Fièvre Monte à El Pao, La (1959)

vt Republic of Sin; vt Fever Rises in El Pao; vt Fever Mounts at El Pao
France / 97 minutes (French cut, the one discussed here), 109 minutes (Mexican cut) / bw / Groupe des Quatre, Cinematográfica Fimex, C.I.C.C., Corona Dir: Luis Buñuel Pr: Raymond Borderie Scr: Luis Buñuel, Luis Alcoriza, Charles Dorat, Louis Sapin Story: La Fièvre Monte à El Pao (1955) by Henri Castillou Cine: Gabriel Figueroa Cast: Gérard Philipe, María Félix, Jean Servais, Raoul Dantes, M.A. Ferriz, Domingo Soler, Víctor Junco, Roberto Canedo, Andrés Soler, Augusto Benedico, Luis Aceves Castañeda, Pilar Pellicer.

Republic of Sin - 0 opener

Ojeda, a smallish island state in the Atlantic some two hours by plane from the American mainland—so presumably somewhere in the Caribbean—is a military dictatorship ruled by President General Carlos Barreiro (Andrés Soler). The nation’s capital, El Pao, is a mixture of pitiful slums and luxury homes with, just outside it, a prison camp where 2,000 inmates, of whom 500 are political, are forced to submit to hard labor in the blistering tropical sun—otherwise they can be subjected to nigh-medieval tortures by their brutish guards.

Republic of Sin - 5 Stress positions used as torture in the prison camp

Stress positions used as torture in the prison camp.

The Governor of El Pao, Mariano Vargas (Ferriz), becomes convinced that his lovely wife Inès (Félix) is having an affair with his seemingly timid secretary Ramón Vázquez (Philipe). Vázquez quite honestly denies this, although the truth is that he loves Inès entirely while also knowing that she’s been carrying on a liaison with one Colonel Olivarès (Canedo). When Vargas is assassinated by a rogue lieutenant in his thuggish army, García (Dantes), Vázquez is appointed interim governor and Inès promptly becomes his lover.

Republic of Sin - 1 Ines and Olivares

Inès (María Félix) and Olivarès (Roberto Canedo) flirt in the grounds of the gubernatorial palace.

Republic of Sin - 2 Vazquez's view of Ines after catching Vargas roughing her up

Vázquez discovers that Vargas has been roughing Inès (María Félix) up.

Vázquez does his best to liberalize conditions for the prisoners in the El Pao work camp. This is hard because Barreiro has instituted a crackdown in the wake of the assassination. It becomes even harder when the new governor appointed to El Pao is the ruthless Alejandro Gual (Servais). Not only does Gual reinforce the crackdown, he also promptly puts the make on Inès, after whom he has obviously lusted for many years.

Republic of Sin - 3 Garcia threatens Vazquez and fat sergeant

García (Raoul Dantes) threatens Vázquez (Gérard Philipe) and a sergeant (uncredited).

García is tortured into a confession that Vázquez was his accomplice in the killing of Vargas (in fact, we’ve seen lots of evidence that this was very likely the case); García’s then driven out into the desert and summarily shot “while attempting to run away.” The vile Gual presents this confession to Inès and explains that, if she wants to save the life of her lover, she must submit to an affair with him. After some but remarkably little fuss, Inès starts stripping off. There’s then a sequence that I don’t really understand in which Gual declines what’s so very obviously on offer.

Republic of Sin - 6 Gual puts his proposition to the widowGual (Jean Servais) puts his proposition to the widow . . .

Republic of Sin - 7 . . . but at the last moment he turns her down

. . . but at the last moment he turns her down.

I also didn’t initially understand the dynamics whereby, soon after, Gual attempts to rape Inès and she turns the tables by successfully raping him. The reason for my failure is the extraordinary skill of Félix in the role of Inès. Right at the beginning, when we found her canoodling with Colonel Olivarès, it should have been obvious to us that Inès is, if not a femme fatale, then at the very least an opportunist. Yet it’s easy to put this conclusion to one side as Inès seems to become the girl of Vázquez’s dreams, the woman who’ll be his passionate lover while at the same using her connections among the Ojeda ruling elite to help push through the reforms he wants to see enacted.

The ghastly Gual loses out in the power struggle, and is executed. By then Vázquez has learned from his old mentor Professor Juan Cárdenas (Domingo Soler), once Ojeda’s Congressional President of Global Political Rights but now a political prisoner in the camp, that the non-political prisoners are planning to mount a rebellion. Vázquez views this as a disaster—Barreiro will surely respond with a massacre—but Inès views the potential carnage as an opportunity, as something they could exploit in order to achieve ultimate power together . . .

