Perla La (1947)
Directed by Emilio Fernández who shared screenplay credits with Jack Wagner and John Steinbeck (A Medal for Benny (1945)) author of the novel “The Pearl” on which it’s based this Mexican drama stars Pedro Armendáriz and the beautiful María Elena Marqués as a poor married couple with child whose lives are forever changed when he finds an over-sized pearl. You may recognize Armendáriz from any number of American films he made as one of the lieutenant of police in The Fugitive (1947) with Henry Fonda or as one of the 3 Godfathers (1948) with John Wayne and Harry Carey Jr.. If not you won’t want to miss his performance in this one if you get the chance. It’s a fairly compelling film about greed on the order of John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) released one year later. This foreign film was added to our National Film Registry in 2002 (?)!
Quino (Armendáriz) and his fellow clam divers are discouraged and starving because the tides have been too rough for them to fish for more than a week. He returns to the simple one room shack he shares with his loving supportive wife Juana (Marqués) and their infant son. While Juana prepares tortillas and Quino realizes there are no beans to eat with them they witness a scorpion sting their baby. Juana screams and then desperately tries to suck the poison from her baby while the townspeople rush to their humble home and lament the fact that no doctor will come. So the young couple decides to carry their infant into town to see the nearest one.
In town we see the Doctor (Charles Rooner) refusing to see anyone while he consumes his breakfast in bed and admires his three precious pearls one of which he eats! He does agree to see a rich woman because she can pay and gives her an address and a time where he will meet with her later. When Juana & Quino arrive the Doctor has his assistant turn them away even after he hears what has happened and the rich woman has tried to intervene. The poor can get no health-care and Quino punches the door bloodying his hand in frustration.
Finally the surf is calm enough for the boats to go out and Quino & Juana are with them. He dives deep into the depths collecting clams until he spots what he thinks is a pearl. After surfacing he tells his wife that he saw something that he must go back down. When he does he struggles valiantly and almost stays too long underwater before he succeeds in prying it off its perch with his knife. He returns to the surface exhausted needing Juana to help him aboard. After he rests she encourages him to open it where inside it is finally revealed a very large pearl. Quino is now a rich man and he yells a wicked cry to the heavens while Juana seemingly recoils.
The whole town celebrates the young couple’s good fortune and Quino answers the questions of “what will they do now?” by first relating a simple wish to have shoes. However he then shares his dream that his son will learn to read know about books and become educated such that he and Juana will learn of things through their son. The pearl-obsessed Doctor has heard of Quino’s discovery and soon joins the festivities to try to obtain their prize. But Quino doesn’t trust him and smartly protects it. Then the Doctor tries to gain Quino’s confidence by telling him that the others in the “room” want to steal it from him. Though Quino doesn’t seem to believe him Juana does because she keeps the pearl from being stolen one evening when others take Quino out and get him drunk with exactly that intention.
Quino & Juana then decide to sell the pearl to rid of the responsibility of trying to protect it. When offered 900 pesos for it Quino thinks the Godfather (Alfonso Bedoya) is trying to take advantage of him. So later the Godfather arranges for other dealers (Fernando Wagner & Raúl Lechuga are credited) to “bid” on the item. Two refuse because of its size saying it belongs in a museum or claiming that the freak of nature has less value. Another dealer offers 500 pesos saying he hopes he can sell it for 600. Quino doesn’t trust any of them so he and his wife leave with their pearl disgusted. Juana tells Quino that they should toss it back in the sea for all the trouble it’s caused them. Later when Quino is asleep she tries to do it. But Quino wakes just in time to catch up with his wife and grab her hand just before she can throw the pearl in the surf. He then strikes Juana knocking her down on the sand.
*** SPOILERS ***
At this point two men who’d been pursuing Quino to steal the pearl approach him with knives out. But he successfully fights them off killing one of them in the shallow tide. So Quino Juana and their baby must flee. They are pursued by the Godfather on a horse and his two trackers. It’s a long difficult journey during which Juana all but gives up with exhaustion and her bloodied feet. But Quino wraps them in cloth and urges her on. They are aided by another peasant (Max Langler?) who gives them water but is later killed by their pursuers. Eventually the couple is trapped in a canyon but fortunately night has fallen. Before dawn Quino decides that their only chance lies in him surprising them under cover of darkness. The two aids fearing for their lives flee. In the morning light the Godfather sees Juana and her baby and aims to shoot just as Quino has crawled close enough to attack him. He shoots and kills their baby just before Quino can take him down from behind with his knife. Quino then shoots the Godfather with his own rifle.
The young couple returns to their town walking like zombies in a daze whereupon they cast the pearl into the ocean from a cliff above or so the legend goes …