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    El Leyton

    Jumping the shark

    A fishing village's local predator and puritan clash over a woman in the slightly two-dimensional Chilean immorality tale "El Leyton."


    As an artistic subject, the fall of the adulterous woman has received acclaimed treatment in such curriculum staples as Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter" and Flaubert's "Madame Bovary." Chilean filmmaker Gonzalo Justiniano walks this path, but pointedly focuses on the male players in the drama.

    Directed by: Gonzalo Justiniano.
    Written by: Fernando Aragón, Gonzalo Justiniano.
    Adapted from the novel by: Luis AcuĖa.
    Cast: Siboney Lo, Francisca Arze, Gabriela Hernández, Carolina Jerez, Ramón Llao, Juan Pablo Sáez, Luis Wigdorsky, Pilar Zderich.
    In Spanish with English subtitles.
    Quad Cinema 34 West 13th St., between 6th Ave. and University (212) 255-8800. Opens Nov. 21, 2003

    The action is set in a small fishing village replete with provincial charm (a featured entertainment is a local soccer match accompanied by a feast of wine and watermelon) and technological unsophistication (the fishing boats are still dragged out to sea by men astride horses). Into this sleepy setting strides a mysterious, handsome man (Juan Pablo Saez) who sets the whole village in motion — women run through the streets heralding the return of "Leyton" and men fetch their weapons. Leyton is soon rustled into the local tavern and, in an air palpable with menace and hostility, tells his tale of tragedy that the villagers already know.

    With this framing device in place, Justiniano flashes the audience back. Leyton and Modesto (Luis Wigdorsky) are lifelong friends working together on a fishing boat owned by Modesto. The rakish, virile Leyton is simple-minded in his freedom from ambition, care, and marital obligation, while plain Modesto is ambitious, business-savvy, and looks forward to the stability and respectability of having a wife. Leyton is less than beloved, as he takes upon himself the pleasurable task of sexually servicing the wives of less potent village denizens. Modesto, on the other hand, is the hope of the village, as he is well-positioned to bring a general prosperity. Thus, all celebrate — including Leyton, who celebrates in his trademark fashion — when Modesto takes as his wife the beautiful, young Marta (Siboney Lo).

    With tragedy foreordained, however, it is easy to see the tragic flaws of the characters. A traditional man, Modesto sees women not as equals, but as exalted creatures whose worth lies entirely in their submissive devotion to servitude and their sexual purity, a purity that may be policed by violence. This is telegraphed in a late-night courtship scene with Marta during which Modesto calls her his Reina ("Queen"), threatens her with mortal harm if she has not remained a virgin, and demands that she mend the fishing nets before morning. Further, as evidenced by their first coupling, Modesto is not interested in, or conscious of the possibility of, Marta's sexual pleasure. This augurs badly, especially if one recalls that divorce is illegal in Chile.

    Meanwhile, Leyton is, as is made clear by a metaphor that becomes more and more literal as the film progresses, a shark. Yet it seems as if Leyton's desire to bed Marta is less driven by an indiscriminate, never-sleeping hunger for flesh than an unconscious wish to prevail in a trite game of masculine one-upmanship. After all, Modesto frequently threatens to "cut" Leyton out of the fishing business, a threat invariably accompanied by a gesture of castration.

    But Marta remains a cipher throughout the film, her expression ever serious and guarded, whether she is getting married, buying fish, or having sex. We learn little of her other than that she is sexually frustrated. Justiniano is not interested in her as a fully developed character. She is never more than a passive presence that is necessary for the drama between the men to go forward, just as she is no more than an object of desire, and pawn and trophy, to Modesto and Leyton. Her form is seen, but her inner self is invisible.

    Justiniano's film never stoops to the level of cautionary moral tale, and it admirably steers clear of creating a narrative of hero, villain, and victim. The tragedy occurs not because of any clear and conscious perfidy, but is a result of Modesto's unreconstructed traditionalism and Leyton's failure to examine his own motives or foresee consequences. This treatment would gratify even Flaubert's exacting sensibility, as the story is thus purged of banal, by-the-numbers melodrama, and any airy sense of "romantic" tragedy is deftly banished.

    Nevertheless, the film suffers from a lack of power. This lack partly stems from the underdevelopment of Marta, depriving the viewer of an opportunity to invest in her fate. Foremost, however, the power of the film is diluted by failed attempts at broad humor, instanced by village caricatures and, less entertainingly, a tongue-in-cheek playfulness that clashes badly with tragic course of the plot. For instance, the subtitle of the film is translated as "Until Death Do Us Part," pulling double duty as both a serious reference to the outcome of the love triangle and a comic reference to the film's strangely lighthearted and cavalier resolution, which confers new meaning on the concept of "shotgun wedding."

    This is not to say that attempting to sow comic elements into an otherwise serious film is not appropriate, but here, the blending is forced. Especially in the framing story, the "trial" and "sentence" of Leyton, the farcical elements are pronounced and multi-layered, expressed even in the way scenes are scored. The resulting dissonance between the village comedy and the universal tragedy detract from both. In the end, "El Leyton" is either a serious film undermined by its own fear of solemnity, or a comic film undone by its choice of a tragic theme.

    NOVEMBER 20, 2003

    Reader comments on El Leyton:

  • Siboney Lo   from Mr. 1st, Apr 9, 2004
  • Re: Siboney Lo   from James A. Furst, Oct 21, 2005
  • Simple, pero fascinante!   from Julieta, Mar 5, 2007
  • A beautiful movie   from Charles, Mar 5, 2007

  • Post a comment on "El Leyton"