse, and exploit? The film suggests a dialectic that cannot be resolved, only replicated. We can never defeat nature; civilization is an illusion, like a steamboat in the desert; we will always confuse sex and death; and we can never escape our destinies. The story's language is the absent character in this film. And lacking that storyteller's language — that gawking, credulous voice of an implied human community — ERENDIRA presents an incredibly dark tale without hope, rather than the incredibly sad tale that Garcia Marquez intended. The difference is important, as it is the difference between nihilism and struggle.