Gabriel Figueroa’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography immeasurably enriches John Steinbeck’s fable in this U.S.-Mexico co-production boldly directed by Emilio Fernández. La perla is a gem.
An impoverished Mexican couple flee their fishing village and are torn apart—at one point, Quino strikes his wife, Juana, to the ground—after Quino unearths a precious pearl in the sea. Everyone, especially the already rich, would kill for the pearl, and in time, as a result of the parents’ possession of it, the couple’s baby is murdered and Quino himself takes human lives, in self-defense and for revenge.
Generally, the film is understood as a study of greed; and so it is, around the fringes. But while greed motivates those who want to divest Quino of his newfound fortune, something else motivates Quino. Once he possesses the pearl his desires are basic: shoes; schooling for his son, for whom he dreams a better future. In clinging to the pearl, Quino is clinging to the hope that it symbolizes for him—and for us: the possibility of a better future. Once she sees how much harm follows from their having it, Juana counsels her husband’s ridding himself of the pearl. It has become a curse. Indeed, after their son’s death, Quino does toss the pearl back into the sea. Someday someone else might find the pearl, and hope will be renewed just to be dashed again. The pearl’s appearance may have been an instance of divine intervention, but even God is powerless to help the poor.
Shimmering with poetry, La perla is a mournful ballad about the instransigence of social class and structure—an implicit call to political action, since nothing magical can alter the status quo. One’s lot in life can be improved only when past inequities are swept away.
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