Monday, April 23, 2012

94. BAHIA BLANCA (1984)

In his Glittering Images book on Jess Franco, Carlos Aguilár singles out this 1984 drama for special praise, and it's not hard to see why. Produced by Franco's own company Manacoa Films (tagging it as a work of personal importance to its creator), BAHIA BLANCA ("White Bay") does not belong to his usual genres, but instead refers to them obliquely; it also playfully thwarts the viewer's expectations, not only in regard to the situation at hand but also of the human relationships involved. Though the film starts as a mystery, it does not keep secrets from the viewer for very long; though it has the set-up of an action picture, it's a character study consisting almost entirely of dialogue scenes; though it is not a horror or fantasy film, it alludes to fantastic island legends; it seems at times to be a kind of contemporary western, though it takes place in a coastal town and its neighboring island. It's one of Franco's outstanding features of the 1980s, one of his best-acted features and most humane stories he ever told.

It's narrated by a shadowy figure of indeterminate sex walking out on a pier to gaze out at sea, whose identity is left for us to discover at the story's end. Ramiro (Juan Solar), a pathologist, is summoned by lawman Carlos Fernandez (Antonio Mayans) to a coastal village to perform an autopsy on the dead body of young Pacho Martín, washed ashore -- apparently drowned but covered in mysterious scratches. A local elder, Don Oscar “the Miserable” (Franco), balefully opines that the young swimmer's death was caused by his venturing out to the neighboring Isla del Ciervo (“Deer Island”), where legends claim mythic temptresses arise at night from its craters to tempt young men to their doom. But when Pacho’s autopsy reveals a .38 caliber bullet lodged in the back of his head, more earthly causes are indicated – pointing above all to local crime boss Raúl Sebastián (Tony Skios). The local barman León (Trino Trives) is annoyed with his daughter Silvia (Analía Ivars) for becoming engaged to Andy (José Llamas), whose morality is suspect because he works as a bodyguard for Sebastián; when Andy confesses to Silvia, after making love, that he is in fact Raúl Sebastián’s son, she walks out on him and their engagement. As Carlos and Ramiro investigate further, they find on Isla del Ciervo a tavern run by Alida (THE BLUE EYES OF THE BROKEN DOLL's Eva León), a former lover of Carlos, who lives there with her mute kid sister Maria (Lina Romay), whom she supports by entertaining passing seamen, and whom she protects by prostituting herself to them in a room so close by that Maria lies awake hearing every detail. Alida and Carlos resume their old affair, the lawman oblivious to the fact that Alida was responsible for shooting Pacho when she caught him raping Maria – apparently a sport for the local men, as she is beautiful and unable to accuse them. As the story continues to unfold, it becomes the story of a bride's revenge, closer to Tarantino's KILL BILL than some of its more obvious prototypes (like Truffaut's THE BRIDE WORE BLACK) though the film's rarity in an English-friendly version makes it unlikely that Tarantino ever saw it. 

The storytelling has an autumnal, almost Hemingwayesque literary feel – the presentation through a narrator reminds us continually that Franco actually sat down and committed this story to paper -- but presents it in a kind of rough-handled paperback format, while at the same time conveying a sense of actions so consequential that they could become the stuff of Don Oscar’s legends, if passed down through the generations. Carefully delineated relationships and dialogue are not something for which Franco’s films are commonly known, yet this film delivers them. It is fitting that the film takes its alleged location as a title, because if it has a prevailing theme, it is the limitation these people have imposed on their lives, on their options in life, by remaining there. All their relationships are meager and troubled, yet -- as one character says -- “We’ve got to cling to what we’ve got.” To feel unhappy in a relationship is, after all, to feel something, and even an unwanted pregnancy caused by violence can become, to some onlookers, a sign of hope for the future.

The cast is uniformly fine and natural, often summoning depths of ability that actors like Tony Skios, for example, were not commonly called upon to deliver. Lina Romay, who apparently gained weight in real life, à la De Niro, to give herself the believably bulging stomach of a woman in her second trimester, is a touching presence throughout and has one of her finest moments onscreen as she overhears her sister’s ultimate betrayal of their mutual love and trust.

One of the most distinctive – some might say annoying – traits about this film is its use of an untitled song by Julian Sacristán, sung by Isabel Sáenz de Tejada, which carpets the film’s soundtrack nearly wall-to-wall in obsessive repetitions. The film’s unseemly reliance on the song imbues it with a regret that ages, as we follow the storyline, into neurosis. It is an unheard-of indulgence, but not one without precedent in Franco’s filmography if one considers the similarly incantatory way that LORNA THE EXORCIST leans on its guitar score, or the manner in which we hear a song evolve from rough draft to final performance in THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MIRROR.

Viewed on DVD-R.

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