El monje blanco [the white monk] was the first of three films directed by Julio Bracho starring María Félix. The other two are La mujer de todos (1946), set in1912 during a brief pause in the fighting in the Mexican Revolution, and Canasta de cuentos mexicanos (1956), an adaptation of a book of short stories by B Traven. El monje blanco is another adaptation, this time from an unlikely source for a film made in Mexico: a play by a member of the Catalan modernist movement, the playwright, novelist, and poet, Eduardo Marquina. The adaptation is credited to Julio Bracho and his longtime collaborator, the poet Xavier Villarrutia. They keep the verse form of the original rendering it archaic in style and lending the performances a theatrical effect albeit one with relentless delivery of dialogue and few pauses.
Félix is Gálata Orsino, a beautiful, but unworldly, woman whose life is ruined when she falls for ‘El conde’ [the count] Hugo del Saso (Tomás Perrín). She goes to a monastery in thirteenth century Italy on a day many other pilgrims are there to celebrate a statue of the Virgin Mary. She is disguised as a monk and confesses to the chaplain about her past. Told as a series of flashbacks and intercut with El conde’s story. He is now living in the monastery as Fray [Brother] Paracleto and is also confessing his side of the story to the chaplain. Their stories unfold as a melodramatic romance with a utopian ending.
The bare bones of the narrative are fairly straightforward. Fearful that her beauty would lead to her downfall (just as it did with her mother), Gálata’s father shelters her from the world in a hut in a remote corner of the woods owned by the count. But, in fairytale fashion, this is not possible. When the count is out hunting, he happens upon Gálata, they fall in love and she goes to live with him in his castle. She is lavished with gifts and fine clothing but feels compromised by these excesses. She leaves the castle. Is pregnant, has the child back in the hut. The count seeks her out, has her taken away, considers murdering the illegitimate baby. Recants while a monk implores him not to kill the baby. He is next seen at the monastery tearful and remorseful. Gálata is reunited with her son and the count leaves the monastery and the family walk off into the woods as the monks and priest look on in delight.
The film is shot beautifully by Alex Philips, a skilled cinematographer who has not gotten the same attention as his peer, Gabriel Figueroa. Nonetheless, it is difficult to watch for two fundamental reasons. The first, is the script and its performance. Villarrutia did try and elevate a source text whose lines are “casi siempre fríos y mecánicos” [almost exclusively cold and mechanical] (Taibo I 2004, 103), and the relentless pacing in the delivery of the script does not enhance it. There is little time to absorb the rather convoluted telling. The second, is down to mis-casting. For this role, Félix is called on either to be an innocent or a fallen woman. The latter she did successfully and regularly over the course of her career. The former, less so, and rarely with conviction. In El monje blanco, her age, her physicality, the wardrobe, and the lighting that goes with her star presence all indicate a woman of the world, not a naive young woman unaware of her charms. Perrín is a poor choice as a leading man. There is something camp in his performance that could have worked if the direction was different, but does not convince in this film. He is also someone who has a symmetrically composed face that suggests good looks, but he has little screen presence.
There is more to be said about this film and it is one of considerable interest to those keen on Philips and, a necessary watch for a Félix completist, but, as entertainment it falls short.
Taibo I, Paco Ignacio. (2004), María Félix: 47 pasos por el cine. Mexico: Ediciones B.