“How do you like the New World?”
“I’ll like it better when it’s finished.”
“Who knows what lies behind those masked faces.”
From Prosper Mérimée’s nineteeth-century play Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement, set to music by Vivaldi in an eighteenth-century Spanish-ruled colony in Peru, Jean Renoir’s colorful Le carrosse d’or is “a fantasy in the Italian style” of the Commedia dell’arte. The curtain rises and the camera slowly, magically enters “reality,” the fairy-tale existence of the viceroy, whom we will see donning his public wig, and who will find himself enchanted by Camilla (Anna Magnani, superb), the star of the visiting Italian theatrical troupe. These proud actors, tricked, must build the theater they will perform in and ready themselves for performance: a montage of short, fleeting images of activity that constitutes one of cinema’s great evocations of effort and magic, human labor and human transience, suffering and sublimation and transcendence.
The “golden coach” is a gorgeous thing that the viceroy ordered and purchased with state funds during peace; now there is war. (Slyly, the film reflects on France’s then-current war: the French Indochina War, which the U.S. would soon inherit as the Vietnam War.) Everyone is being asked to sacrifice for the war effort; but now Camilla has her eye on the coach for herself, as a monument to her vanity. By coincidence, it is gold that partly drew Spain to Peru in order to plunder it. At its arrival, the viceroy is congratulated for the coach; all he has done is buy it. But that is the vain and presumptuous nature of power.
Renoir’s film interweaves a narrative line and a thematic intent. Camilla is pursued by the viceroy and two other men. One of these is Ramon, the bullfighter whose sudden appearance animates the native audience, distracting them from the stage performance. Prior to Ramon’s grand entrance, the stage had been bursting with activity while the audience sat watching, enthralled, the people’s fanning themselves their only slight motion. Now they burst into applause; Ramon is their pop star. His is another kind of theater, and the commotion he has stirred up prompts Camilla, in character from the stage, to admonish the audience, which settles down as a result—a wry reflection on human malleability, passivity, oppression. Camilla, in character from the stage, also flirts with Ramon! The thematic intent, then, is to blur the line between art and life, reality—including political reality—and theater. The background of war is scarcely irrelevant; Renoir implies that in the circumstance of war this “blur” weighs in most heavily—lethally.
We are all pawns on the stage of life—the pawns of power. Camilla’s remaining suitor decries the “brutal and dishonest” course of “civilization.” He plans on immersing himself in Nature—the “rivers and the forest”—amongst the Indians: Peru for Peruvian natives.
There is more to this “light” film than there seems to be.
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