‘May the Devil get out from the house of the Lord.’
The monks at a remote monastery carry out a ritual to banish evil after it seems that one of their order has become possessed by Satan. Eventually, the monk appears to recover, and the Prior sends in a travelling priest to comfort him. But when the monk recognises his visitor, he violently attacks him…
An unusual and stylish drama often identified as one of the first Mexican horror films. Director Juan Bustillo Oro certainly conjures up enough atmosphere and startling images to enhance this tale of thwarted romance, madness and revenge.
Brother Javier (Carlos Villatoro) is a troubled soul, ranting and raving in his cell until the fellow monks in his monastery believe him possessed by evil. As they walk the passageways chanting, ringing bells and splashing holy water, they are relieved to be told that his latest fit of madness has passed. The Prior (Beltrán de Heredia) decides that a visit from the just arrived Brother Servando (Víctor Urruchúa) is in order. After all, he has an unmatched reputation from eloquence and piety. But when rruchúa enters the cell, Villatoro chases him out, wounding him in the head with an icon of Christ on the cross.
After the altercation, a repentant Villatoro asks that de Heredia absolve him. He explains that Urruchúa is his old friend Juan, who wronged him years before, and tells the old man the story. It begins with Villatoro as a struggling composer, wracked by consumption, whose only joy in life is the presence of pretty neighbour Ana (Magda Haller), to whom he writes his songs. When she resists her parents’ plans for an arranged marriage, they throw her out in the street and, aware of his feelings for her, Villatoro’s mother, Gertrudis (Emma Roldán), takes her in. Not surprisingly, as time passes, the two youngsters grow fond of each other and plan to marry.
Enter Urruchúa as Villatoro’s best friend Juan, back from years of adventuring abroad. The three quickly become inseparable, but Roldán becomes suspicious that all is not as it seems. Urruchúa suddenly announces a departure for parts unknown but arranges that Villatoro is away from home for the evening. When he returns ahead of time, he finds Urruchúa and Haller in each other’s arms, and tragedy follows. The Prior refuses to grant absolution to Villatoro until he hears the other side of the story and goes to see Urruchúa, who relates the facts from his point of view.
The beguiling device of events told from different viewpoints was rightly lauded in Akira Kurosawa’s landmark ‘Rashamon’ (1950). Although it’s surprising to find it already in use a decade and a half earlier, it can be traced back as far as ‘The Woman Under Oath’ (1919). The difference in Oro’s screenplay (co-written with José Manuel Cordero) is that the two principals do not dispute the facts. The twist is that Villatoro does not have possession of the facts that prompted them. The only flaw in this conceit is that his ignorance of a prior relationship between his intended and his best friend is a little hard to swallow. Some justification for this would have been welcome.
The notion that this is a horror film can be attributed almost entirely to the style with which Oro delivers the tale. After all, there are no actual supernatural elements and only one brief instance of violence, although it is graphic for its time. Oro’s striking presentation is immediately apparent in the opening scenes in the monastery. Of course, the gothic architecture and the spartan interiors help with the atmosphere, but the director takes it to the next level. The set dressing and props are minimal but well-chosen, the massive pipe organ and towering statues that are prominent in the climax being particularly striking.
Oro continues this aesthetic in the flashback scenes. The rooms of Villatoro’s home are large and mostly empty, furnished with only his piano, heavy drapes and a few pieces of scattered furniture. The feeling imparted is that of a theatrical stage, an impression heightened by the director’s preference for long takes, minimal dialogue and stretches of silence. There’s also fine examples of visual storytelling; Villatoro’s relapse into sickness indicated by crumpled music pages on the floor and the fantastic final scenes where a chaotic procession of masks suggests a descent into delirium and madness. Many of the scenes in the monastery seem lit by little more than a flickering candle, giving the shadows a sense of endless depth as if there is nothing behind them but deeper darkness.
This approach to the material might have been expected from a veteran director of silent pictures, but Oro had directed only one, ‘Yo soy tu padre’ (1927). This was only his third picture, the second being ‘Godfather Mendoza’ (1934), which he wrote and directed with Fernando de Fuentes. The same year he worked in a writing capacity on de Fuentes’ superb ‘The Phantom of the Convent/El fantasma del convento’ (1934). As both films seem set in the same location and both feature Villatoro and the elderly de Heredia (in his only two screen appearances), it seems likely they were shot back to back. Augustin Jiménez was cinematographer here and shot stills for de Furntes’ film, and Max Urban gets the music credit for both.
Oro had a long career in domestic Mexican cinema with over 30 years of writing and directing credits. Sadly, it seems he received no international recognition during his lifetime. Only a handful of his films, such as ‘Lo que va de Ayer a hoy/The Witch Came From Yesterday To Today’ (1945) and ‘Del Brazo y por la calle/Arm In Arm Down The Street’ (1956), were released outside his homeland. As this particular example was restored by the Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, it’s hoped that more of his work receives attention in the future.
An unsung triumph of world cinema that should be recognised and celebrated.