In the book Customs and Cultures of Mexico by Peter Standish and Steven M. Bell, the authors refer to the films of director Arturo Ripstein’s films as ones that “highlighted characters beset by futile compulsions to escape (their) destinies.” As such, many of his films feature bleak colors and pathetic characters who struggle to retain any scrap of dignity. The Harvard Film Archive referred to him as the link between “Mexico’s studio-era and the new generation of auteur directors.”
The title of this film was given to Ripstein by Mexican surrealist Octavio Paz by way of a seminal essay on Marcel Duchamp. In it, Gabriel Lima (Claudio Brook, Simon of the Desert, Licence to Kill) imprisons his family from the temptations of the rest of the world, dominating them and subjugating them in the same way that a totalitarian government would hold them against their will. Meanwhile, the family struggles to subsist with their homemade rat poison business. It was based on a real life story.
The father is the ultimate in evil, as despite him abusing his sons for not memorizing passages about how a man should be, he does not follow them. In the outside world that he has forbidden them from ever seeing, he is a continual debaser of virgins while in his own domain, he continually attacks his wife for knowing any man before him.
The film was nominated for ten Arial Awards, winning Best Picture (in a tie with Mecanica Nacional and Reed, Mexico Insurgente), as well as awards for Arturo Beristain for Best Suppoting Actor, Diana Bracho for Best Supporting Actress, Ripstein and José Emilio Pacheco for Best Original Screenplay and Manuel Fontanals for Best Scenography.
In 2009, the film Dogtooth was a critical and commercial success for Greek director Giorgos Lanthimos, but to many, it seemed that it outright stole the story and several key moments from Ripstein’s film. The director’s response? He considered sending him a message that said, “I hope we win” when the film was nominated for an Oscar. Such is life, as many Mexican films are truly lost on the world stage and unacknowledged at best.
It’s hard to call this a horror film. It exists in its own strange universe, beyond the world of normal man while at the same time it struggles to inform us in a parable-like way of what happens when pride comes before the fall.