Mare Nostrum (1948)

Mare Nostrum* is a spy drama set in Naples, Italy at the outbreak of World War II. It was the first of three films María Félix starred in that were directed by Rafael Gil. It was adaptated from a novel by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez whose books inspired numerous film adaptations. This was the second adaptation of the novel. The previous version directed by Rex Ingram (1926) was set during a previous war, but was loosely based around the same plot.

I’m going to recount the plot using screenshots from the film.

Freya Talperg (Félix) is a German spy based in Naples.
She seduces Captain Ulises Ferragut (Fernando Rey). Here she is looking at an aquarium thrilled to see an octopus fight a conger eel.
She tells him she is a spy out of patriotism. He’s unsettled, but as a Spaniard is neutral. She claims to simply follow orders. The love scenes scandalised some commentators at the time (Taibo I 2004, 196).
But, it’s clear that she is part of the plot to plant mines in the mediterranean and establish dominance.
Her task is to seduce Ulises and convince him to use his boat to plant mines. But waivers as he is one of her victims she actually loves, as she tells Dr Fedelman (Porfiría Sánchez).
She convinces him to carry out the plot. They are nearly stopped by the British who board the boat, but Ulises convinces them theirs is a routine cargo run. Freya and Ulises watch the mines being planted alongside Count Gavelin/Von Kramer (Guillermo Marín).
The mines being planted. Gavelin drugs Ulises and leaves the boat with Freya on a submarine.
Freya begs Ulises for forgiveness. He refuses but is haunted by her. His estranged son is killed by one of the mines. He happens to be in a boat nearby when this happens and there is a tearful farewell. Ulises willingly hands himself over to the authorities. But he is let free.
After further treachery, Freya is arrested and condemned to death by firing squad. She insists on wearing her “uniforme” [uniform] of glamorous seductive clothing.
She is shot by the US marines on the beach.
Ulises’ boat is sunk by German bombers. He dies beforehand having shot down one of them. What looks like archival footage is used as footage for the sinking of their ship.

There are so many ambivalences in the film narrative. Ulises is prepared to betray his neutral country and help the Germans. Freya is a noble patriot (the word is used repeatedly) to the end. No mention or symbols of Nazi Germany are used in the film. This does more than appear to de-politicise the film so much as make it strange in a World War II film. More than Una mujer cualquiera (1949), this film reveals Gil’s politics and sympathies with Francoism.

As an aside, it was one of the few in which her character sings. She was not known for her singing talent. Ana María González performed the song which was dubbed in post-production.

This was Félix’s first film in Spain and received much acclaim on arrival from the public with her moves carefully tracked by the popular press (see, Taibo I 2004, 195). Spain was a major consumer of Mexican film and Félix was at the height of her fame at the time.

A look at a review of Ingram’s 1926 version in Sight and Sound suggests that the previous adaptation played up to the over-blown sexuality of the source text. In that review Fuller describes the novelist as having a “fear of monstrous female sexuality in his work […which] drew on the misogynistic cult in fin-de-siècle art and literature” (2014). In Gil’s version Freya and Ulises wrestle with similar conflicts. Ironically, his ambivalence about Spain’s neutrality in the war as well as the decision to cast Félix in this role allowed more space for a nuanced female character than were evidente in either the source text or Ingram’s versions.

Work Cited

Fuller, Graham. (2014), “Mare Nostrum”, Sight & Sound 24.11: 102

Taibo I, Paco Ignacio. (2004), María Félix: 47 pasos por el cine. Mexico: Ediciones B.

*I watched this on Flix Olé

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