Tuesday, February 14, 2017

THE INNOCENTS (Los Inocentes, 2015)

Not to be confused with the Hollywood ghost story adapted from Henry James, Mauricio Brunetti's film puts a supernatural spin on the slavesploitation subgenre and is ultimately more effective as a horror film than a slavery expose. Argentina managed to abolish slavery without civil war in the 1850s, but Los Inocentes, like a miniature echo of Lincoln's Second Inaugural, shows a generation paying in blood for the blood drawn by the lash.


The screenplay by Brunetti, Natacha Caravia and Andres Gelos is flashbacky in a manner appropriate for a film haunted by curses. The main story, set in 1871, sees Rodrigo (Ludovico Di Santo) return to his father's plantation with his pregnant bride Bianca. The plantation is pure South American gothic, with Rodrigo's mother Mercedes, after whom the place is named, a madwoman whose moaning is muted only in the Madonna's presence, while the old man (Lito Cruz) is a brutal boor dripping with contempt for his son. Some of the old slaves have stayed on as servants, despite the plantation's horrific history. The flashbacks show how Rodrigo's childhood slave playmate was hanged for daring to play on a swing, and how a slave woman was burned at the stake for the double offense of getting raped by the planter and burying a statue of the Blessed Virgin in a superstitious attempt to end the drought that the planter blames on persistent slave paganism. These dead haunt the present but seem to target Rodrigo and Bianca more than the old man.


Los Inocentes isn't EC Comics-style American horror in which the dead avenge themselves on the truly guilty. It's more effective as a horror movie for having its curse reach out indiscriminately at the plantation family. The suffering of innocents is precisely what should be horrible about a curse, but to the extent that Americans expect the guilty to suffer, or assume that those who suffer are guilty of something -- like all those teenagers Jason Voorhees supposedly punished for premarital sex -- those who watch the Argentine film on Netflix may be taken effectively and shockingly by surprise by the direction it takes toward the end.


The picture benefits from Hugo Colace's moody cinematography and a cast whose costumes and performances fit the period nicely. Lito Cruz's vicious patriarch is especially impressive, a secular horror of privileged vice in his own right. You feel he's done a good job destroying his family before the ghosts even get started, and his lustful attention to Bianca is nearly as scary as whatever the ghosts have in store for her. There's something inscrutably blank about his expression when we last see him, facing the ultimate fulfillment of the curse, that makes you wonder whether he understands what's happened and why. We know and wonder why he, of all people, is left standing, but it should be clear to viewers that he hasn't exactly gone unpunished.

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