La fièvre monte à El Pao

Luis Buñuel’s most direct film about revolutionary politics brandishes few if any surreal touches in its clash between French star Gérard Philipe and the Mexican legend María Félix. Borrowing the climax of the opera Tosca, it’s an intelligent study of how not to effect change in a corrupt political regime.

La fièvre monte à El Pao
Region A+B Blu-ray + PAL DVD
Pathé (FR)
1959 / B&W / 1:37 flat (should be 1:66 widescreen) / 96 min. / Los Ambiciosos; “Fever Mounts at El Pao” / Street Date December 4, 2013 / available at Amazon France / EUR 26,27
Starring Gérard Philipe, María Félix, Jean Servais, M.A. Soler, Raúl Dantés, Domingo Soler, Víctor Junco, Roberto Cañedo, Enrique Lucero, Pilar Pellicer, David Reynoso, Andrés Soler.
Gabriel Figueroa
Assistant Director Juan Luis Buñuel
Original Music Paul Misraki
Written by Luis Buñuel, Luis Alcoriza, Charles Dorat, Louis Sapin from a novel by Henri Castillou
Produced by Jacques Bar, Óscar Dancigers, Gregorio Walerstein
Directed by Luis Buñuel

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

“A second of valor doesn’t repair years of cowardice.”

“Consider the impossibility of remaining pure, of escaping the mechanisms of power.”

Eager for a fantastic surrealist video party with great Blu-rays of the film of Luis Buñuel? There aren’t too many available, and most of those are Criterion releases of his later French films. Even some of Criterion’s older DVDs aren’t all that hot — their Simon of the Desert is great but I haven’t seen a really good copy of Viridiana. If you want to dig earlier than 1960, the pickings are really slim. I was able to nab pretty good DVDs of The Young One and Death in the Garden, and there is a smattering of so-so to ‘barely acceptable’ discs out there for his early Mexican pictures, but most of them circulate on inferior bootleg copies. As late as 1975 I remember Los Angeles screenings of great prints of his masterpieces Los Olvidados and The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, but I’ve never seen decent video copies.

So when I saw a 2013 French Blu-ray of Buñuel’s La fièvre monte à El Pao (“Fever Mounts in El Pao” ) I grabbed it right away. Although listed as Region B, it’s actually an all-region disc; I assume the accompanying DVD must be in PAL format, however. It doesn’t have a Spanish language track, but further investigation shows that the Paris end of the French-Mexican co-production was in the driver’s seat, and most of the cast appears to be speaking French. A contemporary Spanish language review said that the Spanish dub wasn’t so good. With an excellent image and clear audio, this is a real find.

Look into most any book on Luis Buñuel and you’ll find La fièvre listed among his weaker efforts. The judgment is made only on auteurist terms — the movie isn’t packed with surreal effects, at least not the kind that seem part and parcel of his earlier Mexican pictures. Although its politics are fierce, the film resolves as more of a straight melodrama. Buñuel was quoted as not liking the movie and not feeling he had enough control over its content. He was outflanked by producers that wanted a hot thriller, not an artistic manifesto. One more thing that Buñuel’s Mexican pictures have that this show lacks is an active sense of humor. Even the grim Death in the Garden offers a constant parade of black humor.

The timing of La fièvre monte à El Pao tells the tale. Buñuel had just scored with a major critical hit, his biting look at the Christian ethic, Nazarín. His agent in Paris brought him an opportunity to work with major stars on a film guaranteed a popular release, at least in France. But the bigger production meant less personal control. Buñuel’s international career breakout didn’t happen until his next movie. For Viridiana he returned to his surreal-anarchist roots, outraged Franco’s Spain and rebooted his European career in fine style.

The film takes place on the Carribean island of Ojeda, a military dictatorship. A rebel soldier in the city of El Pao assassinates the district governor Mariano Vargas (M.A. Soler), a tyrant insanely jealous of his beautiful, unfaithful wife Inés Rojas (María Félix). Vargas’ secretary Ramón Vásquez (Gérard Philipe) is made temporary supervisor, and uses his authority to ease the terrible conditions for the many political prisoners in the national penitentiary. Ramón and Inés become lovers. In the capital, President Carlos Barreiro (Andrés Soler) responds to the assassination by imprisoning professor Juan Cárdenas, a reformer with political connections. The new governor is the Machiavellian Alejandro Gual (Jean Servais), who makes bedding Inés a major personal ambition. Gual accuses Ramón of having a part in the assassination and threatens to arrest him unless Inés becomes his mistress. Professor Cárdenas, now a prisoner, tells Ramón that a major prison revolt is on the way. The idealistic lovers find themselves plotting, and compromising their ethics. Should Ramón keep quiet and let the revolt discredit Gual, or should he stop it to save human lives?

In interviews Luis Buñuel connected the storyline of La fièvre monte à El Pao directly to the Puccini opera Tosca. The relationship of sex to political power is made clear when the first item on Alejandro Gual’s agenda is the taking of the governor’s widow. But the powerful Inés. surprises him by playing along, all the while preparing a counterplot to help the idealist Ramón Vásquez become the new governor. She arranges to draw Gual away from town just when the prison revolt occurs, knowing that he’ll be arrested for dereliction of his post. The counterplot succeeds in that Ramón becomes a hero for stemming the prison riots. But nothing has changed. The President’s offer of the governorship for Ramón comes with a blackmail threat that forces him into doing only what they say, into behaving like another Vargas or Gual. The lovers’ scheme to heal the corrupt system from within was doomed before it began.

