Eternal Damnation: Arturo Ripstein’s Bleak Street
By José Teodoro
Originally published in Cinema Scope 64 (Fall 2015).
There is no such thing as ambient sunlight in Bleak Street. The sun’s rays descend from high above, diffused by a latticework of electrical cables, metal stairs, frayed tarpaulin, and urban flotsam, or slam down in hard sheets through a grid of tall buildings and concrete canopies. A swaying, phantom-like camera, deepening the austerity through its black-and-white imagery, floats through crepuscular cantinas, cavernous hotels, and crumbling rooms, at once dingy and oddly tidy, through dank exterior pathways so narrow it’s as though the walls are truly closing in. Mexico City has never looked so much like a dungeon as it does in this, perhaps the most epitomizing work in director Arturo Ripstein’s five-decade filmography. And no single location in Bleak Street exemplifies its sense of confinement and inexorability so well as the wrestling ring in which perhaps the least fortunate of its lumpen lot ply their trade.
There is Death and then there is Little Death (Juan Francisco Longoria), AK47 and Little AK (Guillermo López). Little Death and Little AK are miniluchadores, or midget wrestlers, diminutive sidekicks to their conventionally sized counterparts. They are identical twins, not that you’d ever be able to confirm this since neither allows himself to be seen by anyone (wives and children included) unmasked. Underpaid and shamelessly exploited men without visible physiognomy and without names outside of their stage monikers, Little Death and Little AK are in a sense the mascots of the marginalized. Their “limited stature” renders them not only targets of endless condescension, but also figures whose literal smallness leaves them closer to the ground, that much farther from the light of the sun.
Bleak Street’s parallel protagonists may not be ostracized for their height, but they’re cursed instead with a lack of socioeconomic leverage. Adela (Ripstein regular Patricia Reyes Spíndola) and Dora (Nora Velázquez) are women living in squalor with their sundry dependents, only able to generate income by poorly remunerated sex work, hardly an ideal scenario given that both are overtaxed and middle-aged. “Does experience count for nothing?” Adela asks her female pimp after being denied a plum street corner on which to solicit. The answer is a solemn but firm, “No.” Adela is the sole caregiver to her elderly mother, whose unspecified ailments have left her aphasic and nearly immobile—which doesn’t stop Adela from denying her a proper bed or putting her to work panhandling—while Dora is the sole breadwinner in a family that includes a spoiled teenage daughter named Jezebel (Greta Cervantes) and an unemployed husband named Max (Alejandro Suárez), who borrows (and ruins) Dora’s best lingerie when cavorting with his lovers.
Scripted by Ripstein’s spouse and longtime collaborator Paz Alicia Garciadiego, Bleak Street brims with incident, atmosphere, and character, but is low on anything that could be strictly called plot or momentum. The film’s central event—the point at which the otherwise discreet destinies of Little Death and Little AK intersect with those of Adela and Dora—was inspired by the accidental 2009 killing of midget wrestlers La Parkita and Espectrito Junior at the hands of two sex workers in a Cuauhtémoc hotel. Ripstein and Garciadiego were presumably drawn to the story’s merging of cultural signifiers: most obviously the victims’ vocation—nothing says kitsch mexicanismo like lucha libre—but also the poverty, desperation, and sordid sensationalism, with its implicit reminder that life is cheap for Mexico’s 99%. But the unremitting bleakness of milieu and narrative in Bleak Street isn’t an accurate assessment of its tone. (The film’s more lyrical Spanish title, La calle de la amargura, or The Street of Bitterness, hardly mollifies the eponymous promise of gloom.) Ripstein is no miserablist; he betrays no interest in handwringing. Whatever his or Garciadiego’s personal politics, their cinema is not anchored in didactic social commentary. Their polemics are, as with some of Ripstein’s contemporaries from the ’70s (such as Fassbinder), largely conveyed in coded forms embedded within the realm of melodrama.
