Pirouetting towards Hell


Dana Rotberg’s bleak
and fatalistic
Angel de Fuego
struggles to achieve
the status of a parable


Angel de Fuego
Dana Rotberg, Mexico
1991, IMICINE/Metropolis/
Una Productora Mas
95 minutes, Spanish with English subtitles

Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez

LATAMROB rating: **

ONE CANNOT expect a movie about a 13-year-old trapeze artist in an itinerant circus in the slums of Mexico City who has been abandoned by her mother and seduced by her father to be happy.

However, Angel de Fuego was not meant to be a blockbuster, but a gritty and fatalistic art-house film shot on a shoestring.

Add to the mix the fact that Alma, the girl, ends up pregnant after consenting to the incestuous relationship – and is then expelled from the troupe – and the outcome is bound to be a high-wire act between realistic gloom and precarious parable.

When Alma (Evangelina Sosa), now a nomadic fire-breather, encounters another troupe to join, there is a glimpse of hope. But this troupe is led by Refugio (Lilia Aragón), an older woman who believes she is blessed and tries to educate the poor through puppets according to her interpretation of the Bible. The girl is required to endure a ritual cleansing – including an abortion – to purge her past sins in preparation for redemption, but comes to resent the test and ends up destroying everything within reach.

Dana Rotberg successfully directed the 1985 documentary Elvira Luz Cruz: Pena Máxima and the feature Olivia Rauda, both of which deal with the subject of women taking justice into their own hands. Angel de Fuego continues in this vein, albeit tangentially, and, if anything, manages to create a surreal ambience – but in trying too hard to make the situation plausible, it fails in its ambition to convey a credible parable about the inevitability of sin.

The plot feels contrived and the very obvious allegories – Angel de Fuego-Angel of Fire, Sacramento-Sacrament, Refugio-Shelter – make it crude and elementary. Sosa’s embodiment of a soul-seeking forgiveness is dull, making the film’s 90 minutes feel turgid.

Director’s merit

Rotberg’s merit, however, is to have confronted taboos about the roles of women in Mexican society at a time when the country’s cinema was still too busy searching for a “national identity” and women directors were still trying to break into a male-dominated cinema.

Her depiction of a world in two spheres is clever and daring – on the one hand, the circus of this life, material, unforgiving and ultimately led by men, like the Circo Fantasia where Alma lived before her expulsion (into Hell/Purgatory?) – and on the other, a theatre of forgiveness/survival, mainly inhabited by women desperately clinging on to the hope of a new tomorrow.

Rotberg has been classified as one of the most prominent Mexican feminist directors, and her conclusion in this film is clear: none of these spheres welcome sinners, especially if they are poor women.

Like Alma, the great majority of women from the underclass will never achieve redemption unless they dare to destroy the forces that control them. Sadly, however, Angel de Fuego fails to get this across, and is lost in its own reflections and coded introspection.

Georgina Jiménez is a Mexican freelance writer