Solving A Problem Like Maria
aka Satanico Pandemonium:
Mexico 1975 Directed by Gilberto Martínez Solares
Mondo Macabre Blu Ray Zone A
Warning: Satanico spoilers.
Wow, what an amazing movie. I was not expecting too much from Satanico Pandemonium, especially with the amount of nunsploitation films I’ve watched recently but, yeah, I sure got a surprise with this one. It’s easily the best nunsploitation movie I’ve seen and so much more. A real masterclass of movie making which, I believe, should be taught in every serious film studies class across the planet. I almost don’t know where to start with it, other than to say... I skimmed the user reviews on the IMDB and was astonished to read some absolutely terrible, unappreciating reviews of this little masterpiece on there. Maybe it’s an age thing but, it’s like some of the people who reviewed this were almost deliberately missing the point (and if they weren’t doing it deliberately then I feel sorry for them... and they should get out more and go watch some movies).
Now, many people will know this title, not from the film itself but from another film... Quentin Tarantino’s From Dusk To Dawn. In that film, Salma Hayek plays a vampire stripper called Satanico Pandemonium and, while that film doesn’t really have much in common with this one, her character is obviously named after this one. A nice little homage although, yeah, it seems almost a bit too ‘name checky’ for QT. That was an okayish film, though, to be sure.
This film though... wow. Okay, so it’s filled with some beautiful colours. Many of them are natural landscapes (and sometimes studio additions to those landscapes it seemed to me) where the camera dwells slowly on the various environments the main character, Sister Maria, finds herself wandering in for various stretches of the movie. Sister Maria is played by Cecilia Pezet and... what an amazing performance! This is easily one of the most well thought out, nuanced and intelligence performances I've seen in any kind of exploitation movie. Pezet plays the role completely seriously and, one of the strengths of the film over a lot of the nunsploitation movies I’ve seen, is that everything does come across as genuinely real in terms of the intent of all the characters, as opposed to the more tongue in cheek tone of levity regarding the more exploitative elements of most nunsploitation movies. Don’t get me wrong, this film does involve some full on exploitation elements but, the tone of this movie is measured enough to dilute any silliness from them. How should I clarify this...?
First of all, the story is very simple. Maria is tempted by a teleporting devil (played by Enrique Rocha) and his big, crisp, red apple on a number of occasions and, after a while, gives in to temptation... not by eating the apple but by being seduced by a lesbian nun who turns out to be the devil having intercourse with her and thus setting into motion the seed of the evil acts of lust and violence she starts to indulge in. The film takes a little while to build up Maria’s character and she plays the nun as almost the purest of the pure... a kind hearted, good natured, charitable servant of God who all the other nuns seem to look up to. Somebody who knows medicine and can help heal sick lambs, cows and people etc... a valued member of the nun community. So every time we see her committing an evil act, we clearly see her own guilt and revulsion at the atrocities she inflicts upon others...
For example, when another nun comes to her seeking medical aid but resists Maria’s naked seduction, she responds by stabbing her ‘patient’ in the neck with a pair of scissors. When she seeks out a young, ‘just in his teens’ boy and jumps naked into his bed, trying to lust him up and he rejects her... she attacks him with her knife until the blood covers her naked body and leaves the boy and his mother behind to perish in a burning cabin. And again, when her hands suddenly start smoking in one scene from the weight of her sins or, say, she has a vision of a snake jumping out of her cup during supper, we see the battle of good and evil going on in her soul by her ‘almost but not quite deadpan’, very subtle facial expressions. Cecilia Pezet really invests a lot of energy and intelligence into this central performance.
But while all this stuff is going on... the movie feels old. And I don’t mean like it was shot in 1975... I mean it manages to present this story but feels like it was shot in the late 1940s to mid 1950s in the golden age of Hollywood. Or maybe the kind of films Powell and Pressburger were making in the UK at around that time. Seriously, it’s like watching a rural Western movie or something and it feels almost authentic to the period. This also goes for the score under the music director (a credit which makes me suspect there may have been a little needle drop used in here too) named Gustavo César Carrión. The scoring feels like it was either 40s/50s Hollywood or, in some instances, a mid 1960s Star Trek episode (which more or less amounts to the same thing anyway, in terms of the style of the cues I’m thinking of).
