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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

VIVA LA MUERTE -- DVD Review by Porfle

The most autobiographical and visually confrontational of surrealist filmmaker Fernando Arrabal's films, his feature debut VIVA LA MUERTE (1971) is the story of a little boy named Fando (short for Fernando, I'll bet) dealing with the arrest and imprisonment of his father during the Spanish Civil War and the discovery that it was his mother who turned him in to the fascist government for being a "red" and an atheist.

Fando idolizes his missing father, whose forbidden ideologies begin to transform the teachings of his domineering mother and other elders into warped Freudian nightmares in his fervid adolescent mind.

The delirious onrush of puberty that fuels Fando's imagination becomes an Oedipal obsession which finds him lustfully keyhole-peeking on his mother. In one scene, he literally strokes his lizard as he peers at her half-naked body, then bites its head off.

Okay, I can partially identify with that, because if I was in a movie and the exquisite Núria Espert played my mom, I'd probably stroke my lizard, too. But I wouldn't bite its head off. Unless I found out that I was in a Fernando Arrabal movie, in which case it would probably be the most normal thing I'd do that day.

The message of the film is that both the fascist state, which uses violence to crush dissent, and rigid conformity, which does so in a variety of insidious ways, are bad. This is a springboard for Arrabal to indulge in plenty of scenes, both real and imagined, which ridicule religion and the military.

Of particular note is a fantasy in which Fando and some other boys castrate the local priest and feed him his own junk. "Oh, my balls! How tasty they are!" he gushes. "Thank you Lord, for this divine dish."

Another highlight finds Fando's mother stripping to the waist and forcing him to whip her back with a belt in penance for her sins ("Harder! Faster!" she moans in ecstasy) while she in turn grabs his crotch and gives it a vise-like squeeze.

Her treachery in blowing the whistle on Fando's father inspires a vision in which she tapes black X's over his eyes as he's tied to a post, then gleefully mounts a tank and exhorts the leering soldiers, to whom she has given herself sexually, to shoot him. In one of the film's most startling moments, he's bound in a tiny wooden cage while she stands over him and defecates on his head.

Fando, meanwhile, is either increasingly losing touch with reality or it's losing touch with him. When his beloved grandpa dies and he's told to give the departed a last kiss, Fando does so and then begins to lick the old man's face. He lights up a cigarette during class one day and sits there puffing like Bogart while his teacher, a pudgy nun whom he envisions as a rooting pig, has a fit.

The adult world around him grows stranger by the minute as he struggles to make sense of his father's fate, while both his alienation from and strange sexual attraction to his mother continues to confuse him. (Mahdi Chaouch, as Fando, is an amazing child actor who is convincingly in character every moment he's onscreen and gives a performance of surprising subtlety and depth.)

This, however, is nothing compared to the dizzying heights of weirdness Arrabal has in store for the viewer. An actual slaughterhouse is the setting for a sequence that will leave mortified animal lovers agog as a live bull is violently beheaded, disembowled, and castrated.

Fando's mother holds the bull's testicles aloft and then squirms ecstatically through the flowing gore (Núria Espert is the very definition of a "trouper" here) before inserting a grown-up Fando into the animal's open carcass and sewing him up inside it.

It's a crashing wave of repellant but disturbingly potent symbolism that leaves the incredulous viewer aghast. And if you're like me, you'll wonder how in the hell Arrabal managed to persuade his cast to enact some of this way-OTT stuff.

Back in what passes for the real world in this movie: increasingly suffocated by his mother's overbearing influence and that of his other stodgy and oppressive elders, Fando begins to develop a constant cough. Although the doctor diagnoses it as TB, it seems more as though his lungs are rejecting the very atmosphere around him.

As he's taken to the hospital for a barbaric operation, his possessions are ordered burned--we see his little handmade theater and the crude dolls that represent his family going up in flames--as though his odd presence is being purged from the village.

In the end, the only person who loves Fando for himself and remains loyal to him is a sweet little girl named Thérèse whose other constant companion is a pet turkey on a leash.

The DVD is in 1.78:1 widescreen with both French and dubbed-Spanish soundtracks and English subtitles. Along with a lobby card gallery and a trailer for I WILL WALK LIKE A CRAZY HORSE is an interesting interview with Arrabal during which he fondles a wooden chair and smells his shoe. The keepcase also contains a six-page foldout booklet with liner notes by Rayo Casablanca.

Often accompanied by an incongruously cheerful children's tune that will reappear in much of Arrabal's later work, VIVA LA MUERTE is a heady concoction of perverse, Bosch-like images that aren't easily assimilated. I'll probably watch it again whenever my life starts to feel a little too normal and I need a stiff dose of crazy.

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