A great review of Olalla

OLALLA, THE ABSTINENCE OF BLOOD
By Carlos Gutiérrez A. (cultural journalist and literature professor)
Published on Monday, 25 July, 2016 in the Sucre newspaper: Libertador

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American filmmaker Amy Hesketh, living in Bolivia, just premiered her new film at the Mexican Film Festival FERATUM (showcasing horror and science fiction films). This film has received good reviews. It’s an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s story given a Bolivian flavor. Although it has a Victorian style, it does also include very subtle Andean signposts: La Paz of the 1950s and Potosi of the nineteenth century. Here in Bolivia, the film premiered in La Paz and it has also been shown in Europe. It could be classified as a vampire genre film.

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The film smells of death (if we could say it has a smell), and when I say “smell”, I mean it reeks of death. The characters shamble along through the rooms (as sensory perceptions become blurred). These vampires don’t suffer from photophobia. They have learned to tolerate sunlight. However, they cannot contain their bloodlust.

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The film is an homage to the eternal and sinister Dracula of Bram Stoker, and all manner of gothic creation. It may be a more melancholic vision but it preserves the dark prince’s left motif. We can clearly see Dracula’s ghosts on parade starting with Nosferatu, to vampires that don’t wish to consume blood (Lucy Liu in Rise), and as an added spark, the work of Edgar Allan Poe, even occasional glimpses of Edward Scissorhands in the character played by Alejandro Loayza.

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INCEST AND OTHER DIRTY GAMES

One can’t watch this film and not think of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (incest among siblings) as it is also happening in a kind of sealed sanctuary.

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The villagers reject this “damned breed” (Olalla and her family). While they don’t do it publicly, they do so through bated whispers. Is there terror in the film? Yes, but for who? In very much a Bradbury sense, we are faced with an improbable paradox, incongruous, unimaginable but possible. The audience bears witness to the first lynching and witch hunt.

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The tragedy of these beings lies in that they do not possess supernatural powers. They cannot transform, fly away, etc. These walking dead are fragile and everyone knows where they live. They are the terrified ones. Like the characters in Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, it is the Martians who are attacked; Fahrenheit 451, the firemen burn books, they do not put out flames and The Visitors (a short story), where a family of vampires has an ill child (he doesn’t like blood).

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One could almost say that the audience breathes in the gunpowder, and no one knows at what time the bomb lying under everyone will go off. How terrifying it must be for a vampire who has fallen on hard times, demystified, falling into parody and humiliation, living in fear of being lynched.

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A vampire would have to die under a certain hierarchy, with a stake driven in by Van Helsing as the great enemy. In other words Olalla has been humanized by her creator. In the style of Richard Matheson, who in his famous novel I Am Legend comes up with a great scientific reasoning for the origin of the chiropteran humans (1).

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EROTICISM, ANOTHER MANNER OF BLOODSHED

The film reaches its zenith with the sadism and masochism practiced by the sisters and their uncle. The paraphernalia includes whips, sodomy, lust, etc. Even during Olalla’s lynching one can see a kind of collective and justified morbidity. Dracula becomes the exaltation for the greatest expression of eroticism: the sucking of blood, the biting, even cannibalism itself, etc.

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There is, however, in Amy’s eroticism a sadism that flies like leaves in the wind. The isn’t, as is said in Law, a teaching. There is, however, a flirtation. Her hands tied, Olalla is chastised by her uncle and the whip, but with the force one would use to swat a fly. Later she is punished like a misbehaved child on her father’s knee.

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Few scenes enliven their eroticism through such incongruous means. It is similar to the shower scene from Psycho (2). One is unsure if to be excited or terrified. How can violence conjure eroticism? That is this filmmaker’s contribution to Bolivian cinema. Gothic-Erotic horror cinema. Francis Ford Coppola showed us his version of eroticism in Dracula, but this was a macho eroticism.

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The film also has the ghost of David Lynch wandering around (3). He rears his head during the film’s grotesque final dance.

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Symbolism

The identifying element in this picture is blood. Blood as virtue or as vice. If we’re talking about a Judeo-Christian tradition we can agree that it is Jesus Christ who had to spill his blood to save mankind, and so he died on the cross. In this case it is for gluttony (or hunger?) that Olalla’s mother is condemned to death (redemption?).

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The unguarded appetite and from it, an interesting element, which is – if you will – a tenet of the Bible: The apple. The forbidden fruit. The host and Olalla cannot resist and so they fall into disgrace. Fernando Sabater says it is exaggeration, unbalance, which transforms a habit into a deadly sin (4). Olalla, meanwhile, is curiously tempted by an apple.

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Blood, the cross and the apple are biblical references embedded into this story. Christ existed as a mere mortal, as did Olalla. One could also say that, if gluttony is present, so is abstinence. Olalla must abstain from drinking blood in order to live (against gluttony, temperance). She fails. Christ fasts in the desert for 40 days and the achievement of this brings him closer to virtue, to his condition of divinity.

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This film touches on vampirism from a female perspective. Amy Hesketh has chosen well what work to film. This is not the classic Dracula. Olalla and her mother suffer in their condition of being women. The mother cannot escape the villagers who wish to lynch her for the love of her daughters. Olalla rebels and would rather die than be oppressed.

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The only supernatural or natural power they have is seduction. They both attract their victims through their charms: The mother is shy and a book lover.

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The daughter is more uninhibited and shows off her attractive skin. But there is one common characteristic that identifies them. Fragility. They are both seen as so fragile and helpless that one wishes to blindly offer their throats to them. And why not? If she seems to be an alabaster angel, an Eve wandering through paradise in bare flesh. So, it has to be said, this is a way of canonizing these traditionally reviled beings.

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THE FILM

The first shots grant the film an intimate atmosphere. It seems the sanguine angel and her sister are confessing secrets to one another at church, or a library. The audience has no choice but to lean in to listen. I would have preferred more gothic and nocturnal spaces, but the director preferred daytime settings with a lot of sun. This gives the film a natural tension without needing special effects. The merits are found in the acting and makeup.

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Is it vice or virtue that condemns us to a death in society? Is it gluttony or girth, the sacrifice of love, wrath followed by violence, lust and sex. Who are the true monsters who are unable to control their appetites? Must we all die on the cross or have we already?

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As far as the storyline, it develops with entertaining tension. More than one suitor will fall like a fly into Olalla’s web. The eroticism pulsates even in Olalla’s mother’s death. Rage surrounded by morbidity? Is the lynch mob furious, or are they aroused?

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An homage, as I said, to Dracula and from the pen of that great writer who in all his brilliant dissidence struck a blow against stuffy Victorian puritanism, a fact you can see in the film. The purest and most genuine exaltation of lust or the carnal appetites that dwell in every human heart. A wide-eyed manifestation of liberal instincts. The abolition of senses that are being repressed at this time in Bolivia and the world. Women who lived in that suffocating hypocrisy and repression of their desires. It is a fine way to paint this fresco of horror and beauty.

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  • (1) Matheson Richard, I Am Legend
  • (2) Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock
  • (3) David Lynch, The Elephant Man
  • (4) Sabater Fernando, The Seven Deadly Sins.

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Georges Bataille

In essence, the domain of eroticism is the domain of violence, of violation.

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