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Friday
Jul232010

Opera (Ópera)

An unmistakable tone is set by this film's opening scene: a young woman (Marina Magro Soto), no more than twenty and almost completely naked wakes up in a hotel room.  Her surroundings do not surprise her.  But once she sits up and puts on her bra and jeans, she looks over to the night table and stares at a glass of water.  To her the water is like her skin-tight clothing, an obligation to her beauty and to the much older man whom she calls in from the shower to get the phone.  This man is Pablo (Arturo Ríos), at one point a "great writer" but not a great father or husband.  They leave the room and enter the streets of a large Latin American city amidst demonstrations against a weak democracy, a lack of women's rights and other injustices that still pervade most of our world.  The camera follows them as they move against the grain and continue their selfish escapade in a restaurant safely above the hordes.  Their talk is barely audible; he tastes her food and fills the awkward moments with gestures and words that could be used in any situation.  Once outside again, she asks in much louder tones whether he is married.  Yes he is.  For how long?  An eternity, he sighs, and they walk across a narrow metal bridge, bumping into each other in newly found comfort.  Smiles are exchanged: hers is sincere, because Pablo is an adventure; his is also sincere, although it is obvious that he hasn't smiled at a young woman with this much confidence in a very long time. 

Her name is Marina, and while she calls her mother often but briefly, Pablo has the same conversation with his wife again and again.  She's just a friend and I'm working on a guidebook, he lies so shamelessly that we begin to doubt everything about him.  He is apparently a respected professor at a university in Mexico City, and she, of course, is a student at the same institution.  We think of another story of a middle-aged scholar who absconds in a large American car for a cross-country trip with a young girl, moving from hotel to hotel as if hiding the truth.  They arrive and check into a new room, and he retreats to his desk while she sits on the bed waiting for attention, a blue fuzzy mat not very different from the "pink cozy" of the Haze residence keeping them apart like an ocean.  When they talk, we can barely hear them; they mutter and whisper as if embarrassed of their crime.  But Pablo's conversations with his wife are crystal clear, as are Marina's daily updates to her mother, perhaps because these are both legitimate relationships.  An old friend and lonely bachelor obsessed with art welcomes the pair into his home thinking, as would any logical person, that Marina is Pablo's daughter.  Animated discussions ensue about this playwright and his world-renowned acting method; the coffee table features a book on this conqueror; and Marina explores the house like a child unsure of what is valuable and what is just bourgeois decoration.  On the road to their next hideout she asks about his children, his two daughters.  The elder one is Paula, seventeen, almost her coeval.  But he won't tell her about his other daughter, instead saying that he wants her to stay a few more days with him.  She says no; but self-respecting women are supposed to say no the vast majority of the time. 

In typical operatic convention, the film detours in its middle, or third part.  They arrive at a roadside stop staffed by an elderly woman who has obviously lived her life for others.  A quick evaluation of the relationship of her two visitors leads her to befriend Marina and tell her about all the good decisions she has made that resulted in fourteen healthy, happy grandchildren.  For that Marina, who ordered beer, gets tequila, while Pablo is left with the beer he asked for without even looking at who might be serving him.  It is here that we first taste Marina's regrets, her vehement claim to not having a boyfriend, her turning away from Pablo's affection, her childish urge to drive his 1966 Mustang (which probably was, in typical midlife crisis convention, the year he was born).  Little by little, she is separating herself from him because they have no past or future only a lustful, impulsive present that cannot yield any sustainable happiness.  In perhaps the film's best scene until the magnificent closing sequence Marina, now naked, tired and disastrously contrite, curls herself into a ball at the bottom of the shower of yet another hotel room.  Pablo finds her – almost breaking in the door in the process – and tries in vain to make her hold him, to spread her limbs around his fully dressed, mature body.  She is not in love and the best years of his life are behind him, so how, how, how could this possibly work out?  Not that such words would ever be expressed in such a laconic masterpiece, but the implication is more than clear.                

Their names are also not coincidental.  Pablo is ultimately derived from paulus, the small; whereas Marina signifies the endlessness of the ocean.  Pablo embodies the dwindling days of our mortality; Marina is eternity and the restoration of life through youth.  They travel through the Mexican countryside and see nothing that catches their eye, although we are overwhelmed by the beauty of the backdrop, of the uniformity of the desert and scant verdure that peppers their horizons. Pablo is afraid to stop because then Marina would see the gray-templed, grizzled man who greets him in every mirror.  They must persist by moving, by instability (at one point Marina wears a tank top that says "get lost with me"), by visiting friend after friend and town after town.  No one ever comes to them, as if they didn't exist outside of those hotel rooms and his Mustang.  Finally they reach a moneyed couple on one of the most breathtaking beaches you will ever see in life or film, and there Marina slinks away and tells her mother that "she really lacks nothing at all."  That is another lie, but one that we understand much better than Pablo's.    

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