“I have heard this insensible and necrophilous oath, ‘¡Viva la Muerte!’, and I, having spent my life writing paradoxes that have provoked the ire of those who do not understand what I have written, and being an expert in this matter, find this ridiculous paradox repellent.”–Miguel de Unamuno
FEATURING: Madhi Chaouch, Núria Espert, Ivan Henriques
PLOT: Fando is a boy growing up in Spain in the early days of the Franco regime, raised by his mother, about whom he has sexual fantasies. One day he discovers that his mother turned his father in to the authorities because of his “dangerous progressive” political views. In between fantasies, Fando decides to go searching for his father, but his quest is interrupted when he contracts tuberculosis.
- Like the father in Viva la Muerte, Arrabal’s own father was imprisoned by the Fascists during the Spanish Civil War (one report claims it was for an assassination attempt). After five years he escaped from custody and was never seen again.
- The title refers to a quote from the Fascist General Millan Astray: “Down with intelligence! Long live death!,” a line barked during a political debate with philosopher Miguel de Unamuno.
- The movie is an adaptation of Arrabal’s 1959 novel “Baal Babylone” (which does not appear to have been translated out of the original French).
- The sadomasochistic torture sketches first seen in the opening credits are by Arrabal’s fellow Panic movement member I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse). (for more on the Panic movement, see the background information section of
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Fando’s papa, buried in the sand with only his head showing, and a quartet of riders fast approaching.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Incestuous S&M mourning; priest’s tasty balls; slaughterhouse frolic
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A howl of protest at the horrors of the Franco regime, as well as an autobiographical attempt to exorcise some serious mommy issues, Viva la Muerte uses surreal vignettes as a savage expression of personal outrage.
Original trailer for Viva le Muerte
COMMENTS: Fernando Arrabal’s Viva la Muerte is the kind of movie Federico Fellini might have made if he’d had an unhappy childhood. The mixture of autobiography and illustrative fantasy follows in 8 1/2‘s tradition, while the depiction of small town life under a Fascist regime anticipates Fellini’s own boyhood reminiscences in 1973’s Amarcord. Our first sighting of Fando’s friend’s pet turkey—occupying a seat in the cinema as the lights come on after a propaganda newsreel—is about as Felliniesque a scene as you’ll find outside the maestro’s oeuvre. But although some sense of the wonder of childhood comes across in Arrabal’s début film, his world is much darker than Fellini’s, as is his view of sex. He is bitter and angry at the past, where Fellini’s inner child is fondly amused even by authoritarianism.
The opening credits set Viva la Muerte‘s ironic tone. A child sings a happy nonsense tune, which recurs throughout the film (usually during the most horrible scenes of degradation and terror, as when the police first seize Fando’s father). Meanwhile, the camera scans Roland Topor’s large ink canvas to show a man with a spike in his crotch and another held down by a stone with pins sticking out of his eyes, roving to a woman with wings attached to her elongated nipples. Obscene tortures are the rule across this canvas: a man held in the air by chains defecates onto prisoners stuffed into a giant teacup. The way the camera teases its way across this Boschian landscape can be cinematic, as when it pans its way up the torso of a nude woman only to reveal she has no head or shoulders. Like the children’s tune, stills detailing particular atrocities form these sketches percolate throughout the film. The mix of boyhood innocence and unspeakable horror paints a picture of how Arrabal remembers childhood.
The basic narrative of Viva la Muerte is slim and straightforward: Fando grows up adoring his mother, and becomes disillusioned and conflicted as it dawns on him that she betrayed his father—for the good of Fando and herself, she assures him. Interspersed with scenes advancing this story line are fantasy vignettes, which are easy to tell from reality because they are tinted various colors. Most of the early ones feature Fando fantasizing about his mother, requiring the brave and beautiful actress Núria Espert to put her considerable sexuality on display. Later, Fando’s imagination turns to thoughts of his father’s torture: dad buried in the desert sand up to his neck, or hooded and whipped while a man in a tutu dances in the background. Some of the more random bits are probably filmed versions of the types of shenanigans that used to pop up at Panic movement “happenings” in the 1960s, like when a naked man breaks raw eggs over his head, then makes out with a woman who’s lying in a giant bowl. Seldom does anything truly strange happen in Fando’s regular life, although there is his aunt’s strange sadomasochistic way of mourning the death of her father, and the boy does bite the head off of his pet salamander after some pre-adolescent peeping gets him overheated. As the movie marches on, the strangeness grows more intense. Arrabal discards the tinting for two major scenes, probably not to signal a breakdown between reality and fantasy so much as because some of the impact would be lost in monochrome. In one, his aunt covers Fando in pasta and feeds him meatballs out of her shoe. The other is the film’s most scandalous piece, incorporating slaughterhouse footage showing a cow’s beheading, followed by Fando’s mom triumphantly hoisting its testicles above her head, then sowing a grown-up version of Fando inside the beef carcass. Delivered in blood-spattered charnel house Technicolor, “Le Sang des bêtes” this ain’t; you almost retch watching the scene, and it may make animal lovers want to take a pass on the movie entirely.
