Fever Mounts in El Pao (Luis Buñuel / France-Mexico, 1959):
(La Fièvre Monte à El Pao; Los Ambiciosos)

El Pao is such an isolated spot that even tourists avoid it, we hear; Luis Buñuel gives it a sharp-toothed study, with unmistakable traces of Huston, Clouzot, and Franco’s Spain. The unseen ruler is represented by a brute in generalissimo cap (Miguel Ángel Ferriz), with a stormy wife (María Félix) who's at her most tantalizing sprawled on a sofa post-scuffle, with hiked skirt and bloody lip. When Ferriz is shot mid-speech, the townspeople’s first action is to rush for the slabs of meat that had been promised them after the peroration. One tyrant replaces another -- reactionary Jean Servais takes over the governor’s throne and sets out to crush idealistic administrator Gérard Philipe, his rival for the widow’s affections. A touch of Robbe-Grillet adorns Servais’ office, with its foliage, shutters and looming shadows, a private jungle where Félix goes to barter for her lover’s life. "Had I been less brutal, I’d have never seen the woman you are," the debonair despot confides to the heroine. "Is that a declaration of love?" (In the arena behind them, the matador is gored but the bull is ultimately toppled.) The protagonist decries the penal colony’s injustices, yet his actions during the prisoners’ rebellion prove that Philipe’s resemblance to a young Servais is no accidental effect ("Am I any better?"). Un Chien Andalou was a call-to-arms, thirty years later Buñuel is more aware of the difficulties of revolution. How to challenge a political order that threatens to swallow you? Félix races down the l’amour fou road in a hail of bullets, while Philipe comes to learn that, in a system buried to its neck in papers waiting to be signed, liberation (and death) come with the radical act of tearing them up. With Raúl Dantés. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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