Directed by: Sigfrid Monleón
Produced by: Andrés Vicente Gómez
Written by: Miguel Dalmau
Screenplay by: Joaquín Górriz; Miguel A Fernández; Sigfrid Monleón
Based on the biography by: Miguel Dalmau
Starring: Jordi Mollà; Bimba Bosé; Àlex Brendemühl; Josep Linuesa; Isaac de los Reyes
Music by: Joan Valvent
Cinematography: Jose David Garcia Montero
Editing by: Pablo Blanco
Release date(s): 11 December 2009
Running time: 112 minutes
There are more than one reason to compare the 2009 Spanish film The Consul of Sodom to the 2000 English film Before Night Falls. Both are quasi-biopics on poets who wrote in Spanish — Jaime Gil de Biedma and Reinaldo Arenas. Both the poets’ sexual orientation, in this case, homosexuality, plays an important role in shaping their lives and their worldview. Both the poets fight to assert their individual rights in the face of oppressed political systems, Biedma in Franco’s Spain and Arenas in Castro’s Cuba. Both go through a series of doomed love affairs. Both deal with the complications of living to earn a living and living for art. Both embrace two nations, Spain and Philippines in case of Biedma and Cuba and America in case of Arenas. Both had a very promiscuous sex lives. Both died of AIDS. Both their stories are told in films in episodic, fragmented manner.
But, The Consul of Sodom is not Before Night Falls. While I loved the recent film, I had a lot of problems with the Julian Schnabel film, despite the fact that it centres around the bravura performance by Javier Bardem. Bardem is extraordinary, but the film isn’t. The first problem I had was with the language. Why do you want to make a biopic of a Spanish poet in English? It robs the credibility of the film right away. The best part of the film was when Bardem recites Arenas’ poems in original Spanish. Other than that, Bardem and others speak in accented English.
The other problem I had was the political retelling of the story which borders on bias. I understand that homosexuals were harassed in communist Cuba, and that Cuba before Castro was a much better place so far as art and culture is concerned (See Andy Garcia’s The Lost City (2005), and Wim Wender’s The Buena Vista Social Club (1999).). While Garcia’s depiction of the loss of Havana’s glory is heartbreakingly tragic, Before Night Falls goes out of its way to portray the Castro regime as villain, so much so that it borders on bias. (For a better understanding of the situation, please see the fantastic Strawberry and Chocolate (1994)).
On the other hand, despite the outrageous title, The Consul of Sodom is decidedly personal, even though the presence of Franco looms large, especially over the first half of the film, even though Biedma came from a decidedly capitalist background and was a self-confessed communist, who was denied membership of the party owing to his sexual orientation. Biedma himself said he was a Sunday poet with a Monday conscience. While during the day he helped his father run the family-owned tobacco business, in the evenings he would attend communist party meetings and clandestine sex.
As the film begins, someone asks a young Biedma, are you the famous poet? He looks at the woman with a flourish and the answers: “I would like to think of myself as a poem.” This is not a clever repertoire. This is exactly how Biedma wanted to live his life, and of course, he couldn’t. Though Biedma’s story may sound tragic, the film is told with such openheartedness that you never get a chance of judge Biedma and the others who touch his life. And this frankness isn’t necessarily restricted to the explicit sexuality the film boasts, though the film is indeed more explicit than Before Night Falls could ever dare. In the beginning of the film, American author James Baldwin makes a brief appearance and we see him naked as well. You get the picture!
The film tells Biedma’s life in two distinct phases, in 1950s and in 1970s. As the film begins, we meet Jaime in Philippines where he is a colonialist, supporting his father’s tobacco business, and buying sex from the impoverish Filipino boys. His family knows about his ‘perversions’, and to an extent tolerant to Jaime’s sexuality and his ambition to be a poet. (This is interesting to note that unlike a large number of gay narratives, fictional or real, there is no father-son conflict in The Consul of Sodom. Granted, Jaime’s father does not approve his son’s bohemian ways and wants him to join his corporation, but he is more than tolerant when his son continues to drift.)
Back in Barcelona, there are too many things going on. He breaks up with his lover, is threatened by the police for his communist activities, and denied a part in the party because he is gay, help his friend write a novel, and basically try to make sense of his life. There he meets Bel, a to-be-divorcee with two children. They share a torrid love affair. In one occasion, they meet two American sailors looking for a whorehouse and they introduce themselves as whores. In Bel, Jaime finds a companion, who has equal zeal for life and is equally reckless. Finally, Jaime finds a purpose in life. He joins his father’s company, wants to marry Bel, adopt her two children and settle down. But Jaime isn’t fated to have a relationship. Bel dumps him saying that she is not ready for marriage again, and soon she dies. This comes as such shock to Jaime that he tries to commit suicide by cutting his wrists. He was presumed dead by his friends and they publish a collection of his poem titled Poemas póstumos, Posthumous Poems (1969).
In the second half of the film we meet him again in Philippines where he reconnects with his old lover as he closes down their business there. Things are different politically or otherwise, but Jaime’s search continues as he tries to connect with his father and his different lovers…
The second half of the film doesn’t have the dramatic potential of the first half, but it leads to the resolution of the poet’s life lived without apology. Towards the end, when one of his lovers, with whom he sets up a home, asks him to “fuck off” in a fit of anger, he says: “Don’t give me advice, give me addresses.” This is the tragedy of Jaime: He cannot be content, he cannot conform, he cannot be satisfied and be happy.
The Consul of Sodom is not a film for the mass audience. It may speak to LGBT audience, and can at one level be appropriated as a queer film. But the transient and elliptical narrative of the film can be fully appreciated by someone who has an affinity to poetry. Like Before Night Falls, the best part of the film is Jaime Gil de Biedma’s voice-over, as he recites his poems to underscore an event of his life. As he is thrown out of his house by his lover, he recited: “It was too late when I realised that life is meant to be taken seriously.”
At the end, the film rests on the voluptuous photography, with a keen eye on architecture, prop and costume of the time (and at the same time creating a contrast between Barcelona and Manila), and Jordi Mollà’s towering acting skills. Mollà inhabits Jaime’s spirit in his body, in his whole persona, and it is a pleasure to watch how Mollà represents Jaime’s physical changes as he grows old.
I wish I could see the film on big screen. I think it would look stupendous compared to how it looks on a computer screen. But, can you imagine such a film being released in theatre in India? Absolutely not.
The Wikipedia entry on Jaime Gil de Biedma
The wikipedia entry on El cónsul de Sodoma
Wikipedia entry on Reinaldo Arenas
The New York Times obituary of Reinaldo Arenas
Wikipedia entry on Before Night Falls