Tú me quieres alba,
Me quieres de espumas,
Me quieres de nácar.
Que sea azucena
Sobre todas, casta.
De perfume tenue.
Entonces, buen hombre,
La casa del ángel
dir. Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, 1957
When I sat down to watch a black-and-white movie from 1957 in 360p on YouTube for my Argentine film class, I didn’t expect to be particularly emotionally affected. The scene wasn’t exactly set. And though I got lost in their Italianate accents, the dreamlike camera movements, and the scarcely drawn characters, I felt a great deal. This movie is sad but not in the way it is supposed to be. It goes on and on about repressive Catholic sexual morality, a social class at its tapering, this supposedly tragic unraveling of a supposedly tragic status quo. But that is not its sadness. That is barely even its intention.
No, what kills me about this thing is its starkness. Even in a tale of expected liberation and romance, where the repressed girl looks to be right to disobey, where a happy ending of righteously dueled honor and love-at-first-sight turned wedding looks possible once free from religious expectation, even in that then-revolutionary trajectory, everything ends in violation. The girl who allows herself to feel love and attraction, who reclaims joy, who does not accept her caretaker’s witchlike musings on hell, is not wanted freely. The man wants to take her, and he does. And she has no one to believe anymore. The forbidden romance felt right, the forced intimacy undeniably wrong.
Everyone is a repressor and the rulemakers are right and wrong at the same time: it’s the fifties in Argentina and moral confidence is not an option anymore.
That level of resignation to a moral abyss of female pain is not what I expected out of seventy-six minutes in our tiny Recoleta library. And it’s not what they expected in that Cannes cinema of only thirty vaguely curious spectators in 1957, either.