A Touch of Evil
In Oaxaca, Mexico, in the isthmus city of Juchitán, lives a vibrant community of Zapotec Indians whose forceful, colorful women have won the admiration of visitors going back to Frida Kahlo and Sergei Eisenstein. Among the more recent of these outsiders was British journalist Jocasta Shakespeare, who in 1994 wrote an article for Elle that characterized Juchitán as a matriarchal city bossed by "huge and sensual women," hard-drinking, money-loving and "red-hot."
By the time this article was published, to general outrage in the town, American documentarians Maureen Gosling and Ellen Osborne had begun a film about Juchitán and its women. In the face of the Zapotecas' anger, this project turned into a kind of correction to the Elle story. And yet Gosling had been attracted to Juchitán precisely because of its reputation as a matriarchy, where women are known to dominate the cash economy and homosexuality is said to be accepted as a normal part of life. Debunking what she had come to celebrate, celebrating what she'd debunked, Gosling eventually pulled together Blossoms of Fire, after a ten-year struggle. Following many festival screenings, the picture now goes into release through New Yorker Films.
Given the film's contradictions, perhaps the most impressive thing about Blossoms of Fire is the smoothness with which it unfolds. Gosling is, among much else, a veteran film editor, whose magical touch with transitions is sorely needed, as she moves from economic issues to party politics to gay and lesbian themes to the struggle to preserve the Zapotec language. Her principal aids in this editing are the local songs and the figures of the women themselves, with their brilliantly colored skirts dancing about them. When Gosling interrupts to provide a singsong narration, her voice drains the life out of the scene; but there's so much vitality to be found wherever she turns the camera that Blossoms of Fire always recovers.
As for the reputation that drew Gosling to Juchitán: Matriarchy, in this case, means that women can work twelve hours in the market and then clean house. Acceptance of sexual difference means that parents didn't actually carry out the beatings that their lesbian and gay children had feared. I say you make your own utopia.
* * *
Right after World War II, Carol Reed directed a trio of exceptional thrillers: a dark journey through Belfast with a doomed IRA gunman (Odd Man Out); a tricky mystery about postwar profiteering in Vienna (The Third Man); and the lightest of the three, The Fallen Idol, which is set in London but also on foreign soil, since its main location is an embassy. Written by Graham Greene, based on his story "The Basement Room," The Fallen Idol views adult miseries and betrayals through the eyes of a child and English habits through the eyes of an alien--the same eyes, belonging to the ambassador's son (Bobby Henrey), whose only friends are a pet snake and the embassy's butler (Ralph Richardson, in perhaps his finest screen performance). Rialto Pictures has struck a fresh print of The Fallen Idol and is putting it into theaters, starting with a run at New York's Film Forum (through February 23). You won't find anything else half as entertaining.