Now, it’s not uncommon in terms of the music for some countries to be somewhat behind the trend and looking backwards when it comes to trying to compete with Hollywood product. For example, when I first listened to the score of Riccardo Freda & Mario Bava’s movie Caltiki Il Mostro Immortale (reviewed here), way before I actually got the opportunity to see the film, the people writing the liner notes had to explain why the score for a 1959 movie sounded the way it did... as in why did it sound like it was being scored in the 1930s/1940s Hollywood B-movie style. So, yeah, I’m used to movies not made in America sometimes harkening back to an older sound and not being quite ahead of the curve... or even caught up to that curve as yet. And as I first started watching Satanico Pandemonium, I thought this was maybe the case. But as the film moved on, I realised that some of the musical choices, while working completely, were still deliberately playing against the implications of what we were seeing. So, for instance, when Sister Maria goes off to infiltrate the young boy’s home and molest him, the music is still playing the light, airy and charming style of music associated with the innocence of her character until we get up to the deed, in direct counterpoint, even though we know her intent and the track record for the character has already been soiled by evil acts. So, the more I think of it, the more I’m beginning to realise that this probably was a very clever and deliberate choice on the part of Carrión and his director.
And what this does is bolster up the ‘old Hollywood’ feel of the picture already in evidence, which in turn makes the various set pieces of violence and nakedness that would be just dimmed down to being a standard use of the genre tropes in most other nunsploitation movies, much more powerful because they are less frequent and paced out. The film is a very slow boil and, while there is certainly some slow camera movement in a few scenes here and there, there are also a lot of sequences where the camera is completely static and observes people walking in and out of the frames (and there are huge swathes of the movie without dialogue too, which helps push the atmosphere). Those compositions are not overly clever or complex either... everything is simply done with some very bright (well, okay, not ‘Bava bright’) colours which give the shots interest. Even the nuns are not as stridently costumed as they are in other movies. There is a lot of visible white on their clothes contrasted with a very light blue hue and, on each, a yellow Patriarchal Cross with its double cross bars stitched onto the front of the pale blue habits (the two figures of this week’s Sisters Of Nunsploitation Week header are both renditions of Maria in Satanico Pandemonium from various points in the movie) .
And then, at the end of the movie, two things happen which are of interest. Firstly, we get a whole extra dose of quick, exploitation imagery all in one hit, as Maria is further tempted by the devil and imagines herself naked and being tortured by the inquisition... by such things as being forced to drink molten lead, having her torso ripped open and having her eyeball pulled out. This almost yanks you out of the movie and I wonder if the director was just told he had to put something like this in to satisfy the audiences expectations of the genre tropes towards the end... but somehow the music and the sure and steady tone of the whole thing, keeping consistent with the rest of the movie, kind of allows for it to not seem too ‘tacked on’.
Secondly... there’s the ending... and this really is a big spoiler people so, be warned, don’t read on if you don’t want to know. After becoming the Mother Superior of her convent, Sister Maria eventually finds herself stabbed to death by the various naked, cavorting nuns under her care and, her habit covered in blood from many wounds, she dies on her bed. But then we cut to many nuns, including a few who Maria has either injured or outright killed (in an overly enthusiastic assisted suicide scene in one case), very much alive and praying for her. We cut back to the bed we just left her on and there’s no blood and she’s very much at peace. Some dialogue makes us aware that she’s been ‘infected with the plague’ and been fighting it for days, finally succumbing to the disease and death. So, yeah, I can totally get why some people can condemn this ending as being a total cop out, ‘it was all a dream’ kind of ending, as we are lead to believe the entire battle between good and evil was playing out entirely in her head in some kind of fever dream but... you know... while I wouldn’t have chosen that ending, I think the director, whether he was forced to include it or not, really makes it work. It doesn’t undo the slow burn of the movie and its final trajectory much, if at all and, furthermore, you do get to see the Lucifer character again at the end, after Sister Maria has died. So, did he actually infect her with the plague all along?
I don’t know the answer to that and I don’t think it matters. I think the movie is, if anything, hugely subversive and getting away with a lot (including issues of the damaging effects of racism too in one scene)... presenting it all in a way that both makes it more palatable due to the tonal style of the movie but, somehow more shocking when the exploitation content is juxtaposed with that presentation. And that’s me done with Satanico Pandemonium... a film that I intend to watch quite a few more times in the future and which, for me, is the absolute cream of the crop in terms of what the genre can do. This film is an absolute masterclass of how to make a movie which is tonally setting up an atmosphere and using it to sweeten the pill of the less palatable (by comparison), exploitation elements. Absolutely amazing. I honestly can’t recommend this one enough.