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Saturday, May 15, 2021

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 day.

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 unstable

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 Monjes. 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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