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The Virgin of Lust (Arturo Ripstein, 2002)


    Mexican director Arturo Ripstein’s incredibly lush melodrama The Virgin of Lust makes an ironic statement about a fundamental delusion in the hopes of Communists to lift up the masses. Set mostly in a café in Vera Cruz, the film centers upon Nacho (Luis Felipe Tovar), an unambitious worker who supplements his long days of subservience with masturbation sessions in which he intones repeatedly “Franco must be killed!” That private flirtation with revolution is fantasy enough for him, until one fateful night when he finds Lola, a mysterious and promiscuous political radical who lives so far on the edge that she always seems on the threat of self-destruction. Nacho, who is hopelessly attracted to her but too afraid to act upon his impulses, takes her in, and soon the two find themselves in a masochistic relationship. A swirl of activity forms around Lola that puts Nacho’s desire for complacency up against her desire for massive upheaval. Once expatriates from Spain and revolutionary artists enter the picture, there seem to be more people interested in determining the fate of the common man here than there seem to be common men, but because Nacho can’t respect himself enough to take action to change his situation and Lola can’t dredge up any empowering respect for him, both are doomed. It’s the examination of this political stasis that gives the film much of its humor and power.


    With the exception of the dazzling opening and closing sequences, which play like old-school coming attractions reels for the rest of the story, the exceptionally long takes and the infrequency of set changes make The Virgin of Lust feel almost stage bound, but perhaps that's because it's better than most homage at being faithful to the material that inspired it. Spanish language melodramas from the forties are the genre being examined here, and from what I understand, they tend to be stagy and filled with overripe symbolism. Ripstein doesn't betray that, but his movie has enough sense to realize the limitations of that treatment. Because of changing standards of what's acceptable on screen, he's able here to include the text that the subtext once had to mask (mostly sex and anti-Franco sentiment), and that frankness makes this sexually charged material a lot sexier. Perhaps more surprisingly though, instead of feeling redundant the style that once hid the subtext only further intensifies the text. The balance between the two remains complementary throughout, so the presence of a supposedly antiquated style rarely feels at odds with the contemporary explicitness, but in his final statement on the interplay, Ripstein outdoes himself. The final act of Virgin, finds him retreating back into artifice to show that, under the right circumstances, sometimes melodrama can actually effect change in the drama of “real life” and it’s with that impressive application of his technique that the director provides the best possible defense of his choice to revive the style.


* * * * 


Jeremy Heilman