Amorality across frontiers


Eugene Carey takes a second look at Perdita Durango and discovers that this busty freak show is a subversive commentary about the US border


Perdita Durango
Alex de la Iglesia
1997, Canal+ España/IMCINE/Lolafilms
126 minutes, English

LATAMROB rating: ***

A FASCINATING and nuanced picture of the US-Mexican border emerges from this transgressive – and subversive – examination of amorality across frontiers.

The film adaptation of Barry Gifford’s heady pulp novel 59° and Raining: The Story of Perdita Durango (1992), the tale is actually a continuation of what began with Gifford’s Wild at Heart, a largely unsuccessful adaptation by David Lynch in which Perdita makes her first appearance.

Director Alex de la Iglesia offers a Latino take on the road-movie-star-crossed-lovers theme, which gave a sharp edge to the hitherto forgettable Rosie Perez as the untameable man eater Perdita who falls for Santería priest-lover Romeo Dolorosa (Javier Bardem).

The pair are drifters who plot a kidnap and human sacrifice to Romeo’s god and, to cap it all, cannibalism for dessert. There’s madness, violence, graphic sex and lots of overacting – but the overall effect is of a film that somehow escapes its B-movie ghetto and makes a kind of cynical statement about the US and the borderlands that the superpower only appears to dominate.

Freak show

First, Perdita and Romeo are attractive demons in a much larger freak show in which most of the American characters are either debilitated or deeply flawed, gifted only with large breasts or buns, but rarely brains. The cop on Romeo’s trail (James Gandolfini) crosses the highway with a cowboy’s determined 1,000-yard stare, before he is promptly run over by a speeding chevy. The border officer on the US side of the Tijuana crossing has a sordid predilection for oral sex with prostitutes in between official meetings. The US is morally adrift, a venal sweatshop in which anything goes if it earns a buck and consumption is the progenitor of sin: if Romeo is hired by Mexican crime lord Santos (Don Stroud) to get a refrigerated truck loaded with human foetuses across the border, it is to a US cosmetics company for use in face lotions that he is taking it.

At first sight, Mexico is an arid wasteland populated solely by lawless, ignorant, criminally wired psychopaths – a cheap shot that allows the viewer to gorge upon the free meat provided by Latino stereotypes. But therein lies the trick, and it is one that Gifford – the son of a gangster able to see shades of grey in America’s manichean moral world of black of white – carries off with dexterity. Perdita and Romeo are dark, predatory beings who hunt stealthily at night in enemy territory – neither weak nor lost, but gifted with insight and effectively in control. Their hapless victims are gringos, and it is their hearts – and souls – that will be consumed.

The Spanish director has also cleverly mined history and in particular the notion of Aztec sacrifice and ritual cannibalism. If not intact, the culture south of the border is alien and fearsome to the blond Anglo-Saxon prey simply incapable of empathising with their brown-skinned cousins. Duane and Estelle – the virginal teens swiped from a US street in full view of the drunken throng – have only slightly more inclination to weep and whine than to fight back in order to save lives portrayed as suburban, empty and meaningless. Their powerlessness once caged will be familiar to so many Hispanics sweeping the floors for Anglo masters.

De la Iglesia’s Perdita Durango is, as a result, a subversive inversion of the myth of the lawless drifter that portrays the US as a dumb, largely defenceless object of Latino gratification. Predictably, the US version of the film had to be toned down with cuts and renamed so that it didn’t have an Hispanic title, an act of vandalism that helps to explain why so many US critics just didn’t get it.

Rosie Perez took a lot of flak for this role, not least for revealing so much flesh, but her Perdita is a mature jungle beast that demonstrates depth to her acting. Who knows, her own political awakening as a Boricua activist may have found some inspiration in the role reversal that this disturbing character offered her. As Perdita, Rosie very definitely became a woman on top: figuratively and physically.

Javier Bardem’s Romeo is sinister and at times even believable, although his hair is absurd. One can see in his performance early hints of the grim reaper Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men who, it has to be noted, also sported a silly haircut. But as Anton confirmed, hair does not make the man.

Eugene Carey is a freelance journalist

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