Two Monks (Juan Bustillo Oro, Dir., 1934): Why I love Mexican Cinema – 4

Dos Monjes (Two Monks)
emerged in 1934 as one of the most innovative Expressionist films of the time.
In the same genre as the work explored by the German Expressionist filmmakers,
F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, Juan Bustillo Oro uses dramatic techniques to tell
a story, but more importantly to probe the psychological state and the nature
of reality of the protagonists.

The storyline of Dos Monjes is straight-forward,
especially as Gothic fiction goes. Two monks, who clearly hate each other, are
in the same monastery. One has a secret, and the other has a lacuna, a big gap
in his memory, which is not as much like amnesia as something that might have
had from a shock from which his mind has not yet recovered.

Dos Monjes (Two Monks) is a
ground-breaking film of Mexican Expressionism. Although critically well
received, it was followed by only one of the same Expressionist genre,
primarily because the newly-elected president of Mexico, President Cardenas,
gave financial support to work following Leninist notions that art was to be
used for didactic purposes, and to inculcate socialist values. Thus, his
presidency supported the films that were consonant with themes such as land
reform, nationalization of national resources, separation of church and state,
educational opportunities for indigenous, and more. Abstract, modernist, and
expressionistic art forms clashed with his administration’s ideology. So,
Bustillo Oro, along with other filmmakers, began to make more traditional
films, although there is no doubt that Bustillo Oro’s aesthetic ideas infuse
all his work, and even constitute a subversion of the dominant ideology of the

Bustillo Oro’s ability to manage the techniques and ideas
of Expressionism is stunning, particularly considering he and his crew had to
improvise and build for the first time the sets and the techniques in order to
bring about the effects.  Specifically,
there is a visual “conversation” with various antecedents, which include the
German Expressionist cinematographers: F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. From art,
the conversations include the painters Edvard Munch, Ernst Kirchner, Pablo
Picasso, and the sculptor, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.

The story is a basic one: a young woman is shot during an
argument between two young men. What really happened? The only certain thing is
that she is dead, and that the two men ended up at the same monastery. We learn
what happened in the accident through flashbacks. The details of the accident
are not as important as the psychological story being told by means of film
technique, and also the destabilization of reality and all the ontological
considerations attendant to it. Specifically, Bustillo Oro uses lighting,
shadows, point of view and perspective to call into question what is real and
what is a hallucination or flaw in memory.  


Javier                           A gifted composer, but psychologically

Juan                             Javier’s boyhood friend, now a sailor

Ana                              Javier’s next door neighbor with whom
he falls in love

Gertrudis:                     Javier’s mother


Madness:                     The primary theme of the film is
that of madness and how it shapes one’s perceptions of reality. In essence, it
is about the victims of madness and how it takes their lives away from them.
For Bustillo Oro, madness is depicted less in words and more in expressionistic
images and lighting that show rather than describe the states of mind, the
perceptions, and the unmoorings from rational thought.

Obsessive love:             Javier’s
love for Ana verges on the obsessive. She does not reciprocate in the same way;
she is mainly grateful to him and to Gertrudis (Javier’s mother) for having
given her a place to stay when her parents expelled her from their home after
she rejected a suitor. Unbeknownst to all, Ana rejected the suitor because she
had promised herself to Juan before his latest long sea voyage.           

The nature of memory: Memory is not to be trusted in Dos
In fact, the film revolves around two competing narratives and
ideas about how memory depends on the eye of the beholder, and that one’s own
memory may be inaccurate.

Friendship:                   The
friendship shared by Juan and Javier is one that dates back to childhood.
However, it does not withstand the pressure of rivalry over a love interest.
Nor does it withstand the pressure of psychological instability.

This is an excerpt of a longer article by Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D. To access the full version, you may click here

Meet Javier, a monk who is living the life of a self-abnegating
monk, but we do not know why. Notice the light focused on his face, the candle
and the dark background. 

This scene is absolutely brilliant: Javier is watching from
his home, and observes the arrival of a suitor, the welcoming gestures of Ana’s
mother, and Ana’s own resistance to the arrangement. The silhouette technique
is quite striking. 

After Javier meets the newly admitted Juan in the
monastery, he begins to play the organ again. But instead of the sweet,
harmonious tones he created before, he is now mentally disorganized, and his
performance reflects it. His music is discordant. The lighting reinforces the
concept of madness, with a circle of light suggesting exaltedness. The monks
are faceless, with their backs to the camera, a menacing presence.

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