One of the odder things about Viva la Muerte is the almost sacrilegious treatment of the mother figure. Fando, who must be about ten years old, has an overly erotic attachment to his mom; he constantly praises her for her beauty (the only quality he notices and admires in her). His fantasies about her are too advanced for his age: in one, he imagines her showering in a semen-like substance; in another, he spatters her with mud (a humiliation reminiscent of Belle de Jour). Gradually, as he learns that she has betrayed his father, his daydreams turn to scenes of her attending the prisoner’s torture. Mother literally cackles like the Wicked Witch of the West as masked executioners chain up her husband. She stands on top of a cage in which he’s being held and defecates on his head. She furiously tears at the shirt of a Fascist officer, pleading with him to arrest her husband, while he ignores her fawning in favor of a sandwich he’s deeply involved with. The mother’s real-life protestations that she did it for her family are hollow and unconvincing, and made more so by revelations that she lied about details of the arrest. It would be tempting to excuse Arrabal’s cartoonish depiction of the mother figure as a treacherous, castrating whore as a symbol of his contempt for civilian collaborators with Franco’s regime, and maybe that is the intent. But I’m also uncomfortably reminded that the mother was also an object of desire and the source of all the protagonist’s problems in Arrabal’s very next movie, I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse, making the devious sexy mother a recurring motif rather than a one-off. As it is, I find it uncomfortable to watch Arrabal’s mommy issues play out on-screen—which may be exactly the response he’s hoping for.
The neglect that even scholars of surrealism have shown Arrabal is surprising. Viva la Muerte made waves in its initial release, gaining a very favorable notice in The New York Times (which called it “inescapably a major work”) and riding the crest of El Topo‘s popularity to midnight screenings and minor cult popularity. Yet, while his fellow Panic movement friend ‘s legend only grew in the following years, thoughts of Arrabal faded away, until now he’s preserved only in the memory of a select few. Arrabal’s work is, if anything, more in-your-face than Jodorowsky, who never shot anything as nauseating as the slaughterhouse sequence here (Jodorowsky never quite reached the depths of Arrabal’s fecal fascinations, either). The disturbing nature of Arrabal’s imagery has probably worked against him, although similar atrocities have helped preserve the legend of a film like Sweet Movie. But the indifference movie fans show Viva la Muerte‘s seems even stranger due to its generally arthouse-friendly subject matter. Cineastes usually eat up historically peculiar childhood reminiscences and blatantly leftist cinema, and notoriety and controversy usually boost such films, at least in retrospect. Perhaps there was only room for one Panic director in the world, and Jodorowsky seized the throne. Perhaps there’s just no place in the movie consciousness for a man who simultaneously suggests a darker Fellini and a more scandalous Jodorowsky. Arrabal probably belongs in the dark corners of cinema, scuttling about, seen only by seekers after the truly weird. Obscurity suits his vision.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The imagery of ‘Viva la Muerte’—the defecation, self-mortification, strange and unusual punishment—reads like an illustrative footnote to some Surrealist manifesto. It is as if the famous razor across the eyeball that opens Bunuel’s ‘Un Chien Andalou’ had never lost its cutting edge…”–Roger Greenspun, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“…if I was in a movie and the exquisite Núria Espert played my mom, I’d probably stroke my lizard, too. But I wouldn’t bite its head off. Unless I found out that I was in a Fernando Arrabal movie, in which case it would probably be the most normal thing I’d do that day… a heady concoction of perverse, Bosch-like images that aren’t easily assimilated. I’ll probably watch it again whenever my life starts to feel a little too normal and I need a stiff dose of crazy.”–Porfle, Hong Kong and Cult Film News (DVD)
IMDB LINK: Long Live Death (1971)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Watch Viva la Muerte, the French Surrealistic film by Fernando Arrabal – The Fandor Viva la Muerte page features numerous stills, poster art, and a clip
Screening of the film “VIVA LA MUERTE” (Long Live Death) directed by FERNANDO ARRABAL – Though long passed, there’s a little bit of information about Arrabal and his film on this page advertising a screening in Italy
DVD INFO: Sad to say, the print used for the Cult Epics DVD (buy) is not always the crispest. Although it’s more than viewable the film could use a restoration to bring out more vibrant colors, especially in the fantasy sequences. Extras include a Spanish language dub, lobby card gallery, the trailer for I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse, and the jewel of the disc: a puckish, free-associating interview with writer/director Arrabal. Those looking for serious insight may be frustrated (Arrabal rotates a chair and his lap for part of the interview, sniffs his own shoe, and claims he decided to shoot in Tunisia because his first choice of location, his mother’s womb, was not available), but it gives you a sense of an artist who’s always in character, and some legitimate information slips through the Surrealist façade. (This interview is continued on the Crazy Horse DVD).
Cult Epics also released this disc as part of the three-DVD “The Fernando Arrabal Collection” set (buy). I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse (1973) and The Guernica Tree (1975) are its companions, making this set a complete overview of Arrabal’s early career and perhaps the definitive Arrabal collection (his post-Guernica movies are even more obscure than these).
Viva la Muerte is also available streaming on Fandor (subscribe).
(This movie was nominated for review by “levide.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)