A peculiar, quasi-religious solemn ceremony – in a drolly surreal sequence that even manages to insert Luis Buñuel’s notorious foot fetish – sets the metaphoric theme for the often (uncomfortably) over-intimate societal relationship between parishioner and priest (and more broadly, the individual and the church) as a dashing aristocrat, Don Francisco (Arturo de Córdova) assists Father Velasco (Carlos Martínez Baena) in the ritual cleansing of a succession of altar boys’ feet before the well-attended Holy Week observance. Continuing to visually trace the seemingly endless trail of disembodied feet, Don Francisco focuses his undivided attention on the shapely legs of a radiant and beguiling woman, later identified as Gloria (Delia Garcés), whom he instinctively follows after the services, but loses sight of when the elusive young woman boards a motorcar with her mother while he is temporarily detained by the genial Father Velasco for a cordial introduction to a group of visiting clergymen. Having spent the better part of his time embroiled in a protracted real estate dispute involving inherited property that had been developed by a private corporation without his knowledge or consent, Don Francisco has found a new object of obsession in the dogged and myopic pursuit of the elusive Gloria. Returning to the site of their momentary encounter, he soon spots an unchaperoned Gloria paying a church visit for morning prayers and seizes the opportunity to surreptitiously follow her as she goes through her routine daily errands: a persistence that would eventually lead him to the discovery of her fiancé, a trusted associate and well-traveled engineer named Raul (Luis Beristáin), and consequently, to a subtly manipulative plan of irresistible – and inescapable – seduction.
Adapted from the semi-autobiographical novel (whose characterization of the male protagonist was inspired by the author’s own troubled first marriage) by writer and progressive activist Mercedes Pinto (who, like Buñuel was a Spanish exile who had immigrated to Latin America), Él is an elegantly understated, wickedly incisive, and wry satire on obsession, superficiality, hollow spirituality, possessiveness, and machismo. Incorporating expressionistic devices of reflecting character interiority through architecture and mise-en-scène, Buñuel uses integrally tactile and voluptuous Gaudi-like structures and ornate, baroque ornamentation in Don Francisco’s secluded (and self-imprisoning) estate that paradoxically reveal the suppressed eroticism, passion, and perversion that lay beneath the façade of genteel and pious respectability. (Note Buñuel’s indelible long shot of the baroque church interior and the claustrophobic bell tower sequence that would subsequently inspire Alfred Hitchcock’s stylistically reverent compositions in Vertigo, a similarly themed film on obsession, possession, and madness). Furthermore, the organically formed interiors and change in character point-of view also create an inherent sense of asymmetry that, in turn, contributes to a pervasive imbalance in the progression and tone of the narrative. In a seemingly trivial, yet sinister parallel image, Don Francisco’s tormented, zigzagging staircase ascent is mirrored in the resigned, parting image of the hermetic aristocrat as he walks away from the camera towards a dark tunnel. It is a wry, foreboding double entendred image of calculated, deliberately tempered passion and suppressed mania concealed within the socially accepted institution of self-abnegation and devoted fervor – a dystopic vision of spiritual sanctuary – a wolf in the midst of sheep.
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