The late 60s and early 70s gave rise to a number of challenging and expressionistic cinematic works by European visionaries that would tread a fine line between art and exploitation due to their incorporation of scenes of excessive violence, sexual experimentation or perversity, and political allegory. These films would often sit upon the shadow fringe of cutting edge horror with their bleak examinations of human behaviour, images of degradation, torture and suffering, yet remain unclassifiable as belonging to any specific film genre.
Based upon his autobiographical book "Baal Babylon", Spanish playwright Fernando Arrabal's directorial debut VIVA LA MUERTE! begins with a truck of celebrating Fascist soldiers driving past 12-year old Fando (Mahdi Chaouch) on the final day of the Spanish Civil War. Torn between loyalty for his imprisoned father (Ivan Henriques) and love for his beautiful mother (Anouk Ferjac) who has turned her husband over to Franco's forces for being a pro-Loyalist, Fando is plagued by a series of surreal hallucinations in which his father is brutally tortured. He sets out to learn the real fate of his father and encounters a series of brutal incidents, some real and others imagined, that include children torturing insects and reptiles, older boys beating him for being the son of a "Red", and being forced to flagellate his Aunt Klara (Nuria Espert). Around him loyalists and artists are executed by firing squads, and his anguish leads him to invent further bizarre adventures involving his mother whom he gradually demonises due to her fascist sympathies.
Fando wanders the decadent landscape and befriends a young girl (Jazia Klibi), who travels with a pet turkey tied to a leash. The atmospheric suppression and anxieties soon take their toll on our young hero and his inner frustrations are taken out on his female companion. Eventually Fando succumbs to tuberculosis and is operated upon in a gory scene that is lensed voyeuristically as a metaphor for the film's capacity to peel away the surfaces of politics and religion to unveil the contamination and corruption that lie beneath. The sequence also symbolises the spiritual cleansing or realisation by Fando that suffering and sacrifice are vital steps that must be taken to reach an understanding of life.
Many of the hallucinatory scenes of violence: the father's head being stomped on by horses; a priest's genitals being cut off; imagined sexual liaisons involving Fando's mother, were filmed on videotape, distorted via the use of colour filters and transferred to film. This has the effect of diluting the visual impact to appease the film censors, yet manages to retain a more ferocious ambiguity for the viewer on a subconscious level. These frenzied perversions that include scatology, the ritualistic use of eggs cracking over female heads, and Anouk Ferjac's bathing in the bloodied remains of a castrated bull would later influence the visuals of Dusan Makavvejev for SWEET MOVIE (1972) in which an equally beautiful Carole Laure would encounter similar on-screen excess.
VIVA LA MUERTE! ultimately lives up to its title, ˜Long Live Death!" for the film seems not to be so much a condemnation of the Fascist state, but an observation of the dark mystery of the femininity associated with death and rebirth. Despite their dark sides, Fando's mother, aunt, and grandmother (who punishes Fando's fear of "the dark" - read death (by placing his hand in the fire) are presented as loving catalysts and essential to the boy's understanding of the balance of good and evil. Following his operation, Fando, tired and suffering from internal pain (both physical and spiritual) is led away by his young female friend clad in funeral black to find his father who she informs him has escaped, and accompanied by the black bird (that can be seen as a metaphor for the resurrected phoenix) the three set off once again on what we assume will be an eternal circle of pain and delight.
Alongside expressionistic, lyrical, classics such as Juraj Herz's THE CREMATOR (1968), Carmelo Bene's CAPRICCI (69) and OUR LADY OF THE TURKS (69), and Frans Zwartjes VISUAL TRAINING (69), VIVA LA MUERTE! incorporates delirious scenes of defilement set against a complex tableaux in which tortured ˜heroes" force us to confront the reality of our existence, and stands as a classic example of both ˜extreme cinema" and ˜high art".
This rare and fascinating film is a delight in itself, but this new DVD transfer from Cult Epics is accompanied by an interview with Arrabel, conducted by Cult Epics and Nico B., in which he recalls his experiences of the Panic Movement alongside Alejandro Jodorowski and personal reflections on religion, art and genius, whilst constantly toying with a wooden chair that he cradles in his lap. An important release for all those interested in cinema, Long Live Cult Epics!
Carl T. Ford
Directed by Fernando Arrabal
French or Spanish Language with optional English subtitles
France & Spain / 1970 / 87 minutes.
SPECIAL DVD FEATURES
A Cult Epics DVD release
All region. NTSC. Mono.
VIVA LA MUERTE