Casa del Ángel, La (1957)

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An adolescent crush leads to disaster!
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vt The House of the Angel
Argentina / 73 minutes / bw / Argentina Sono Film SACI Dir: Leopoldo Torre Nilsson Scr: Beatriz Guido, Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, Martín Rodríguez M. Story: La Casa del Ángel (1954) by Beatriz Guido Cine: Aníbal González Paz Cast: Elsa Daniel, Lautaro Murúa, Berta Ortegosa, Bárbara Mújica, Yordana Fain, Alejandro Rey, Eduardo Naveda, Lili Gacel, Alicia Bellan, Paquita Vehil, Elvira Moreno, Nora Massi, Guillermo Battaglia.

Casa del Angel - 0 opener

An unmarried woman, Ana (Daniel), serves at the table as her father, Dr. Castro (Battaglia), entertains the guest who comes for dinner every Friday evening, Pablo Aguirre (Murúa). There’s a tremendous tension between Ana and Aguirre, and we sense she nurtures a great but unspoken passion for him. We guess wrong, as we discover when she recounts her story of events years ago, when she was but a girl of 14 . . .

Ana was the youngest of the three Castro children: the eldest, restive with the conservatism of the family home, was Isabel (Massi); the middle sister, forever pigging out on bonbons, was Julieta (Gacel). When they stayed in their country home they were often visited by their cousins Julian (Rey) and Vicenta (Mújica); the latter liked playing mind games on the gullible Ana.

Casa del Angel - 1 Vicenta whispers naughtinesses to Ana

Vicenta (Bárbara Mújica) whispers a bit of wickedness into the ear of Ana (Elsa Daniel).

Casa del Angel - 8 Vicenta treats Ana to a Bible reading

Vicenta (Bárbara Mújica) treats Ana to a Bible reading.

All of the Grecian-style statues in the grounds were swathed on the orders of Ana’s tyrannously strict mother (Ortegosa), lest their nudity inflame the minds of the girls, but Vicenta discovered that the swathers had missed a fallen statue. She almost persuaded Ana to kiss it but, in embarrassed confusion, Ana fled . . . and instead ardently kissed the first male she encountered, her cousin Julian, about the same age as herself.

Casa del Angel - 2 Mother is furious on spying That Kiss

Mother (Berta Ortegosa) is furious on spying That Kiss.

Unfortunately, her mother saw the embrace, so back to the Buenos Aires townhouse Ana was sent, in the company of the garrulous housekeeper Naná (Fain). En route they gave a lift to Pierre Aguirre and a friend of his, whose car had broken down.

In Buenos Aires, Naná terrorized Ana with dire warnings, drawn from both Revelation and her own fetid imagination, of the consequences in the afterlife of just a single mortal sin committed here on earth. Ana assumed the kissing of Julian constituted one of those mortal sins, and was horrified by the fate to which she seemed to have condemned herself. Even worse, or so we understand, she enjoyed the kiss.

Casa del Angel - 3 Nana inculcates Ana with the terorsc of Hell

Naná (Yordana Fain, left) inculcates Ana (Elsa Daniel) with the terrors of Hell.

Earthly temptations were all around. A troop of the local small boys did their best to fluster her by showing her naughty pictures. When Ana’s mother sent the girl with Naná to the cinema to see a wholesome movie—Broken Blossoms (1919), with Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess—there was a technical hitch and so they saw Rudolph Valentino in The Eagle (1925) instead . . . a substitution that it was clear Naná, for all her ostentatious religiosity, much preferred.

Casa del Angel - 6a Nana is delighted to get Valentino in place of Gish

Naná (Yordana Fain) is so delighted to get Rudolph Valentino in place of Lillian Gish that her ice lolly evaporates on the stick . . .

Casa del Angel - 6b while to Ana the Valentino movie is a gateway into wonder

. . . while to Ana (Elsa Daniel) the Valentino movie is a gateway into wonder.

Naná wasn’t the only one to be guilty of such double standards. Ana’s father, a sort of small-scale Argentinean precursor of Rupert Murdoch, was clearly a bit of a lad with the wenches in private despite the conservatively straitlaced face he presented to the world. His wife clearly knew much of what was going on but chose for the most part to turn a blind eye, the appearance of virtue being more important than the actuality. His young protégé Aguirre, another to present a righteous exterior, semi-secretly lived with his mistress, Cristina (Vehil).

Casa del Angel - 4 Cristina wants Aguirre to put their relationship on a more formal footing

Cristina (Paquita Vehil) wants Aguirre (Lautaro Murúa) to put their relationship on a more formal footing.

Mother’s rule over the three sisters was, however, an iron one. The girls must wear plain dresses at all times, even when they took their bath. Isabel tried to rebel against this dictum, and for her reward was viciously struck across the face.

Casa del Angel - 5 Older sister Isabel dreams of freedom from mom's repression

Older sister Isabel (Nora Massi) dreams of freedom from mom’s repression.

Ana’s increasingly tumultuous hormones weren’t assuaged by the fact that Aguirre was a frequent visitor to the house. As a congressman, he served as Castro’s political poodle. At the time there was a bill going through Congress that could greatly profit Castro’s newspapers, and Aguirre had agreed to present the case in its favor. Unfortunately, he was derailed by an opposition politician, Congressman Joaquin Esquivel (Naveda); the net result was that Aguirre challenged Esquivel to a duel to the death—pistols at dawn.

The night before, Ana went to Aguirre’s room and, in true adolescent-crush fashion, presented him with her locket. At which, in a frenzy, he raped her.

