The scintillating title of Mexican auteur Arturo Ripstein’s “The Virgin of Lust” may mislead eroticism fans unprepared for this challenging, unpredictable film about an introverted waiter who becomes the slave of a beautiful but cruel hooker. Pic’s plentiful eroticism is put on ice by Ripstein’s stagey, even operatic filming style, and at over 2½ hours, film is certainly of operatic length. For patient viewers prepared to hang in, the reward is a memorable vision of sexual obsession as an everyday matter, paralleled to the devastation wreaked by great movements of history and politics. Exactly what the film is about is up to viewers to decide. Looking very good for festivals, it will need plenty of critical support to reach beyond.
The director’s ironic touch is present from the dazzling opening sequence that introduces Nacho (Luis Felipe Tovar) in brief flashes of his perversities. In 1940s Veracruz, these amount mainly to masturbating to pornographic photos of the day while grunting dirty words.
His solitary existence unfolds between his rented room and the cafe downstairs, where he works for tyrannical racist Don Lazaro (Julian Pastor). The sequence is ironically scored by the prelude to “The Mikado,” Nacho’s favorite sing-along opera.
Pace then slows for the rest of the picture to elaborate long takes. The cafe becomes a stage on which appears Lola (Spanish thesp Ariadne Gil, at her sexiest), strung out on opium and alcohol. Nacho offers her his own bed, never suspecting he’s let a typhoon into his life.
Foul-mouthed and mean, she yearns for the arms and organ of a wrestler named Gardenia Wilson (Alberto Estrella), who wants nothing to do with her. In contrast to the macho Wilson, Nacho is accused by Lola of being a spineless toady to his abusive boss. Recognizing his masochistic bent, she gives vent to her own sadism by systematically humiliating him. He willingly licks the sole of her foot and sucks coffee off her glove.
But in Ripstein’s universe, created together with his regular scripter Paz Alicia Garciadiego, this brutal S&M relationship finds its place in the normal order of things. A quartet of Spanish Republicans who have fled in defeat from Franco’s Spain sit in the cafe bitterly licking their wounds and day-dreaming about killing Franco. One of them, nicknamed Mikado (Juan Diego), sets up a photography studio where he stages revolutionary scenes with painted backdrops and costumed stand-ins. He suggests a final solution for Nacho’s pain, replacing his delusional myth of sex with that of political hero.
Gil is vividly menacing as the aggressive, sex-crazed firebrand Lola, a “virgin of lust” with a desperate, hurt underbelly. As Nacho, Tovar jumps from sleepy passivity to the self-mutilating despair of a love slave. Patricia Reyes Spindola is notable as one of his neighbors, a down-to-earth seamstress accustomed to life’s knocks.
Cinematographer Esteban De Llaca’s camera is so fluid it seems to fly around Antonio Munohierro’s dreamlike sets, which range from a Chinese opium den and wrestling ring to womb-like hidden rooms in the labyrinthine building where the characters live and work. Leoncio Lara’s score foregrounds “The Mikado’s” exalting strains quite effectively as an offbeat comment on the action.