More than any living director, Ripstein has taken up the mantle of his friend and early mentor Luis Buñuel, whose tenure in the Mexican film industry during its peak years represents his most prolific period. Like those characters in Buñuel’s Mexico City-set landmark Los olvidados (1950), the denizens of Bleak Street are damned by immovable class barriers and a cruelty that circulates not only from the top down but from within their own ranks—like Buñuel gives voice to the poor without sentimentalizing them. Bleak Street’s insistent humour, oneiric slippage, and stylistic mischief all recall Buñuel. They also represent the aggregate of much of what’s best in Ripstein’s oeuvre.
Working from material by literary luminaries Gabriel García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes, Ripstein’s debut Time to Die (1966) is a cheapo existential western somewhat akin to concurrent films from Monte Hellman, chronicling a death foretold but not really foreshadowing Ripstein’s themes with anywhere near the force of his first major work, The Castle of Purity (1973) (which in many ways is the prototype for Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth ). Like Bleak Street, The Castle of Purity is set in a Mexico City largely defined by its enclosures and is dominated by a visual schema that emphasizes verticality, right down to its Bacon-esque wallpaper. Written by Ripstein and José Emilio Pacheco, the film concerns a family whose dictatorial patriarch, Gabriel Lima (Buñuel talisman Claudio Brook), is the only member permitted to leave their shuttered home. The mother hasn’t ventured out in 18 years, and the three children—their names are Voluntad (Free Will), Porvenir (Forthcoming), and Utopia—have never set a foot outside the threshold of their domestic fortress. The whole family is engaged in the manufacturing of artisanal rat poison, a product Gabriel peddles to small businesses throughout the city. When not working, mother and children play made-up games, including one that demands its players embody the statue of happiness or the statue of death, or receive a dubious home education under Gabriel’s dry, pedantic direction. This status quo is maintained throughout most of The Castle of Purity until the final section in which, following her punishment for committing incest with her brother, the eldest daughter Utopia contrives a method of escape.
Just as the unattainable light of the sun is the defining, religiously loaded motif in Bleak Street, every other scene of The Castle of Purity is battered by rain—not a rain with the slightest pretense of verisimilitude but, rather, wrath-of-god rain, Rashomon (1950) rain, a rain that people as misguided as the Limas could construe as purifying. (We repeatedly see Utopia lounging in the rain in the centre of the family’s pit-like interior patio.) The Limas’ other means of purification include vegetarianism—their protein-free dinners consisting of one steamed chayote and one unadorned potato apiece seem particularly perverse in a culture as flavour-obsessed as Mexico’s—and, of course, discipline, which the initially dispassionate Gabriel metes out with burgeoning rage. Whenever one of the children misbehaves, Gabriel places him or her in a solitary-confinement cell—a prison within a prison—where they are to meditate on their misdeeds. Mexico is a stubbornly Catholic country, and the religiosity of the Limas’ lifestyle is so total that specifics of their belief system needn’t be detailed, though their millenarian leanings are conveyed through Gabriel’s survivalist tactics, his refusal to expose his children to the world’s contaminating influence, and his chosen profession of providing the means to exterminate vermin—creatures he frequently compares to mankind. The film’s central irony lies in the implication that confinement itself is contaminating the family’s individual psyches, even that of Gabriel, who we see succumbing to nightmares, going on irrational tirades, and becoming ever more violent as the film draws to its cop-show close.
