Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on January 19, 2017
Of late, I’ve been exploring the work of director Arturo Ripstein after coming across El castillo de la pureza aka The Castle of Purity (1972) and Foxtrot (1975) streaming on FilmStruck. Ripstein was brought up in Mexico’s thriving post-war film industry by his Polish-Mexican father, a prominent producer who cultivated his son’s cinematic interests. During a screening of Louis Buñuel’s Nazarin (1959) at age 15, Ripstein developed an appreciation of film as art recognizing that movies could illuminate and inform viewers as well as entertain them. He was so impressed by the film’s vision that he reached out to Buñuel who admired Ripstein’s tenacity. Buñuel eventually allowed him to visit the set of The Exterminating Angel (1962), where Ripstein studied the accomplished director’s methods and was inspired to embark on his own filmmaking career. Much like his idol Buñuel, Ripstein’s films are critical of social mores and establishment hypocrisy. He tackles these sensitive subjects with dark humor and a critical eye while encouraging viewers to reconsider their own assumptions and beliefs.
Ripstein’s El castillo de la pureza and Foxtrot focus on characters who attempt to create “safe spaces” where the perceived dangers and distractions of the outside world can’t encroach on them or their loved ones. Although the first film was released 45-years ago, both movies are particularly relevant today as college campuses grapple with the idea of creating safe spaces where marginalized students can express themselves without fear or interference. President-elect Donald Trump also recently suggested that theaters should be safe spaces free of social protest after Vice President-elect Mike Pence was challenged by the cast of Hamilton during a performance of the play he attended. Ripstein’s films indirectly address these contemporary concerns while telling compelling stories about obstinate individuals who long for seclusion but discover that the world is unaccommodating.
In El castillo de la pureza, Ripstein employed Claudio Brook (star of Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert  and The Exterminating Angel ) to play a cruel and domineering father who insists on shielding his wife (Rita Macedo) and three children (Arturo Beristáin, Diana Bracho & Gladys Bermejo) from humanity’s ills. The isolated family lives in a damp, decaying old mansion and generates income by making rat poison that the father sells on his solitary trips into town. Reality eventually invades their sequestered existence and the results are chilling. Elements of this taut psychological drama are reminiscent of other films about moribund families such as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and Our Mother’s House (1967) but Ripstein shoots the events with an intimacy that evokes the humanity at the heart of this peculiar tale, which is based on a true story.
In Foxtrot, Peter O’Toole stars as a wealthy European aristocrat who retreats to a private island where he hopes to avoid the encroaching horrors of WWII with his wife (Charlotte Rampling), longtime friend (Max Von Sydow) and trusty servant (Jorge Luke). Together they live in luxurious art deco (by way of ‘70s kitsch à la The Abominable Dr. Phibes ) inspired pavilions while spending their days sipping champagne, taking leisurely swims, watching movies and pining for the past. When the past does finally catch up with them in the form of a group of old friends who crash their private party, the invading interlopers bring the violence of the outside world to the island. Human vice and viciousness rule the day while their tropical paradise begins to resemble a ramshackle prison.
According to the few reviews and write-ups I’ve come across, Ripstein’s Foxtrot is not based on a true story but the premise seems likely inspired by the true events of the infamous “Galapagos Affair” which is the source of Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden (2014). This excellent documentary accounts the real events surrounding a group of German citizens who set up home on a secluded pacific island in the 1930s to elude the post-WWI economic and social upheaval. Much like the characters in Foxtrot, the original island occupiers are soon joined by unwelcome intruders who disrupt their cloistered utopia.
Ripstein’s films suggest that there are no safe spaces and when we attempt to disengage from humanity, it will eventually impose on our self-made sanctuary. El castillo de la pureza and Foxtrot also ask viewers to address their own fears, prejudices and limited perspectives which frequently cripple us and obstruct our understanding and appreciation of the complex, unpredictable, beautiful, ugly and occasionally terrifying world that we all live in. If you’re unfamiliar with Risptein as I was, this eye-opening double feature is a wonderful introduction to the director’s work, which has influenced a new generation of talented Mexican filmmakers that includes Guillermo del Toro (Cronos , The Devil’s Backbone , Pan’s Labyrinth ), Carlos Reygadas (Japón , Silent Light , Post Tenebras Lux ) and Nicolas Pereda (Where Are Their Stories? , Perpetuum Mobile , Summer of Goliath ).
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