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."
By PETER THEIS
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
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.
|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.
34 West 13th St., between 6th Ave. and University
Opens Nov. 21, 2003|
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
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|
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