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La Mano En La Trampa (1961) begins when Laura Lavigne, a high school student, returns home to her aunt and mother’s decaying mansion from her religious boarding school. After investigating strange noises in the attic she thinks are from a hidden and monstrous half brother, she instead finds her Aunt Ines. Confronted with this, Laura believes that uncovering the mystery of her aunt will free her family from the shackles of the past but her fight only further entrenches her in the same, disastrous fate.
In the final installment of Leopoldo Torre Nilsson’s Gothic Trilogy, he and his wife and collaborator Beatriz Guido create a culmination of all of the trilogy’s ideas and themes. La Mano En La Trampa remains the largest indictment on Argentina’s social values and in particular, the idea of la viveza criolla. The phrase roughly translates to “creoles’ cleverness” or “creoles cunning” and it describes a way of life primarily in Argentina but is commonly referenced across the continent. It refers to getting ahead at the expense of others, a value known as “putting the hand in the trap”, i.e. the title of the film. The phenomenon was born during the beginning of the twentieth century when Argentina saw a huge wave in European immigration. A rift developed between the old and new inhabitants and the viveza criolla emerged as a reaction by the established criollos against the social climbers of this new immigrant flock. A vivo criollo is someone who is cunning and egotistical and whose economic anxiety and desire for power leads to the degradation of societal values.
With Torre Nilsson’s trademark claustrophobic shots and horror infused realism, he creates a film that examines the many arms of the viveza criolla. For much of the film, the women stand in for the European immigrants and the men for the elitist criollos. In this community on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, the worst parts of Argentina’s collective character come to life. Though Laura is coming from a Catholic boarding school, she is much more modern than her mother and aunt. When Laura meets them at the start of her summer vacation, the women appear to be prisoners in their own homes. They may live in a mansion, but they work sewing and tailoring all day. Even her mother remarks that the only way Laura was able to entertain herself last year was by getting throat surgery, leading our modern heroine to sarcastically quip that maybe this year she can break her arm.
Laura is determined to find a different fate than the other women in her family and this summer she has a mission that will hopefully accomplish this. By unearthing who the mysterious guest in her attic is, the past will no longer influence her present. As with the other films in the trilogy, this mystery is also intertwined with the mystery of sex. When her boyfriend Miguel becomes unsettled by her talk of ghosts, Laura says, “ghosts must be eliminated, and tonight you’ve missed the opportunity to kill one.” Unfortunately, this mystery doesn’t create a future of passion and freedom, but unveils a family past marked by gendered violence.
Susan Martin-Marquez believes the film establishes a parallel “between the enclosure of women … and the ‘walling off’ of both the working class (in the numerous scenes in which Miguel is pointedly situated outside of metal gates and chain link fences) and Argentina’s native population.” The rich and powerful man entwined in Laura’s search, Cristóbal Achával even tells her, “Our old patrician families also have their eccentricities: liaisons with Indian squaws, fevers. I hope that our descendants don’t pay the price for our faults.” Unfortunately, the only people who pay the price are the women.
The mystery of the attic reveals that her Aunt Ines, whom everyone believes to be married in the US, never left. Following a flashback, she details how she and Cristóbal were the perfect couple until Laura’s father came home with his deformed illegitimate child for the women in the family to raise. He died shortly after and then Cristóbal, repelled by the scandal, leaves her for a virgin. When Ines returns home, she finds that the child has died and after the women quietly bury it on the property, she decides to stay in the attic. Ines chose her imprisonment and likes her lie. She feels victorious since the people in the town still talk about her and assume she dumped Cristóbal. Laura sees it differently. The town has forgotten about the real Ines and only speak about her fake image. Like the natives who once ruled the land, a false narrative about her overshadows the horror of her demise.
The methods of the vivo criollo easily shapeshift and change from case to case. This feminist critique shows that the widespread strategy used for women is rape, something seen in Latin America since the first Spaniard landed. After Laura spends extended time with Cristóbal, trying to convince him of Ines’ existence, he rapes her and promises to marry her. This comes after Ines’ confession which subtly hinted at the fact that she may have indeed been her mother and Cristóbal, her father. It’s a tangled web of lies that has now caught hold of Laura in a manner not even Ines can understand. Shortly afterward, Cristóbal walks into Ines’ bedroom and gives her such a shock that she dies. When her sisters discover them, they are horrified that he has not respected her dignity. For them, keeping dignity and virginity are one in the same, so this, in their eyes, is a kind of rape. Again, this act of violence further entrenches these women. Like they did with the bastard child years ago, they quietly bury Ines on the property and hope that the good lie will prevail as they live among the dead.
Laura, horrified, escapes to Buenos Aires with Cristóbal who assures her she will forget all about her past. But when she arrives at her new house and looks in the mirror, all she sees is her Aunt Ines’ bedroom and when she looks back she sees Cristóbal slowly undressing as he had before the first assault. She’s in a different place, but her fate is the same. The cycle of abuse continues. Though, for all the comparisons to the working class and native population entrapment in society, Torre Nilsson makes it clear that there are a few key distinctions, namely complicity. The reason Laura can never forget her past is because of the insurmountable guilt she still deals with for leading Cristóbal to her aunt. She, in part, caused this violence.
She’s been complicit in the patriarchal and classist systems that rule in her town from the start of the film. It’s evident in the way she treats her working class boyfriend. She strings him along with the promise of sex so that he can take her for rides on his motorbike and pull the strings on the dumbwaiter so she can see her aunt. She spends a significant amount of time with him, but when it matters, she distances herself. In the town square celebration of the founding of the town by Laura and Cristóbal’s ancestors where the mayor declares, “it was precisely here that the noble founders had the audacity to establish the first barbed wire fence that signified civilization in the struggle against the Indian,” Laura stands among the elite while her boyfriend watches from the outskirts, behind a fence.
He is not allowed to celebrate this. For her, he is a secret, starter boyfriend that she keeps until she can hook a more respectable man, like Cristóbal. In a world dominated by the ideals of the viveza criolla, everyone has to be cunning. It’s just another arm of this system. In Torre Nilsson’s eyes, even victims can be complicit in upholding an exploitative system, especially if they are led to believe that they can rise to the top of it.