In her startlingly assured debut, “Of Love and Other Demons,” Costa Rican writer-director Hilda Hidalgo has seemingly unlocked the key to translating the cerebral sensuality of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s writing into film, providing one of the few screen adaptations worthy of the Colombian novelist’s source material. She’s aided immensely in this effort by two impeccable lead performances and painterly cinematography, but the seemingly casual mastery of difficult narrative rhythms is all her own. Decent box office in Latin America should be expected, and arthouse berths in the U.S. and Europe are hardly out of the question.
While “Of Love and Other Demons” may be the most accurate Garcia Marquez adaptation yet, it’s hardly the most faithful, excising large parts of the already slender novel and sketching characters with a sparing, almost pointillist scarcity of detail. (At times, regional accents are all that clue the viewer in to the characters’ social status.) Yet the novelist’s style is a deceptively simple balance of poetic prose with often outlandish narrative events, and touches that feel refreshingly playful in his novels can seem chintzy and arbitrary when portrayed onscreen; by deviating from the specifics of the novel, Hidalgo manages to better seize its spirit.
Set in colonial-period Colombia, when the Inquisition and slavery were both facts of life, the film limns the languid life of Sierva (remarkable 13-year-old first-timer Eliza Triana), the 12-year-old daughter of an aristocrat, raised almost entirely by her African caretakers. First seen spilling out of a hammock like a butterfly in cocoon, Sierva is nearly mute, though animalistically attuned to the life of the jungle around her, which makes it all the more surprising when she’s suddenly bitten by a mad dog in the marketplace.
Falling ill, Sierva is thought to have contracted rabies, which, in accordance with beliefs of the time, means she is also under suspicion of demonic possession. She’s shipped off to a convent where cruel nuns keep her locked in shackles, and 36-year-old priest Cayetano (Pablo Derqui) is assigned to supervise her exorcism. Devout yet doubtful, with a humanist bent that leads to clashes with his dogmatic bishop (Jordi Dauder), Cayetano begins to suspect there’s actually nothing wrong with the girl, and furthermore, begins to fall in love with her.
Sierva is at first unaccommodating to her visitor, even biting him after he loosens her bonds. Whether this is the result of rabies, demonic possession or simply stress at being imprisoned is left unsaid, as are all the deeper explanations for most of the characters’ behavior. It’s in this subtle way that the film best honors Garcia Marquez’s magical realism, wherein any rationale for a phenomenon (be it scientific, religious, superstitious or oneirological) is likely to be valid. In a beautiful scene set on the seaside during a solar eclipse, Cayetano and his superior debate Sierva’s malady, and the former’s careful scientific arguments are given no more precedence over the latter’s stubbornly canonical ones.
That the central romantic relationship between a pubescent prisoner and a middle-aged clergyman never feels remotely untoward is largely due to the tenderness with which both Triana and Derqui imbue their characters. Yet it’s just as much to the credit of cinematographer Marcelo Camorino, whose virtuosic, Caravaggio-style compositions lend the entire film a dreamlike air. At times almost obsessive in its use of high-contrast splashes of brilliant color and total darkness, the lensing contributes to the value-added reality of the narrative.
But however fastidiously shot the film may be, it’s startling how much individual scenes are still allowed to breathe: Even the dark interiors of Sierva’s cell seem suffused with the life of the surrounding jungle. Much credit for that must go to the sound design, which understands the uncanny density of ambient tropical noises — ever present, yet somehow conspiring to accentuate stretches of silence. (Pic is scoreless but for two brief, thematically appropriate eruptions of guitar.)