26 April, 2018|
I was predisposed to enjoy Los Adioses, Natalia Beristáin’s biopic about ‘mid-century modern’ Mexican feminist writer Rosario Castellanos. That the story of an influential intellectual was claiming territory in a genre crowded with froufrous about entertainers, sports heroes and dissipated fine artists was encouraging. But, alas, I found Beristáin’s treatment of her subject skewed, reducing this multi-faceted, brilliant and emblematic woman to the one-note drama of an early feminist caged in as a wife and mother by a slime ball husband. Los Adioses [which translates as ‘the goodbyes’, though the title for the English version of the film is The Eternal Feminine], perhaps unconsciously, also perpetuates pernicious racism in Mexico where everyone and everything with agency in academia and arts and letters must be Caucasian.
The film’s abiding conflict centers around the choice that Mexican women of the middle and more privileged class have to make between accepting as ultimate fulfillment the role of wives and mothers, or to make real their aspirations and become intellectuals, professionals, or artists. Castellano’s calling led her one way, her shaky sense of self and culture another.
Rosario Castellanos wrote poems, novels, essays, and plays, was an academic and anthropologist, and ultimately a stateswoman. She became a touchstone for women’s consciousness in Mexico, and still is to this day. Often mentioned alongside Frida Kahlo, Castellanos was more explicitly polemical about her feminism than Frida, who was about twenty years her senior.
Without treating her other literary pursuits, the film does a good job, nonetheless, in expressing some of her memorable verses, conceived in her quest for solitude and delivered by her clunky typewriter.
The constant sound of those clacking keys provides the drumbeat to her inspiration and compulsion to write at any and all times, paying no heed to what is happening all around her, nor who may be petitioning for attention. This absorption in her work cost her her marriage to philosopher Ricardo Guerra and her ability to attentively raise her son.
A powerful filmic detail confirms this, as we see Rosario awakened late one night by the typewriter’s clickety chorus, in a steady rhythm now. She finds Guerra on the floor, the lamp thrown down beside him casting about an eerie yellow gloom, as he brutalizes the keys, using one stiffened finger only, filling up random sheet after random sheet of meaningless garbage that expresses his ragefull envy. The typewriter, lamp and glow, and strewn paper tiling chaotically the floor, suggest a menacing art installation, a tableau of dysfunction.
Los Adioses goes awry in its own drumbeat, portraying Castellano’s multi-faceted story in terms only of her push for women’s empowerment in academia on the lecture circuit and in the classroom at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, as well as domestically in her persistent struggle to balance her fraught role as dutiful wife and mother with her compulsion to write, almost as if her life depended on it. The film never gets beyond this conflict, as great as it assuredly is, excluding other formative and informing elements. In the end, Los Adioses does its subject and the viewer a disservice.
We do not learn, for example, that Castellanos lost a sister when quite young, nor that she was orphaned at 16, two ‘adioses’ that might have helped contextualize her subsequent battle with depression, her 13-year marriage to a man who could meet none of her needs for companionship, and her ambivalence toward mothering when death had defined her childhood. (I hoped, but in vain, that Beristáin had found a more original way to portray depression than the mere meme of Castellanos dropping a good number of tablets from a vial into the palm of her hand, and then in great agitation popping them into her mouth).
Most unfortunate is the film’s disregard of Castellanos’ other great commitment, that of sharing her art, and her searching heart, with the indigenous people she grew up among, the Maya of the southern state of Chiapas, when indigenous themes, especially the tension between indigenous and white—landworker and landowner—thread through her trilogy of novels, Balún Canán, Ciudad Real and Oficio de Tinieblas. Castellanos returned to Chiapas in the 1950s to write and present puppet shows promoting literacy with the support of the Instituto Nacional Indigenista, where she became theater director.
Rosario Castellanos Figueroa was of mixed blood, indigenous and European. This is obvious in her photos, as it is in the super 8-like footage of her in her library before the ending credits to Los Adioses begin. Her mixed race is noted in a number of biographical entries as well, and it was something she herself apparently did not conceal. In the film she is portrayed by two actresses, representing her as a young, burgeoning adult (Tessa Ia), and as an early middle-aged woman (Karina Gidi). Both have cream-colored skin and unmistakable European features. In further perpetuation of Mexico’s racist stereotypes, we see precious few of her lofty cohorts with a recognizably indigenous or mestizo appearance.
Her death, in 1974, at 49, was horrific and an unnecessary tragedy. She’d been appointed Ambassador to Israel, in 1971. At her home in Tel Aviv, she apparently electrocuted herself after stepping out of the bath and attempting to replace the bulb in a table lamp. In Los Adioses, Castellanos first fiddles with the lamp, tapping the shade a few times, then turns away to face the camera, a puzzled expression on her face. Then the screen goes black, leaving us, the viewers, in the dark. Why did her life end in cool silence here, in the absence scorching color? Why did Los Adioses deprive Rosario Castellanos of so much of her light, so much of her voice?