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Puerta Cerrada (1939) tells the story of Nina, a woman who has left jail after serving 20 years for a murder she insists she did not commit. In a flashback, we see all the events that lead to this crime. From an inter-class marriage, her career sacrifice, an abusive brother, a child, and a destructive lie, the film shows Nina’s downfall and her final act of redemption.
In the 1930s in Argentina, the government hid its corruption under the guise of fake corporatism. They helped the landed oligarchy and pretended to do so for the workers. Great Argentinian films like Prisioneros de la Tierra show how this failure has affected the working class and hold a mirror to the men in power who created this mess. However, films like these were not box office hits in Argentina and were not representative of the trends in the Argentine studio system. Argentina’s studio cinema reflected this shift toward corporatism through a variety of genres that shared the representation of corporatist resolutions to narrative conflicts as new foundational fictions for a united nation ruled by justice and love. The most popular genre to display these corporatist morals was the melodrama and one of the more popular of the string of melodramas that came out in this time period was Puerta Cerrada, an over-the-top film whose synthesis of existing melodramatic formulas set the industry standard for “quality productions” for years to come.
The film employs a strict corporatist logic. Although the protagonist of the story, Nina, is working class, this is not a story about how the rich take advantage of and subsequently throw away the poor when they are done with them. In this story, everyone has the capability to be good or evil and class seems to have little to do with it. Everyone’s a victim of their circumstances. This equality in suffering is established in one of the first scenes when Nina is set free from prison and first ventures into the real world. She stops at the mansion which used to belong to her husband. As she stands looking in, the bars on the gates cover her face. It’s clear that even in a mansion, one can be imprisoned just as much as in a jail.
This idea is further emphasized as the film flashes back to the beginnings of Nina’s love affair with her future husband, Raul, whose rich aunts disapprove of the union. Because of this, Raul is forced to sacrifice his money in order to marry her. At the same time, Nina, who works as a singer, is forced to stop working in order to be the traditional wife that Raul desires. Both make sacrifices for their marriage and no one is suffering more. The struggle of the film is not of one class but it is for all classes to let go of their antagonisms and live a peaceful life devoid of hatred and jealousy. This plays out in three different brawls throughout the film. When Raul first asks Nina to marry him, her brother Arturo is upset that she will no longer be able to work for him. They get in a fistfight while Nina merely watches in terror. Raul wins and the two get married but Arturo’s resentment for the rich grows.
Once Nina and Raul are married with a child, Arturo tricks Nina to come back to the stage and makes her think Raul is through with her. When Raul shows up, the two again get into a fight, but this time it is more intense. They throw punches and then chairs and then Arturo pulls out a gun. Now Nina does try to get involved but in her clumsy attempts at getting rid of the gun, she accidentally shoots Raul. This inter-class fight has made everyone more bitter and in turn, puts Nina in jail and puts her baby in the hands of the aunt that hated her.
All seems lost until the third fight is played out, with Nina again at the center of it. After returning from prison, she tries to see her son but Raul’s Aunt Rosario declares that it would be harmful to learn the violent truth about his mother and it would be best if she never met him. When Nina learns that her brother Arturo has been trying to extort Aunt Rosario, she goes back to return the money. Once there, thugs try to mug her, and her son, seeing a poor old lady, tries to defend her. The thugs shoot at him but this time Nina takes the bullet for him. She dies without revealing herself and finally someone in this story is able to live without class resentment.
By repeating the same sequence over and over, the director uses the visual film medium to his advantage. He also takes advantage of song to show Nina’s own growth as a woman. She starts off as a naive young girl, unaware of the ways of the world, so she sings a song about how she dislikes the scandalous new fashions and prefers to be traditional. Later, she becomes the fallen woman after believing she had been left by Raul so she sings a steamy tango and dances close with men in a number. By the end, she has learned from both these experiences and becomes the suffering mother so she sings a yearning tango about her wish to return to old times and love her son. This corporatist model plays into the ideals the state holds. Only when Nina sees the ways of both worlds and compromises is she truly enlightened.
Because of this influence, the film may seem like standard American melodramas, but it has one key difference: the need for a lie. Though there are bad lies depicted in the film like when Arturo makes Nina think Raul has left, Nina must continue to lie to her son with her dying breaths. She never reveals she is his mother because as Aunt Rosario says if he doesn’t love his mother, “he cannot become a man”. To complicate her image could prove disastrous for his development. Many films in the US focused on kind-hearted fallen women who were forced to give away their sons like The Sin of Madelon Claudet and To Each His Own, but in both of these films, the women are finally allowed to spend time with their sons and acknowledge the truth. Why isn’t Nina given the same luxury? The answer is she has to serve a wider corporatist goal. She has to make sure the next generation is freed from ideas of class warfare so the status quo can continue. Nina’s double sacrifice (that of her job and her motherhood) allows the patriarchal status quo to continue, all at her expense.
The truth is, no matter how much the film tries to say that class doesn’t need to become an important issue in matters of love and learning, Nina proves that’s untrue. Her will and talent are not enough to fend off her fate as a working-class woman. In a way, that makes this film the perfect representation of its era. It falsely purports to tell a story about how everyone suffers equally for the greater good, but in reality, the poor still have it far worse. The world is only at peace while Nina is the silent suffering mother so her child can live an idyllic life unaware of the pain that was needed and the happiness that was sacrificed for that to occur. The moral of the film and the “infamous decade” seems to be that what you don’t know can’t hurt you.