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La Tarea (1991) follows a middle-class single woman who decides to film herself seducing and having sex with a man as homework for her film class, unbeknownst to him. When he finds out, he is initially furious but soon comes around to the idea. However, the end reveals the entire event to be a lie as the two are not strangers but husband and wife.
La Tarea itself feels like an assignment with the goal of creating a piece of art that explains and showcases the limitations of the art form itself. An exercise in meta filmmaking, its origin is the same as that of its characters. It was first filmed as a homemade video shot on super-eight in 1989 with two actors. For an amateur filmmaker, it was the perfect film as its cost was only the price of a video cassette. There was no sound person, light person, or cameraman. As the director, Hermosillo recalled, “the video ended up winning first place in a national competition and was considered by film critics to be among the best exhibited that year” so he decided to turn it into a feature. With that endeavor, changes came to the production and storyline. “The movie was shot in four days and with a one-week rehearsal period… We had to construct an elevated set so the camera would appear at floor level. Every ten minutes we had to change rolls so we used moments when the actors were absent from the set.” The roles were also reversed, this time making the man the object of the woman’s desire and deception rather than the other way around.
We see only what Virginia, our film student, wants us to see. It’s her camera that serves as our eyes. Through this narrow view, we discard the glitz and glamour for a movie that debunks the romance and myth of sex and cinema itself. We aren’t given a vision of the few things a director would want us to see. Instead, we see the behind the scenes, unsexy set up. In glasses and unflattering clothing, we watch Virginia arrange her camera and furniture to create the best product. When we see her with a face full of make-up and a slim fitting dress, she is unable to put us, the audience under her spell. The ending of the film fully cements it as an illusion. After a passionate rendez-vous, the man returns and it is revealed they were husband and wife and the entire film was planned. Their idiotic conversation about how long a monologue should be and the timing of entrances turns the entire film on its head. We’re left wondering if any of it was actually real.
This illusion puts into question the actors and the story but also us, the audience, turning us from mere spectators into perverted voyeurs. For Marcelo, we are unwanted guests. We make him feel unsafe. Our role as an unwelcome stranger is made clear when we stare directly at his horrified face as he finally spots the red recording light of the camera. Before the farce is revealed, the only times the actors talk directly to us are when they are upset. When Marcelo goes on his tirade about his mistrust for Virginia or when she later confesses her deep-seated fears and sexual hangups, it becomes hard for us to accept the role as voyeur. The audience’s role in a seduction is fun but anything else feels intrusive.
This relationship is one that Marcelo and Virginia also have to contend with. For them and many other middle class people looking for escape, romance is intrinsically linked to film. Love affairs are born on screen and recreated or reinvented in real life. The reason she called Marcelo was because she had been watching a movie with Italian heartthrob Marcello Mastroianni and when Virginia tries to pose seductively for him she references Deborah Kerr in Tea and Sympathy, which for her is the height of eroticism. Film is the height of romance and eroticism and the camera itself is seductive. By the end, Marcelo and Virginia want to be the object of its desire and move closer to it. Film is steeped in veiled sexuality which is beautiful rather than unveiled sex which is ugly or comical. Hermosillo is aware of this. It’s why the scenes of Virginia and Marcelo dancing are much more sexy than their goofy but realistic attempts at sex. He lifts the veil even further when Virginia talks about why being naked is so hard for her.
Unveiled sex doesn’t just lose an air of eroticism but the veil of middle class respectability as well. Reality proves to be rather unsexy but nevertheless deserving of our attention. The more laughable or unpleasant interactions in the film are unsexy but necessary. During overtly sexual scenes in the film, Hermosillo enters areas that would be too sobering for pornography. Discussions on condoms, where to get them and how to use them, as well as the prevalence of AIDS serve as prologue to their intimacy. Hermosillo implored that “because of the deplorable presence of AIDS, I found it necessary to heighten awareness by insisting that condoms be used.” The more awkward moments give insights into our own lives. It’s corny and unballetic as in most movie sex scenes, but as Virginia poignantly states, “eroticism and good taste don’t mix.”
As in pornography or melodrama, the more you heighten or exaggerate, the further you veer from romance and closer to slapstick comedy as we see when Virginia performs a strip tease and whistles the tune herself, Marcelo flexes in front of the camera, or the two fall off the hammock while having sex. The role of the voyeur and the actor are therefore equally uncomfortable or embarrassing on further inspection. In film and sex, Hermosillo declares the best role to be that of the director. At the end of the film, when Virginia and Marcelo discuss the product they have just made, Marcelo suggests they get an actress he can work with. While that idea seems horrible to her, she is excited when he tells her that she will be able to watch and direct the situation. As a voyeur with a voice she has enough distance from the embarrassing eroticism of reality and is still close enough to feel control.
This control creates an economic freedom for Virginia and Marcelo who change the title of the film from La Tarea to La Tarea o de cómo la pornografía salvó del tedio y mejoró la economía de la familia Partida or Homework, or How Pornography Saved the Split Family From Boredom and Improved their Financial Situation. With this title, Hermosillo lifts the veil even further, showing just how fragile middle class values are. Behind every great romance on screen and every couple’s marital journey lies something more crude. Romance in real life has little to do with good taste and more to do with transactions. It’s a film stripped of giant filmic glamour and instead finds comedic relief and a meta understanding of the ways film has seeped into our lives and dreams.