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La Casa del Angel (1957) follows Ana, a young Argentinian girl from a well-to-do family growing up in the 1920s. When she is sent back to live with her father in Buenos Aires, she meets Pablo, a womanizing congressman who robs her of her innocence and forces her to live the rest of her life suffering in silence.
Though La Casa del Angel may be unknown to many cinephiles, it was at one point declared “the best film that has come from South America since the time when the cinema began” by none other than French auteur Eric Rohmer. After premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, director Leopoldo Torre Nilsson was being lauded as one of the foremost filmmakers of the new decade. Critics compared him to the likes of Buñuel, Bergman, and Welles because of his themes of religious repression and alienation as well as his adoption of low-angle shots. The premiere of this film in July 1957, marked a key turning point in Argentine cinema, showing a new concept and new way of making movies.
It was a somewhat optimistic moment for Argentine cinema. That year, the government signed into law Decree 62/57, which established promotion measures for national cinematography, guaranteed freedom of expression, created the National Institute of Cinematography, and much more. Though this law would eventually disappoint and many of the institutions and promotions it promised would be delayed or canceled completely, it gave Argentine cinephiles hope for a time. That coupled with the release of an artistically provocative film like La Casa del Angel made the movie a spectacle. In a few years, however, both the film and these legal measures would be largely forgotten.
Written with his wife, Beatriz Guido, and based on the novel she wrote, this was the first film in Torre Nilsson’s Gothic Trilogy. The trilogy sought to delve into Argentine bourgeois society and focused its stories on the sexual coming of age of young women. Except for the fact that this film is in black and white, it’s hard to believe that it was made in the 1950s as its ideas are still incredibly relevant. It confronts a truth that many other films wouldn’t. In a horrifying tale of repression and trauma, Torre Nilsson shows how the rigidity of society’s rules destroys women and upholds terrible men.
It’s a message that hits us in the face like a ton of bricks. Torre Nilsson is knowingly deceptive in his first scene. We see Ana as a young adult living unhappily with her seemingly predatory father who treats her as a possession. As she leaves, he comments about her promiscuity, and before she goes, she stops to see Pablo. It appears that there is a strong passion between them that cannot be acted upon because of her father. They are both prisoners of his will. This is usually the story that is told in cinema, the equally blameless lovers torn apart by circumstance. In a 90-minute flashback, Torre Nilsson shows that nothing could be further from the truth.
We see their parallel and unequal development under a microscope. Ana’s life as an innocent 14-year-old girl is marked by an undeserved level of dissembling and punishment. She was robbed of her freedom to bathe without a nightgown or even gaze on the naked statues in her garden as they were draped in fabric. For her, the human body, even her own, was a sinful and forbidden thing. She is even taken away from her countryside home prematurely for kissing a boy. Meanwhile, Pablo’s upbringing could be characterized by a mix of privilege and hedonism. The son of a corrupt businessman, Pablo faced no consequences for his behavior and is a seasoned womanizer already infamous for killing a man in a duel by the time he meets Ana.
While Pablo never faced punishment for his actions, Ana was blamed for things she had no part in. It marks her sexual awakening. When she first arrives in Buenos Aires, she comes across boys she knew years ago. They immediately show her art featuring naked women. She pretends to act cool, ignoring the sexuality and saying she has seen these photos in museums already (highly unlikely). When they show her a more vulgar photo, she accidentally drops it and the wind takes it. The boys hurl a string of insults at her. She ruined their good time. This double standard is constantly juxtaposed with Pablo. While Ana’s mother doesn’t let her dance the waltz at a party, Pablo enjoys a garish tango party.
For all kinds of women, it’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. Ana, the innocent, is terrorized by her Nana and her mother about what awaits her should she live a sinful life. They animatedly detail the hellfire and suffering of this afterlife. Do the party girls have it any better? No. At Pablo’s party, we see a drunk woman’s good time interrupted when a man playfully tells her to dance or he’ll light her dress on fire. It’s all fun until he accidentally lights her skirt and the room gets engulfed in flames. Pablo and his guests just leave for another party. This woman will have to find a new dress.
Torre Nilsson purports that this is not merely an Argentine problem, but a timeless global one. On a visit to the movies, Ana and Nana are dismayed when they are only allowed to see Broken Blossoms. They hate the star of the film, Lilian Gish. The eternal damsel in distress, they don’t buy her innocent act and resent her for trying. They are then overjoyed when they screen a Rodolfo Valentino film instead. This Italian known as “The Great Lover” was pure sex on screen. Secretly, that’s what Ana and the women in her family loved. Her cousin later shows her scandalous stories in the bible about King Solomon and his nameless mistresses. It’s notable though, that while she recounts these stories, women in the square publicly confess their sins as part of a religious ceremony. From biblical times to our cinematic present, the male sexuality of Solomon and Rodolfo has been upheld while Lilian and the innocents in the square are subject to shaming.
The final act of the film deals with this implicit complicity that is tied with womanhood. Even in acts they didn’t commit, they take the blame. Pablo and Ana who have been keeping their distance finally intersect at a dance. He dances with her and the room is scandalized. How could Ana do such a thing? Everyone sees her choose to sully herself, but no one sees her later when Pablo assaults her. The violence within Pablo, up to that point, had been simmering to a boil. An idealistic young congressman, he was recently and correctly accused by a fellow congressman of having a father who silenced newspapers that interfered with his business. However, no one around him blames him. He’s a respectable young man and that congressman has forgotten his gentlemanly manners.
In line with what Pablo’s own father described as his “false puritanism”, he is convinced that this was not an appropriate political issue but an unnecessary personal attack that left him with only one option: a duel. Ana’s father offers his home as the battleground and on that fateful night, she offers Pablo a rosary for good luck. In that moment, he rapes her. One last hurrah. He survives the duel, but something in Ana dies that night. Racked with guilt for her part in her own rape and her rosary’s role in his survival, she wishes they had both died that night. Her alienation is emphasized by Torre Nilsson’s characteristic low-angle lens and her own catatonic stare. She watches everyone around her die and suffers quietly while Pablo, her rapist, remains in her life. In deep contrast to the tone of the first scene, he’s no prisoner. He’s a benefactor of her father’s goodwill.