ANTONIETA (Carlos Saura, 1982)

The key to grasping Carlos Saura’s sad, beautifully crafted although somewhat arid Antonieta is to grasp, first, that its protagonist is not, as one might think, Antonieta Rivas Mercado, an actual Mexican writer who committed suicide inside Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in 1931, but instead Anna, the French woman writing about her a half-century later. Anna has gone to Mexico to research Antonieta’s life; she is writing a book about female suicides. Why did Anna kill herself? Rosebud.
     Early on, in Paris, Anna (Hanna Schygulla, precise) asks a young woman—they are indoors—why she jumped from the third story of an apartment building rather than the sixth floor, where she lived. The interviewee, her broken arm in a sling, faces a window, part of which is blocked from view; the woman is looking out the visible part of the window, still apparently drawn to the pavement below. Plainly, she chose the lower floor for her leap because she was ambivalent about ending her life (or about living her life, depending on one’s point of view)—and at this point we aren’t sure whether Anna is being cruel or just obtuse. The entire film indeed turns on ambivalences, or finding oneself on some fence between different worlds. This thematic tack is launched by Anna’s study of archival (or faux-archival) footage of Antonieta; the color scheme of Saura’s film, which Teodoro Escamilla cinematographed, suggests the monochromatic historical footage, blurring the distinction between the two. The film goes back and forth between Anna’s time in Mexico and Antonieta in Mexico during a politically more tumultuous time.
     France vs. Mexico; “civilized” vs. “primitive”; past vs. present; history vs. imagination: the “fence” between different worlds is expressed in many ways throughout the film, which Jean-Claude Carrière and Saura wrote. Antonieta at one point is in love with a gay painter, who, himself between two worlds, is married; but the fence that he is straddling has just been destroyed: his wife, who has withdrawn into silence, has killed their baby with her bare hands. Life, of course, remains conflicted; but many interior conflicts were more vigorously suppressed, much more dismally handled, fifty years earlier.
     Isabelle Adjani, an actress who leaves me cold, is perfectly cast as Antonieta, who seems so French for a Mexican, which makes perfect sense, since whenever we see “her” we are in fact seeing a French woman’s—Anna’s—imagined view of her. The “fence” of “fences” exists here between objectivity and subjectivity, and the encasing subjectivity corresponds to Anna’s increasingly vulnerable perspective as Anna reconstructs Antonieta’s journey to suicide. We learn that Antonieta has had to navigate a male-dominated world; an ironical mark of distinction is that Antonieta modeled for her architect-father Antonio Rivas Mercado’s El Ángel de la Independencia, whose construction Mexico’s President Porfirio Díaz ordered in 1902, when she was two or three. (Indeed, her very name set her in a man’s—her father’s—shadow from the start.) In the film’s loveliest, saddest, most haunting moment, Antonieta approaches a standing mirror as the camera gently moves in on her. She puts on her hat and reaches for her pocketbook, her eyes all the while fixed on the image in the mirror as men jabber, out-of-frame, behind her. She is “unreal” even to herself. Perhaps this is the moment she decides to commit her ultimate act.
     Anna returns to Paris and visits Notre Dame. In a surreal moment that exposes her imagination, Antonieta—dressed as she was the last time we saw her in Mexico—passes by Anna. She sits down; the two women face each other, with Anna still standing. Antonieta reaches into her pocketbook and pulls out a gun. Softly Anna protests, “No”—softly, because she is ambivalent inasmuch as the past must sacrifice itself for the future, which is to say, Anna’s present, and because there is no overturning the past in any case. Antonieta aims point-blank at her own heart. If in a flash you feel that Anna, watching, feels she is facing her own fate had she lived fifty years earlier, Saura’s film will shatter you; if you find this connection academic and indistinct or, worse, sentimental, you will draw a blank.
     Saura’s film is from Spain, France and Mexico.

2 thoughts on “ANTONIETA (Carlos Saura, 1982)

  1. I saw this movie many years ago and I liked it a lot. And I liked also the music, especially the song when the movie finishes, I have looked for it but I was not able even to know the name and the language of the song. Somebody could help me? I only understand the name Tirella o something similar…

    • ´Hola! ,, i don´t know who sings in the soundtrack of this movie but the song is “La LLorona”, there is a beautiful version of Joan Baez.

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