Buñuel’s portrait of a South American dictatorship is blunt, without drawing direct parallels to Battista’s Cuba. The corrupt government has enslaved its own people as workers for foreign economic interests. Intellectuals are imprisoned and savvy bureaucrats are tolerated only if they can be closely controlled. The President stays at arm’s length from his agents, and dotes on his horses. Rebellion is quelled by forced labor in prisons, hell-holes in which political prisoners like the old Professor aren’t expected to live long.

Inés is something of a sexual rebel. The key romantic scenes are not between the two stars, but feature a power struggle between María Félix and Jean Servais. The sadistic Gual orders Inés to submit to him right in his office, and to his horror she undresses right there on the spot. It’s an act of fearless compliance/defiance that Gual can’t handle. Later on she submits to what is mostly a rape, but only to lead Gual into a trap. It’s another key Buñuellian scene. They walk into a bedroom laid out almost like the funeral room in Riccardo Freda’s The Horrible Dr. Hichcock. She wears a black veil and he carries a candelabra.

Inés: “Everything is ready for the sacrifice.”

But just as as in Tosca, Gual plays a final trick from beyond the grave: a confession found in his files, exacted by torture, bounces back to be used against Ramón.

La fièvre monte à El Pao was filmed in Mexico in 1959, soon after the Castro revolution in Cuba. Buñuel said that the political slant of the film came from star Gérard Philipe, who wanted to make a movie about revolution. The notion of “change from within” is discredited, because as soon as Ramón Vásquez plays ball with the corrupt insiders, he becomes corrupted as well. Buñuel explained that this is what happens with the idea that The Ends Justify the Means – even good men make disastrous decisions. The Spanish language title Los Ambiciosos is appropriate, as even the ‘good’ politicos are entangled in the high-level scheming. Ramón thinks he can maneuver himself into a position of power and then push through his reforms. But in a corrupt chain of power, those above insure their own positions by insisting that all new members be made complicit in the crimes of the state.

As filmed, the movie is also an oversexed soap opera. Almost as in a Joan Crawford movie, María Félix is the center of interest. But there’s no Production Code to soften the sex relationships. Inés sleeps with two men, conniving for one of them to die and the other to succeed. Never considered a great actress, Félix was a glamorous sex symbol for Latin America and Europe, especially Italy. Buñuel’s sadistic strip scene in the office goes farther than anything permitted in American movies of the time. A voyeuristic shot of Inés undressing is viewed through a pair of indoor plants in a way that suggests a different setting altogether, and is the one of the few shots in the movie that even hints at surrealism.

Elsewhere Buñuel commands a rather lavish conventional production. Scenes in prison and at a large town fiesta don’t lack for extras, costumes or physical adornments. The President is even seen at his private horseracing track. At the fiesta, the starving people respond to the assassination of their fascist governor by rioting over food. The main loot is large slabs of beef… more Buñuellian imagery.

The acting is excellent all around, but audiences probably didn’t respond positively to Gérard Philipe’s compromised, action-challenged hero. The movie became famous mostly as his last film. Although the actor looks fine to me, Buñuel thought he appeared sick, and indeed he was already dying from cancer. Philipe died in December of the same year, at only 37 years of age. At age 45, María Félix is no spring chicken yet still an impressive beauty; I’ve only seen her in movies that relied on her glamorous star aura. Her character here is in full charge.

The smaller parts are well done too, with the various commandants, ministers and functionaries of Ojeda more than convincing. Inés’s chauffeur is unbilled but looks exactly like José Chávez Trowe, who can be seen ten years later as Mapache’s grungy quartermaster-pimp in The Wild Bunch. Pilar Pellicer, the sister of Pina Pellicer of Macario and One-Eyed Jacks appears in two scenes as the imprisoned intellectual’s daughter, an innocent that never learns how fully Ramón has betrayed her father. In a back-handed way La fièvre monte à El Pao suggests revolt as the only way forward for the island of Ojeda. Once again, the ‘good’ patriots lack unity and trust: the assassin, who will fight for justice; Ramón, who has the experience to administer a just government, and the Professor, who is the obvious choice for an inspirational leader.

Pathá’s Region A+B Blu-ray + PAL DVD of La fièvre monte à El Pao is an excellent, clean transfer with a solid B&W image and good audio. The cameraman is the famed Gabriel Figueroa, whose work for Buñuel was less mannered than the classic decorative style he used on films by Emilio Fernandez and others.

The movie is presented full-frame, when it was clearly meant to be matted to widescreen 1:66. It still looks attractive. In one scene the open matting reveals more than original viewers were meant to see, turning a discreet shot of what was probably María Félix’s body double into a full-on nude scene.

The disc comes with a trailer and two interview featurettes, which are in French sans subtitles. Various critics and spokesmen discuss Buñuel and Gérard Philipe — Francis Huster, Alain Ferrari, Gérard Bonal, Olivier Barrot and Sotha. The extra DVD disc carries the same contents.

Reference and recommended reading (in Spanish):
En torno a Luis Buñiuel: Los ambiciosos by Manuel Fructuoso.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
La fièvre monte à El Pao Region A+B Blu-ray + PAL DVD rates:
Movie: Very Good +
Video: Excellent although it needs cropping to 1:66
Sound: Excellent language French-only
Supplements: Featurettes Gérard Philipe, Idealist and Luis Buñuel Contrarian (French language only, no subs.)
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English but not the extras
Packaging: One Region B Blu-ray and One Region 2 DVD in keep case
Reviewed: May 20, 2016

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