Along with filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky and artist Roland Topor, Fernando Arrabal formed the surrealist, burlesque-styled Panic Movement in 1962. Jodorowsky was the first to turn feature-length filmmaker in 1968, 'loosely' adapting Arrabal's play Fando y Lis into a stirring, weird work of unforgettable visual and aural sequences.
Although both artists larded their films with distinct, personal viewpoints and cryptic, autobiographical references, Arrabal's own directorial debut in 1971 with Viva La Muerte is far more linear and accessible than Jodorowsky early approach to filmmaking.
Muerte derives from Arrabal's efforts to understand the fate of his own father - an anti-Fascist who was imprisoned during the Spanish Civil War - but unlike the film's mysterious figurehead, Arrabal's father escaped in 1942, disappearing without a trace; the event no doubt left the future playwright with a fractured sense of family that ultimately led to creating this potent little film.
For his debut, Arrabal based the script on his own novel Baal Babylone , and "by accident," as the author recalls in the DVD's interview featurette, he chose to shoot most of the film in gorgeous, coastal Tunisia. Aside from the physical differences between Spanish and Tunisian architecture, the country's culture also enriched the exotic nature of Arrabal's fantasy; and small locales - such as a peasant's dining room - or grandly industrial - like the encrusted fixtures of a tidal chamber in a huge industrial complex - give the characters an obvious past and present - something lacking in Jodorowsky's trippy El Topo .
Both El Topo and The Holy Mountain (Jodorowsky's third film) are dense, overly symbolic exercises that demand a monstrous knowledge of artistic, historical, religious, and philosophical movements, but Muerte is a kind of Billy Liar derivation, particularly when viewed as an extension of Arrabal's prior play that begetted the filmic Fando y Lis.
In Muerte, pubescent Fando plays with wooden toys depicting his father's arrest and torture; the boy's mounting suspicions of mom's active participation in every ordeal spawn vivid, gory daydreams, with Fando sometimes suffering in place of his father. (These sequences were interestingly shot on videotape, processed through primary colour filters, and bounced back to film in a process called solarization. The effect was pioneered by Jack Cardiff in his own time-fractured, erotic drama, Girl on a Motorcycle, in 1968.)
As Arrabal states in his loopy interview featurette, Fando is firmly part of a specific era, rather than the mystical outer-world in Fando y Lis; so while Jodorowsky's film deals with an adult Fando searching for the magical land of Tar, Muerte can be classified as a more temporal link in the trauma that forced Fando to ultimately leave his childhood home (Tunisia) and travel the surreal, hallucinatory journey for Tar.
Fando's journey in Muerte also gives Arrabal plenty of opportunities to poke vicious fun at Catholicism -often quite cheeky in its juvenilia, including an Olympic golden shower from a tower, acridly soiling and drowning the town's pious hierarchy. Though the film's disturbing images are initially restricted to Fando's solarized imaginings, the director ultimately indulges in a sequence of true gore which animal lovers will find beyond repugnant. Not dissimilar from Jodorowsky's own use of birds and animals to add visual colour, horror, or demonstrate hypocrisy to an audience, Arrabal - who confesses in the featurette to being a gentle soul and disliking things nasty - nevertheless shatters the film's use of fleeting violence by having Fando's mother literally saw a cow in half as part of Fando's fantasy to argue and ultimately convince himself that his mother is totally complicit in his father's ugly fate.
Primarily seen as largely comforting, maternal, oedipal creature still capable of tenderness, mom's also an idealist, protecting her son from the Communist achings of dad. Through much of the film's first two thirds, Arrabal maintains a tonal distinction between the boy's daydreams, until specific scenes of cruelty - some levied at insects and sheep - transform Fando's own reconstruction of his father's fate into a sharp, 35mm hyper-reality - hence the literal cow-sawing by mum, accompanied by a live marching band in a huge abattoir. Splattered in fresh blood, mother wallows in steaming bovine viscera, triumphantly shakes freshly emasculated bull cajones, and indignifies the cow by sewing a man into the purged animal's carcass.
It's a brutally gory sequence that echoes the elongated sea turtle slaughter in Ruggero Deodato's infamous 1980 shocker, Cannibal Holocaust. The animals killings that seemed inherent (or endemic) to the Cannibal genre are used, if one can theoretically crawl so low, as tools forcing audiences to experience the primal horror and depravity encountered and experienced by Great White Hunters and Huntresses foolish enough to wander into remote terrain, and greedily exploit the sensational lives of primitives tribes.
In Holocaust, the goal is to be nothing less than the ultimate cannibal film - pure rollercoaster entertainment within the sex and violence artifice, and visual material living up to and exceeding the ad copy. Arrabal's animal sacrifice in Muerte plays like a supreme Technicolor depiction of a mother's betrayal - exploiting the animal's obvious mass and density - but in achieving such a level of shocking surrealism, the film becomes an artistic statement more gentle-minded audiences will find unwatchable. The unquestionable virtues of Muerte, therefore, are to a notable degree, smothered by Arrabal's shock approach.
It's a manipulative crescendo: an ailing Fando has a softly spoken tête-à-tête with mom in an ambulance because he's very ill; next comes a solarized interpretation; and then the doomed cow. After the latter sequence, Fando shuns his mother in the ambulance, and Arrabal moves to graphic surgery footage. Moving to a calming denouement, Fando is rescued from the post-op recovery room by 'his one and only friend' - a childhood sweetheart/and non-threatening mother figure - and with a well-behaved pet turkey, the boy and girl travel by hastily constructed, flatbed rickshaw out of town; Fando the boy is now poised to begin his journey in search of Arrabal's magical land of Tar.
Arrabal manages to neuter the film's hot potato element via his eccentric responses in the interview featurette, aided by hugging a chair and pausing to assess the aroma of his leather shoes - themselves surreal behavioral distractions for the interviewer (and ourselves). Perhaps Arrabal feels that in condemning the sequence, he would purge a tenet within the Panic Movement (that of unbridled shock), so the film's crimson conclusion - effective and devastating, but morally repulsive in a more modern light - must stand as an integral component of the film's narrative.
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Arrabal's sparse replies in the bonus featurette may be even more oblique than Jodorowsky's generously verbal efforts to explain why he do the things he do on film. A knowledgeable man with a fairly solid filmography, Arrabal's replies lack precision, but he addresses some vital areas: the Panic Movement itself, the misused term of 'collaboration' within the movement, and the delightful children's song that Arrabal employs in Muerte over Jean Topor's horrific and portentous title art.
Though a single layer DVD, Cult Epic's transfer is first-rate, showing off the film's rich, exotic colours and locations. A short still gallery gathers material from lobby cards, and the DVD art has additional colour photos from the solarized sequences that show details obfuscated by the colour effects. The included booklet also sets up Arrabal's career, and happily contains no major spoilers.
This title is available as part of Cult Epics’ limited Fernando Arrabal Collection, of which Vol. 1 includes Vive La Muerte (1971), I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse (1973), The Guernica Tree (1975), and Vol. 2 includes Car Cemetery (1983), The Emperor of Peru (1982), Farewell, Babylon! (1992), Borges, Life of a Poet (1998), and Arrabal, Panik Cineast (2007).
© 2005 Mark R. Hasan