Seeing Comala in the Big Screen

The first time i encountered an image of Comala was in the written words of Juan Rulfo’s master piece Pedro Paramo (1955). I was fascinated by the poetical power of this mythical space. Comala was at the same time a town, a state of mind, an underworld, heaven and a total universe. After re-reading Rulfo’s book a couple of times i was also intrigued by the sophisticated literary techniques of the book. I wrote a couple of academic papers where i analyzed the poetic economy of the language, the powerful imagery, and the literary reception that the book had in Latin America. I remember being totally moved by the delicate treatment of the fictional universe, the phantasmagorical and earthy actions of the characters, the deep silences between the different episodes, and the overall structure of the novel.

Last wednesday I had the opportunity to watch one of the film adaptations of Pedro Paramo, the one that was produced in Mexico in 1967.Although i found remarkable the performance of the actors, the cinematography, and the editing, it was the treatment of the language what i found more fascinating. Listening to the dialogue of the film was pleasant. The spoken words reminded me a lot of the book, of the delicacy and simplicity of the words that Rulfo wrote. The screenplay of the film respected very much the language of the book. Carlos Fuentes, Manuel Barbachano, and the director of the film, Carlos Velo, did a great job adapting Juan Rulfo text to the screen. Or perhaps, the text was already adapted for the screen in the original writing and the screenplay was just a sort of rearrangement of the dialogue, a selection of the most important parts.

The film respected also the structure of the novel and followed the unique organization of episodes, going back and forth in time, mixing the present with flash backs and fast forwards. And when i say the present, i am talking about the journey of Juan Preciado in the search of his father, Pedro Paramo. Elements of magic realism, fantasy, and gothic horror are blended in the story of this journey. The world that Juan Preciado enters, is a sort of underworld where the voices of the dead speak telling their personal stories, and by doing that, the story of Pedro Paramo and Susana San Juan. This unique universe is also earthy, and Comala, the town where all the characters lived and died becomes very real in the big screen.

The image of Comala that the film reveals preserves the mysterious elements that exist in the book. However, it does something else, it shows in a new way the natural landscape of the region of Mexico where the story occurs. Extremely long shots depict the dryness and hotness of the land in a very poetic way, showing always clouds of dust that float over the fields. The region appears plenty of hills and the nopales and other desert trees contribute to the creation of a mexican gothic atmosphere. There are also several shots of the hacienda of Pedro Paramo that reveal a magnificent ranch, with walls, and towers, expanding across the land. The cinematic image of the ranch, “The Media Luna,” made me realize not only the scope of the power of Don Pedro, but also the spaniardness of rural Mexico. As a matter of fact, Mexico was New Spain for many years and the Spanish culture affected not only the believes and traditions but also the landscapes and architectures.

Perhaps due to the respect that this cinematographic adaptation has for the written words, the feeling of confusion and disorientation is experienced in the dark room of the movie theater as it is in the reading of the book. The performances of the actors are compelling and engaging, and the series of events that are shown as little fragments, come together as pieces of a single story-world. Photography and lighting contribute to the creation of gothic atmosphere, in where the characters, as ghosts, appear and disappear, adding their parts of the story, and confusing not only Juan Preciado, but also the audience. It is only at the end of the film, after having listened to Dolores Preciado, Eduviges Dyada, Abundio Martínez, Susana San Juan, Damiana Cisneros, Miguel Paramo, and of course Pedro Paramo, that the audience can start to put together the fragments, the pieces of the story. That is perhaps the big disadvantage that the film has. The audience can not go back to a particular episode and the only option is to try to remember what happened, who spoke, who screamed.

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