Bleak Street: Of tender whores and masked dwarves
by Alfonso Rivera
- A slice of pure Arturo Ripstein, produced by Mexico and Spain, opened the Gijón Film Festival with its loose recreation of a tragicomic real-life event from the Mexico City underworld
Before it opened the 53rd Gijón Film Festival last Friday, Bleak Street [+see also:
film profile] was screened at Toronto and Venice. The energetic and loquacious 72-year-old Arturo Ripstein himself came to present it in the Asturian city, but not in the company of his partner (in both love and scriptwriting): the no-less-fantastic Paz Alicia Garciadiego, with whom he has so far developed 14 titles. It was she who, upon reading a nota roja – an accident and crime report in the Mexican press – was inspired to write the plot for this black-and-white tragicomedy, starring the members of the criminal underworld that populate the depths of the Mexican capital.
And so we find ourselves in purest Ripstein territory, complete with dark and gloomy alleyways, chipped and cracked houses, and souls that are no less damaged: two prostitutes, at round about retirement age, involuntarily become tangled up in an event, the victims of which are two dwarf twins who never take off their fighting masks. The author of a number of other frescos of the city he loves so much (such as La reina de la noche and The Virgin of Lust) guides his camera, which rocks, meanders and floats along, often making use of long takes, around the filthy underground pipes of a city whose distant hustle and bustle we never cease to hear. Thus we get to know its melancholy but beloved prostitutes (Patricia Reyes Spíndola and Nora Velázquez): one combines humanity’s most widely questioned profession with begging and exploiting an old lady, whom she pushes around in a Buñuelian trolley; the other has to cope with her tyrannical teenage daughter and a husband who steals her lingerie in order to try it on in secret meetings with young boys. And so these two women are as prone to fighting their way through life as the other pair of protagonists, though the Lilliputians do so in a wrestling ring.
The thick-headed lower classes that Ripstein portrays with the help of the black-and-white photography (which is used fairly regularly in the Mexican maestro’s filmography), courtesy of Alejandro Cantú, are awful, but they are also human beings: deep down, the old prostitutes, while they may overstep various boundaries of the law, are pure, merciful and compassionate souls, hookers with profound emotions who are forced to deal with the role that life has thrown at them with as much dignity as possible, without ever ceasing, in essence, to love.
For the viewer, Bleak Street, which ironically comes to a close with a cheerful ditty sung in French by Luis Mariano, turns into a bizarre immersion in a universe that, as realistic as it may be, seems to be a dream... or rather a nightmare. Ripstein once again moves us, using his gaze to scrutinise the hidden sewers of our society, creating a miraculous blend of humour, death and tenderness in this fable that is an heir to the Spanish picaresque writings of Francisco de Quevedo, Mateo Alemán and, of course, Ramón del Valle-Inclán’s Divine Words: a grotesque and melodramatic universe inhabited by eternal losers, which Francisco de Goya also captured with his paintbrush.
(Translated from Spanish)