Hence the true nightmare of her situation now when, Aguirre’s crime never having been publicly admitted, the established spinster Ana must keep up the dreadful charade of civility toward the two vile old men.

That’s the skeleton of the plot; the joy of La Casa del Ángel is the flesh on that skeleton. There are a few moments of humor to lighten the movie’s pervasive darkness, as when Ana, playing hookey from home in the local park, comes across the Salvation Army-organized “Sister Placida’s Public Confession.” This should be fun, predicts her cousin Vicenta, who’s also there. Afterwards, though, Vicenta is much disappointed: the confessions are usually a whole lot juicier than that. The sequence with the small boys and the supposedly feelthy pictures is amusing, too, in a sort of wryly nostalgic way; we can all recall embarrassments like this in our adolescence.

But the general tenor is very noirish. Religion is deployed by Ana’s mother, Señora de Castro, as a tool of domestic repression. At a party the Castros hold, someone replaces the Strauss record with a bit of jazz; Señora de Castro immediately clamps down, sends Ana off to bed lest she be corrupted by the lilting strains, and reinstates the Strauss. (To mama’s chagrin, Aguirre intercepts Ana and gravely has a dance with the girl. This is, of course, a job for daddies, but Ana’s daddy is, tellingly, nowhere to be seen.) Elsewhere in the movie, Ana has become so convinced that she’s an irredeemable soul by her mother and Naná (“You must never kiss a man unless you’re married!” decrees her mother with something near hatred in her voice) that she even refuses communion.

Casa del Angel - 7a A solemn Aguirre prepares to dance with the child

A solemn Aguirre (Lautaro Murúa) prepares to dance with the child . . .

Casa del Angel - 7b and there's not a lot mom can do about it

. . . and there’s not a lot that Mom (Berta Ortegosa) can do about it . . .

Casa del Angel - 7c as the couple take to the dancefloor

. . . as the couple take to the dancefloor.

The sense of noirishness is enhanced by Paz’s cinematography, which includes more by way of angled shots (especially up-shots) than I can recall seeing in any contemporaneous Hollywood film noir. Paz makes great use of shadows, too; indeed the cinematography is overall very dark. I wondered if this might be for the same reason that so many classic films noirs are full of shadows—it saves on sets if the audience can’t see the backgrounds, or lack thereof—and so on a hunch I fiddled with the brightness and contrast of a couple of the particularly shadowy sequences. Sure enough: no background set.

Casa del Angel - cinematography (Ana 1)Casa del Angel - cinematography (Ana 2)Casa del Angel - cinematography (Ana 3)Casa del Angel - cinematography (Ana 4)

Paz’s noirish cinematography loves Elsa Daniel.

La Casa del Ángel, the second of director Leopoldo Torre Nilsson’s feature outings, was entered into competition at Cannes in 1957, and Nilsson himself was nominated for the Palme d’Or. (There’s an occasional claim it was nominated for the Samuel Goldwyn Award as Best Foreign-Language Movie at the 1961 Golden Globes, but I can find no evidence to support this.) It was certainly an important movie for Nilsson since it brought him international attention. For a while he was being talked about as a rival to the likes of Buñuel and Bergman, but over the years since his death in 1978 his reputation has faded into an unjustified relative obscurity. This is the first movie of his that I’ve encountered; I’m eager for more.

It was important for him in another sense, in that a couple of years later, in 1959, he married Beatriz Guido, author of the 1954 novel upon which the movie was based and who co-scripted the screen adaptation with him. She collaborated with him as a writer on most if not all of his remaining movies.

La Casa del Ángel was an international breakout movie for Elsa Daniel. Regarded as Nilsson’s muse, she starred in four of his classic movies, the other three being Graciela (1956), La Caída (1959; vt The Fall) and La Mano en la Trampa (1961; vt The Hand in the Trap); the latter two were based on novels by Guido. At the time she made La Casa del Ángel, Daniel was in her early twenties; she manages the 14-year-old version of Ana very well indeed, so that the spell of this being a tale of early adolescence is never broken. She’s convincing, too, in the far shorter sections of the movie where she must play a somewhat older woman. Clearly Paz’s camera was in love with her. After her collaborations with Nilsson were over, her prominence slowly ebbed, and she retired from the screen entirely in 1987.

The angel of the movie’s title is a sculpture outside Ana’s bedroom window that casts its shadow on her curtain. It’s yet another piece of religious imagery, of course, but Nilsson makes very little use of it.

Casa del Angel - closer

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14 thoughts on “Casa del Ángel, La (1957)

  1. The film is unquestionably a supreme masterpiece, and I’m thrilled that we finally can share some notes here! 🙂 Ripe with visual symbolism, where Paz’ cinematography echoes Stanley Cortez, and the slender Dickinsinian story is elevated but this noirish visual sense, Ms. Daniel gives a wholly extraordinary performance, once of the greatest in South American cinema. There is a great deal of Catholic guilt woven in, and the film leaves quite a post-viewing impression. Fabulous review here John!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Sam! Yep: the Catholic guilt is certainly a major part of the movie’s underpinning; I probably should have made more of this, since of course it does bring the symbolism of the stone angel closer to the movie’s center.

      Daniel is utterly brilliant here, as you say. This isn’t the first movie I’ve seen of hers — I recognized her immediately — but I can’t remember what the other one was/ones were. A good excuse for a bit of viewing, I think. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Scapegoats and boars’ heads: #1957book roundup | Past Offences: Classic crime, thrillers and mystery book reviews

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