Republic of Sin - 4 Ines and Vazquez seem truly in love

Inès (María Félix) and Vázquez (Gérard Philipe) seem truly in love.

Watching the movie, it’s very hard to take one’s eyes away from Félix, who stamps her presence onto every frame she’s in. It takes us a while to realize that she’s far from the person we’ve been led to believe she is, and that the character of real moral strength is the seemingly diffident Vázquez, who’s trying to make the best—or anyway the least-worst—out of a bad situation. This was Philipe’s last movie: during the filming of it he died of cancer (aged just 36), and the final stages had to be accomplished using body doubles and reshot scenes. Had he not died so young it’s impossible to believe that he wouldn’t have risen to become one of France’s major cinematic figures of the 20th century. The Mexican actress María Félix most certainly matched him in star quality. Between 1942 and 1970 she appeared in some fifty movies, of which about two-thirds were Mexican and the remainder French. Jean Servais was another veteran actor whose face here is instantly recognizable.

Republic of Sin - 8 Vazquez

The role of Vázquez was to be Gérard Philipe’s last.

Most of us, when we think of the director Luis Buñuel, remember his surreal masterpieces like Le Charme Discrèt de la Bourgeoisie (1972) and forget that he spent the years 1946–53 in Mexico making a string of movies that helped define what we now think of as South American (or Latin American) noir. I discussed a few of these in my Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir, but missed this one—probably because, despite so many noirish tropes, it’s more of a political drama than an outright noir piece.

Among the clever touches is that the ruthless Gual is portrayed as mightily fond of cage birds: a reflection, perhaps, of his beliefs as to the best way of dealing with his fellow human beings. Otherwise the direction seems competent rather than inspired.

There are some scenes at a bullfight, presumably shot for real or using stock footage, that many of us (me included) could find disturbing.

Republic of Sin - closer


On Republic of Sin DVD

17 thoughts on “Fièvre Monte à El Pao, La (1959)

  1. Thanks for reminding me of this film, John. It was also known as Los ambiciosos in Spanish speaking countries. I have not seen it but has just watched an 11 minutes trailer in You Tube. Now I look forward to seeing it soon.

    • Thanks for dropping by, and for that tidbit about the Spanish vt. I hope you have good luck in finding it — and better luck than I did in finding the Mexican cut, which is quite a lot longer.

  2. Despite your reservations, I might try to track this one down as it sounds quite intriguing. Great review, as ever – I can see why you commented on María Félix’s presence as it comes across in those screen shots.

  3. You have the sense that, say, LOS OLVIDADOS is indeed, well, forgotten? That was always cited among Bunuel’s work when I first seeing it/reading about it in the 1970s…and I think that or CHIEN was the first Bunuel I saw.

    • I was generalizing a bit rashly, perhaps. 🙂 But I think far more people are familiar with Bunuel’s surreal work than they are with his noir/noirish output. You’re right to point up the lapse, though. I’ll tweak the sentence in due course.

  4. I agree with a previous commenter who talked about María Félix’s charisma being evident, even in the screen caps you posted.

    Here is another director you’ve introduced me to, along with new actors to watch for. Thanks!

    • Oh, if you haven’t encountered Bunuel before you’ve got plenty of joys in store!

      María Félix really was something special. I’ve made a note to see if I have other movies of hers that I could tackle here.

  5. Fascinating – thanks John, never seen it and I used to be a huge fan of Bunuel (still a fan but it’s been a really long time since I’ve watched anything by him) – really curious about these Mexican titles of the 40s and 50s – thanks.

  6. John, you do have me intrigued big-time with this rarity. Yes I agree with you that had Phillipe not passed on at such a young age he would have been a great star in the French cinema. Felix is also an accomplished player. Your writing here is absolutely fantastic, and I am more than tempted!!

    • I’m just annoyed with myself that I missed it for the encyclopedia. It’s at best borderline noir, of course, but it’s of sufficient interest that it should probably have been there.

  7. Of course, you WOULD review the only film by Bunuel I have not seen!!! 🙂

    This review will be featured in the MMD, even if it isn’t the most recent. It’s too good not to highlight!

  8. Pingback: Grandma, The Diary of a Teenage Girl and on-line viewings on Tuesday Morning Diary (September 8) | Wonders in the Dark

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