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La Caída (1959) follows Albertina, a university student from a bourgeois family who decides to rent a room in Buenos Aires and live with a family of four unruly children and their bedridden mother. When a misogynistic attorney falls for her, he offers her an ultimatum: him or the family. Stuck between two difficult futures, Albertina must find a way to escape and find happiness.
In the second installment of Leopoldo Torre Nilsson’s Gothic Trilogy, he takes inspiration, yet again, from his wife, Beatriz Guido’s novel. This autobiographical novel focused on Guido’s own experiences as a young student in post-war Rome. Torre Nilsson simply transposed the horror and rubble of Rome to the politically chaotic Buenos Aires and together they added more haunting and ferocious metaphors to highlight their own views on what it means for a young woman to fall. In traditional literature, the fall of a young woman refers to the loss of her virginity and the beginning of a life of promiscuity. Torre Nilsson and Guido have other ideas. For them, the fall is equally as terrifying when it refers to the fall into domesticity and the imprisonment many women face in their own homes.
Our first look into family life is rather dark. The film opens with Albertina walking up a dark corridor as the walls close in on her. She’s coming to inquire about the room. The family is a funhouse vision of domesticity. The eldest son and daughter are caricatures of a dutiful wife and an irritable husband. This behavior would be excusable if it weren’t for the sorry state of their mother. Since their father disappeared, she has remained bedridden, barely able to speak. Equally dependent and frightened of her own children, she offers Albertina a warning, saying they are perverted liars, but she doesn’t heed it and the trap under her feet simply grows wider and wider.
On one occasion, Albertina comes home to find the children’s faces covered in food and her suitcase open with items flung across the room. This horrifying parody of family life continues into their dinners. Watching them pretend to be normal adults is akin to watching the beggars in Buñuel’s Viridiana act out “The Last Supper”. Soon their play-acting concerns Albertina more and more. She finds Gustavo, the eldest boy, going out to work on the dock selling women’s intimates using cheap salesman tricks and is disgusted. But her disgust turns to terror when she finds their mother dead. She had succumbed to her sickness but her children had sped up the process as they had chosen to lock her in her room as she screamed. Their complicity stuns our protagonist and the continued absence of their uncle Lucas, an adventurer who sends money every month, shocks the audience.
This domestic caricature may be hard to recognize but it has roots deep in Albertina’s past. In a flashback, we see that the horrors of her privileged upbringing were not as obvious but existed nonetheless. A shy bookworm, her traditional father lobbied cryptic compliments at her, telling her she is one of the last good girls left. Equally, her overbearing grandmother and aunts try to mold her in their own image and ignore any individuality she has. Even though she has found the courage to move away from them into an apartment they would despise, she still can’t escape their judgments. Her past and the impending doom of her future haunt her.
The streets of Buenos Aires, however, are equally dangerous for her. It’s where she meets Jose Maria. He immediately introduces himself as an unbearable misogynist when they meet in a bookstore and he implores Albertina to not buy a book by Proust and instead check out a revisionist historical account of the life of the infamous Argentine dictator, Juan Manuel de Rosas. He talks only about himself and when he does ask her questions, they are condescending in nature. Their dates consist of him espousing his backward beliefs at her, telling her that he is worried that the family unit is in danger, most women today are too frivolous, and those of the opposite sex should not be friends.
His ideas and behavior become more and more reprehensible and suddenly her trap becomes an abyss. He shows little sympathy for the children and little thought for her. After spending the evening in a dance hall and complaining about the state of the world, Jose Maria attempts and fails to rape her. This is the pivotal moment in Albertina’s journey. She has not fallen and lost her virginity but her refusal has only made Jose Maria more in love with her. He asks her to marry him and it becomes clear that the real horror was not the assault but the trap of domesticity and being locked beside him for eternity.
When she finally breaks up with him, she references this fall and for a second we feel a sense of relief, but the mysterious and all-encompassing attraction to the absent Lucas is hard to fight. He is what famous Argentine film critic Gonzalo Aguilar describes as “the ghost of her own father, a lover of books and the bohemian lifestyle.” His distance and the control that it creates make it extremely difficult for Albertina to escape. It’s when he returns briefly, that she reaches rock bottom. After finally venting for the first time about what she believed to be a case of matricide, she suffers a breakdown. Lucas comforts and kisses her and lays her down on the bed beside one of the children.
Rather than sinking and falling deep in sleep, she wakes up from this nightmare and escapes from the apartment. She may have fallen to the temptation of being with Lucas but not to the idea of being his wife. She would be cast off in a room with reckless children while he went on his own adventures. In this sense, the film is victorious. She has escaped a fate that her mother and so many other women could not. However, Torre Nilsson does not leave us with her image but those of the children.
When Lucas sees that Albertina is gone, he rushes out to find her and the camera pans up to the window where the children are watching and listening to a record he had previously sent them. On the record, Lucas narrates how well his trip is going and reassures them that one day he will be back and fulfill all his responsibilities. Gustavo’s final words in the film are “alone again”. There is no one there to help them. Torre Nilsson believed that one of the central purposes of this film was to bridge the gap between the adult world and the child world. Fear of the fall cannot be the guiding force of progress. For Torre Nilsson, fear is an extremely selfish sentiment that encourages individuals to leave others behind. Albertina did what was best for her but the children are still condemned to a fate they do not deserve. Their fall has nothing to do with purity or domesticity, but obscurity and insanity. Who will save them?