Arturo Ripstein, the eminence grise of Mexican filmmakers, shows alarming signs of decline in interminable and woefully unfunny black comedy, “Carnival of Sodom.” Stack this one alongside the fresh work of younger helmers such as Amat Escalante, Ricardo Benet and Jonas Cuaron, and there’s a stark demonstration of the widening generation gap in Mexican cinema, with youth winning by a mile. Recycling cobwebby national cliches involving hookers, corrupt officials, evil priests and horny dudes all piled into an old brothel, pic feels dated by at least 40 years, and will travel solely on the basis of Ripstein’s name and solid rep.
The Royal, a smalltown brothel run by a gruff Chinese man, Chang (Samuel Gallegos), who speaks only in (unsubtitled) Cantonese, attracts both a motley group of male customers and the nightly wrath of local Christians protesting this center of “Sodom.” First of five sections, each labeled by chapter-like titles, shows the dreary life of Chang’s wife, who must contend with an outbreak of rats. “Monica” focuses on longtime hooker Monica (Maria Barranco), who harbors contempt against a married customer and can’t stop chattering to anyone within earshot.
Paz Alicia Garciadiego’s script (inspired by Pedro Antonio Valdez’ novel) opens each chapter by rewinding to generally the same event — the churchgoing locals cutting electricity to the Royal — and then moving forward with a different set of characters. This supposedly expansive but overly familiar strategy hardly makes for a more involving film, just as Ripstein’s highly mannered style of covering scenes in deep-focus, ultra-wide-angle single takes with a constantly tracking camera tends to heighten the pic’s already excessive artificiality.
Filming the Royal as if it were a Max Ophuls set piece or Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel in “The Shining” doesn’t stress the place’s strangeness, and Ripstein lacks these directors’ abilities to create drama with thesps and camera moving through space together. Rather, it merely draws attention to fact Ripstein had to police an extremely involved choreography of actors on production designer Sandra Cabriada’s vast studio set.
By the time “Carnival of Sodom” reaches the final chapter, devoted to a mad aging priest (Fernando Lujan) and his younger, homicidal colleague (Alejandro Camacho), a sullen mood has crept into the proceedings that drains the film of any potentially pointed comedy. That old standby — anti-clerical satire — is one of the pic’s key objectives, but it remains a long way from realization.
Cast is reduced to participating in an impersonal parade of types with few engaging personality traits, increasing the sense of a project that amounts to little more than an elaborate exercise in creaky theatrics. As usual with Ripstein productions, craft departments are aces across the board, with camera unit and lenser Luis Sansans deserving special note for simply managing the technical logistics.