Outside of Mexico, where his stature is anything but limited, Ripstein seems far too little known these days, his films rarely gaining traction outside of select festivals. This is especially unfortunate given that, after a run of variable works—the surprisingly energized García Márquez adaptation No One Writes to the Colonel (1999), the intriguing but torpid erotic period piece The Virgin of Lust (2002), and the sturdy but unremarkable Bovary adaptation The Reasons of the Heart (2011) among them—Bleak Street is his best films in years. My own discovery of Ripstein (The Castle of Purity included) has been largely dependent on poorly produced unsubtitled Mexican DVDs. But Deep Crimson (1996) remains a touchstone, is easy to track down, and is about as rapturously tawdry as anything Ripstein has made. As much True Romance (1993) as true crime, this extra-pulpy mid-career melodrama was drawn from the same ’40s “Lonely Hearts Killers” case that inspired The Honeymoon Killers (1970). Coral (opera singer Regina Orozco) used to embalm cadavers, but now nurses the terminally ill—she’s already intimate with death. She finds herself a “Charles Boyer type” in Nicolás Estrella (Daniel Gimenez Cacho)—estrella being Spanish for “star”—and, since he dislikes children, she immediately deposits her kids in an orphanage. Coral has bad breath and is overweight but she lets it all hang out, whereas Nicolás is phony from head to toe, posing as a Spaniard slumming in the colonies, very protective of his toupees and costuming himself in a fedora and trench coat like some Bogart manqué. Coral quickly discovers all of Nicolás’ flaws and still wants him anyway. Deep Crimson’s hyper-accelerated first act gives way to a woozier midsection in which the couple hits the road and, posing as siblings, find unhappy women to seduce, rob, and kill—these nobodys who always dreamed of Hollywood glamour do in fact become actors in their own murderous road show.
Written by Garciadiego, the film is set in Sonora in the ’50s, the same Golden Age whose cinema Ripstein helped bury. It employs a romantic score and a muted colour palette in which nearly everything is contained within a sickly spectrum spanning from jaundice to chickenpox. On the surface Deep Crimson seems very different from Bleak Street, but both films luxuriate in a noir cosmology that Ripstein has been exploring since at least as far back as the deterministic, Ulmer-esque Life Sentence (1978), in which Pedro Armendáriz Jr. goes from pimping and thieving to doing time to refashioning himself as a money collector to being dragged back into crime because of police corruption. Deep Crimson pulls elements from varied James M. Cain adaptations and actually restores some of the Cainian grotesquerie that hadn’t previously made it onscreen, while Bleak Street, with its wrestling-as-existential cage match and metropolis-as-shadowy maze, recalls Night and the City (1950). Deep Crimson also marks a turning point in Ripstein’s critique of Mexico’s particular brand of machismo and special fixation on women as mother figures who must inevitably be abandoned. There is a scene near the beginning of Deep Crimson in which Nicolás slips out of Coral’s post-coital bed, pinches money from her purse, and sneaks out the door. This scene is replayed in the third act of Bleak Street when Max slips out of Dora’s bed, quietly gathers his things—along with some of her lingerie—and slips away into the night. (In both cases, the women, thought sleeping, are secretly awake.) In Ripstein, eternal return is actually eternal departure.
One might think that strangeness would be an alienating element in Ripstein, but what is perhaps most remarkable in these films is the parallel advancement of pathos. This strangeness flows through Bleak Street, from its opening title sequence—oddly, a replica of Bergman’s signature title cards—with its soundscape of body slams and shoes squeaking on canvas that has no bearing on the scenes that immediately follow, to the image of grown men drinking, smoking, and debating backstage politics while wearing ridiculous masks, to Alejandro Cantú’s monochromatic imagery invoking the spectral beauty of Val Lewton horror films far more than, say, those vintage assembly-line Mexploitation flicks starring El Santo. And Bleak Street’s pathos builds in tandem, from the matter-of-fact way Adela washes her mouth out with beer following a blow job, to the use of a chipper version of “Perfume de gardenias” in that fateful fleabag Hotel del Paso, to the film’s ongoing parade of almost uniformly ravaged bodies hustling to the last. Strangeness and pathos stem not from some imposed surrealist flourishes, but rather from something inherent in the material—though we’re talking about manifestations that only Ripstein could produce. After 50 years of emphasizing the outré and drawing drollery from the saturnine, he has arrived at a juncture where the compassionate meets the cockeyed and dissolves into a singular vision.