When Ichthyandros was a child, his scientist-father Dr. Salvador explains, “he developed an incurable lung disease. To save him, I gave him a transplant of shark’s gills.” The success of the operation launched Salvador’s dream of an underwater republic, with Ichthyandros its “first citizen.” A young man now, Ichthyandros alternates his life amongst his lair in the sea, the vast sea off the coast of perhaps Spain or Mexico, and Salvador’s laboratory/home on land, to which he brings sea-stuff that might help his father pursue his wet dream. (Oh, that can’t be the right way to express it.) But after he rescues gorgeous Gutiere from a shark attack, Ichthyandros must find this girl to love, and so he takes to the port city in search of her: a passage surely inspired by Guy’s search for Mimi—that is, Fred Astaire’s for Ginger Rogers—in London in The Gay Divorcée (Mark Sandrich, 1934).
Indeed, there is music as well in Chelovek-Amfibiya, from Aleksandr Belyaev’s novel, and directed by Gennadi Kazansky and Vladimir Chebotaryov. The alien that Ichthyandros appears to be has been dubbed by fishermen and the press as “Sea-Devil”—although he is angelic. When he enters a nightclub as part of his romantic search, a girl sings: “In my heart, there’s only the Sea-Devil. He’s the one for me. . . .”
Clearly, handsome Ichthyandros is a God-figure, a Jesus-on-Earth, who, once captured, imprisoned and kept submerged by authorities, loses his amphibious capacity and must leave Gutiere forever—they have indeed found one another—and return to the sea: a crucifixion and an ascension—or, in this case, descent.
This being a Soviet film, though, the Christian allegory lies hidden behind another level of meaning, whereby Ichthyandros is an anti-capitalist—after giving away a fish seller’s fish, he explains that there are fish enough for all in the sea—and the film’s villain, Ichthyandros’s romantic rival, Pedro Zurita, is a scheming capitalist who sees in the boy’s amphibious existence the potential for exploitive profit.
This is not a perfect film; the romance and the Ichthyandros-Pedro clash are lackluster, and there is even a poorly edited conventional chase that doesn’t raise a heartbeat. But much of the imagery, especially having to do with the water, enchants: the boy’s underwater lair, with its sliding gate that resembles a spiderweb; his rhythmic underwater swimming; after he is falsely accused of stealing, an overhead shot of his dive into water, the gradual subsiding of ripples, his disappearance; the final return to the sea.
“As a human being, do I have a right to love?” Ichthyandros asks his father. How I wish that that question had led to the sort of passion that the puritanical Soviet Union would not permit.
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