Contemplating the marriage of movies to the imagery of Gabriel Garcia Marquez occurs to every reader of any one of his books.  Whether it’s crocodiles eating the last buttery manatee, a man with enormous wings, a woman farting so loud the dogs are startled, butterflies in the thousands, a single one landing on a bare breast,  or coppery tresses on a 12 year old that reach the ground, the images float in the reader’s interior eye with the wish of  seeing them on the big screen.  Many films have come from this desire from Maria My Dearest in 1979 to Love in the Time of Cholera in 2007.  Most are quite beguiling, worth spending an evening with.  It may be the latest effort, however, that sets the standard for excellence of Garcia Marquez story and image brought to the screen

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Of Love and Other Demons, by Costa Rican director Hilda Hidalgo, has been making the film festival rounds for much of 2010.  It was shown at the Mill Valley Film Festival in October where I was fortunate to see it.  Though a theatrical release date has not been announced for the United States is is already listed as forthcoming on DVD at Netflix, and is Costa Rica’s nomination for Best Foreign Language film for the upcoming Oscars.

This is Hidalgo’s first full length film, and done with the benediction of Gabo himself who she met while taking a screen writing class. It bursts with color, character and place.  It tells the story almost completely of the slender, 160 page novel, translated by Elizabeth Grossman in 2008.  Sierva Maria is the only child of a deteriorating wealthy colonial family in 18th century Colombia.  Forsaken by her superstitious and drug-addled mother she is brought up by the family slaves.

“Sierva Maria learned to dance before she could speak, learned three African languages at the same time, learned to drink rooster’s blood before breakfast and to glide past Christians unseen and unheard, like an incorporeal being.”

Unschooled and happy, at home with black slaves and unknown in the white community she concocts stories, tells lies,  invents demons almost as a favor to the superstitious.  All is well until bitten by a rabid dog sometime in her 12th year. She shows some signs of infection which is immediately interpreted as rabies, a terrifying sentence at the time.

Her mother the Marquesa [Margarita Rosa de Francisco]  in the grips of emetic cures, paranoia and hatred of her husband pays little attention to the girl.  Her father,  the Marques del Castelduero [ Joaquin Clement], uncertain what to do, and long separated from the Church,  takes her to a Jewish physician in town, secular and skeptical. Abrenuncio [Damián Alcázar] prescribes happiness:

“Play music for her, fill the house with flowers, have the birds sing, take her to the ocean to see the sunsets, give her everything that can make her happy. No medicine cures what happiness cannot.”

Of course the Bishop, hearing of the intervention of this godless man  summons the Marques and declares his daughter in need of an exorcism to rid her of the rabies;  rabies clearly being the work of the “enemy,”

“… one of the demon’s numerous deceptions is to take on the appearance of a foul disease in order to enter an innocent body… and once he is inside no human power is capable of making him leave.”

The father vacillates between the rational science of Abrenuncio and turning Serva Maria over to the convent, to be prepared for exorcism, as ordered by the Bishop.   Suddenly he decides:

“The last memory he had of Sierva Maria was her crossing the gallery in the garden, dragging her painful foot, and disappearing into the pavilion of those interred for life.”

Eliza Triana, the actress Hidalgo found for Sierva Maria, after a long search, is close to perfect.  As the book suggests, she has translucently white skin, with a length of hair so coppery bright she seems other worldly.  She looks and plays the wild-child cast into prison by the fearful and punitive as wondrously as your imagination could make her.  You will not soon forget her eyes staring though the bars.  To her is sent Father Cayetano Delaura [Pablo Derqui], a young, somewhat modern priest — he reads Leibniz, and has since his youth longed to finish the church-condemned Romance, Amadis of Gaul [which had already driven Don Quixote crazy and given the name California to then north western Mexico.]  He is charged by the Bishop, an old, wheezing with asthma relic of the dying Spanish Empire, with her exorcism.

Delaura, “aware of his own awkwardness with women”  is smitten immediately.

“From the moment he first saw Sierva Maria, those calm waters of so many years became his inferno.  He would not meet there again with his friends, the clergy and laymen who shared with him the delight of pure ideas and organized scholastic tourneys, literary gatherings , musical evenings,. His passion was reduced to understanding the wily deceptions of the demon.. the most terrible demon of all.”

When she tells him of a dream of herself overlooking a snowy field through a large window, he recognizes it as a pivotal scene of his own life;  he is terrified, and lost.  He comes to believe she is not infected.  He tries to cure her instead of preparing her for exorcism. He cleans the wounds where she has been bound to the bed.  He touches her.

Leave me alone, she said. Don’t touch me”
He ignored her and the girl loosed a sudden storm of spittle in his face.  He persevered and offered the other cheek.  Sierva Maria continued to spit at him.  Again he turned his cheek, intoxicated by the gust of forbidden pleasure rising from his loins.”

Gradually she loses her feral wildness under his ministrations.  Love –doubly erotic because of its determined chastity– begins.  The scenes between the two are tender and erotic at the same time.  We almost lose the discomfort of knowing this is a 36 year old man and a twelve year old child. Perhaps we are caught up in Hidalgo’s excellent translation of Gabo’s magical realism… it is love as if in a fairy tale and so we can understand it in a fairy tale way.

Hidalgo has added more texture and response from the girl than we find in the novel.  Though we know she responds in equal measure to Delaura’s love in the book

“.. he kissed her on the mouth for the first time.  Sierva Maria’s body shivered in lament, emitted a tenuous ocean breeze, and abandoned itself to its fate.”

the film gives us more of her, moving from the raging captive to a young girl discovering love, in its intimate caresses. More time is spent with her and less with the broader back story of her parents we find in the novel.  This to the good.

Of course, Garcia Marquez is not just a simple, if fantastical, story teller.  Always he brings us to the big things in life:  love, death, solitude, rebellion.  And so it is that the demon love that drives out other demons does not go where happy dreams go.

We see Delaura, unable to get to her cell any longer, his secret passageway blocked.  Desperate and shamed he is sent to the leper colony, as a favor despite his having succumbed to the demon.  Sierva Maria, golden hair shorn and burned, prepared once again for the brutality of exorcism is found having given up her soul to love, “her eyes radiant and her skin like that of a new born baby.”

A truly wonderful movie.  Watch for it and go.  Not a romantic movie in the Hollywood way but romantic in a serious, wonderful way.  Viewers of many persuasions will be persuaded.

The book is pretty wonderful too.  It’s not a major Garcia Marquez work but, being a book, has space for much more subtlety and character coloration than possible in a movie.  There are asides and slantwise comments on the characters that make them fuller.  The mother in particular, whose behavior was something of a mystery in the movie, is better known in the novel, if no better liked.

The politics that are the sinews around the bones of Garcia Marquez’ stories might almost be better observed in the movie than in the book.  The historical setting of colonial whites and impoverished blacks is immediate and unmistakable, as is the power and backwardness of the Church. The press of love against repression and domination is visceral and real. This is a complete movie you’ll return to.  Hilda Hidalgo, and by the way, her completely female co-producers, have a very film on their hands, never mind that it’s their first.

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Curmudgeonly Note: It is amazing to me, with such an exotic, compelling story and marvelous film work that, at a Film Festival no less, viewers  could not keep their hands out of their rustling popcorn or their teeth off the scrunching kernels during sweet and tender, taught and moving parts of the film.  I for one would pay extra to have those damned tubs of popcorn and cellophane wrapped candies banned.  Humph!

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