Faintly, we only hear bookending sirens, barking dogs. At least at the outset of Dana Rotberg’s Angel of Fire we do not know what has happened. Ambiguous, dark, allegorical, this film from Mexico takes us into its world.
The small Circo Fantasia draws few patrons, and mostly unresponsive ones. About the profits, the owner speaks: “It isn’t enough even to pay the midgets.” (The diminutive pair wince at this quip.) The girls will need to keep their makeup on. Bliss will be sold that night so the circus can continue. Theirs is a rootless, poor existence.
Her name is Spanish for soul. Thirteen years old, Alma is a trapeze artist and fire-eater. Her mother has left her and her dying father. Refusing to prostitute herself, Alma by habit slips into sex with her father instead. (It is a refuge for her innocence.) Pregnant, her father now deceased, she is tossed out on her own; Refugio, who runs an itinerant marionette show that performs Old Testament playlets, gives Alma refugio but demands that she “purify” herself according to prescriptions Refugio has received from God. A single mother, Refugio is also submitting her teenaged son, Sacramento, to a regimen of purification involving a sharp knife and embedded cactus needles. Refugio’s favorite bible story is that of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac, to prove his greater love for God.
Alma exits and is taken back by the circus. Alma frees the animals before a fiery finish. For Mexico, it is the end of both spirit and fantasy.
Rotberg gives the sense that each shot was burned in her imagination before shooting started. Yet there isn’t a single overly composed moment in her vision of various forms of want and enslavement, including to Mexico’s colonialist past.
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