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La perla

Posted by martinteller on January 17, 2014

Quino (Pedro Armendáriz) lives in a small Mexican fishing village with his wife Juana (María Elena Marqués) and infant son.  Quino dives for oysters to make his meager living, but they’ve fallen on hard times because the sea has been to choppy to dive.  Even the local doctor (Charles Rooner) refuses to see them because they have no money.  At last the sea calms and Quino can dive again.  Deep on the ocean floor, he finds an oyster containing a huge pearl.  With the treasure in hand, he envisions a new life for him and his family… he can buy a rifle for himself, shoes for his wife and an education for his son.  But the pearl seems to bring nothing but misery.  Quino is beset by greedy villagers, the greedy doctor and especially the doctor’s greedy brother (Alfonso Bedoya), a shady pearl dealer who will stop at nothing to get Quino’s treasure.  Nothing.

The film is based on John Steinbeck’s novella “The Pearl”, and Steinbeck himself helped write the script and bring it to the screen.  Like The Grapes of Wrath (the Ford movie, that is, I haven’t read the book), the story is rather heavy-handed.  This is big, big drama with bad, bad villains.  In case you didn’t know, greed corrupts.  Those are around Quino are willing to rob him, con him or kill him for the pearl.  They try to take advantage of his lack of education.  The pearl drives a wedge between Quino and Juana.  Greed, greed, greed, bad, bad, bad.  Only Juana sees that the pearl must be thrown into the sea from whence it came.

But what the narrative lacks in subtlety, the film makes up for with mood and atmosphere.  Gabriel Figueroa was Buñuel’s cinematographer of choice during his Mexican period, including such greats as The Exterminating Angel and Los Olvidados.  Here, Figueroa makes every shot sing though artful composition, dramatic low angles and gorgeous lighting.  The underwater sequence is masterfully done, and the fiesta scene (including a pre-Ritchie Valens “La Bamba”) is magically captivating.  The beautiful visuals lend the proceedings an air of dread, and make these archetypal characters loom with desperation or corrupting power.

I did wish that the story rose above the level of a morality tale, but it’s nonetheless a compelling morality tale, with fine performances by Armendáriz (most recognizable to American audiences for his final role, Kerim Bey in From Russia With Love) and Marqués.  This was my first film by director Emilio Fernandez (I had seen him before as an actor in a couple of Peckinpah pictures), a key figure in the golden age of Mexican cinema.  That he can craft such a lovely and gripping work out of relatively unsophisticated material is a testament to his abilities.  Worth seeing for Figueroa’s amazing photography alone.  Rating: Very Good (83)


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