Classic Film Guide

Doña Bárbara (1943)

Directed by Fernando de Fuentes, and based on the novel by Rómulo Gallegos, this Mexican film tells the story of the titled character, a woman who was raped in her late teens which hardens and strengthens her such that she becomes a ruthless, wealthy landowner who takes out her hostilities on the weaker male sex in her country. Barbara's "rule" includes bribing the officials to make the laws favorable to her interests, and her "reign" continues unchecked until another landowner, Santos Luzardo, returns to the region. The film runs well over 2 hours and feels even longer; it plays like a soap opera featuring a storyline intertwined with several main characters, some of which seem unnecessary (I'm guessing the novel is quite long such that a serial, or series might have better served the material). Still, this is a highly regarded foreign film. NOTE: the English subtitles are filled with spelling and grammatical errors.

Dona Barbara (María Félix) was a beautiful young woman who was traveling alone by boat when a handsome young, penniless man joined its crew, working for his passage. When Dona shows a romantic interest in the newest crew member, she gives his other shipmates an idea they somehow hadn't thought of previously - that she's desirable. So, they shoot the young man and gang rape the woman. Years later, Barbara's name is known throughout the country as a woman who has used countless men to gain power over the region. She now owns most of its land & assets (e.g. cattle), even using illegal means when it suited her purpose, and buying the officials to look the other way or rule in her favor in disputes. However, "doctor" Santo Luzardo (Julián Soler), a former favored son and still current landowner from the region, has decided to return to look after his interests. Luzardo had accurately suspected that his foreman, Don Balbino (Felipe Montoya) had been assisting Barbara in looting his cattle et al. Initially, the other men in Luzardo’s employ are not so sure that he's a worthy rival to Barbara, but he is able to assuage these concerns by demonstrating his superior horsemanship.

Meanwhile, we learn that Barbara had a daughter with Lorenzo Barquer (Andrés Soler), who is now like all the other men left in her wake, a broken, poor man who drinks to excess. She has also shown no interest in her daughter Marisela (María Elena Marqués). In fact, Barbara has stolen Marisela’s land and left her ignorant and, in essence, to fend for herself, though she's been cared for by Juan Primito (Agustín Isunza), a servant of Barbara's. However, a local merchant, Don Guillermo (Charles Rooner), lusts after Lorenzo's daughter, and eventually "buys" her from him for a bottle of alcohol. Enter Luzardo, just in time, who finds the poor "child" Marisela dirty in the fields and "rescues" her. For her own protection, he takes her and her father in, to live in his home, where he begins to educate her in Pygmalion-like fashion. Her speech improves and, slowly, their relationship grows to more than teacher and pupil, though it remains platonic. Lorenzo also improves, somewhat, with sobriety.

In addition to helping Marisela and her father, Luzardo takes up the issue of his depleted cattle with the local officials. While the main "lawman" is absent, Luzardo uses his influence over his underling Mujiquita (Paco Astol), a former acquaintance, to subpoena Barbara and Balbino. Later, with the official present, and with a temporarily smitten Barbara's acquiescence, Luzardo is able to get what he needs legally to begin to restore his estate. However, when Barbara returns to her plantation, she performs an incantation and curses Luzardo using his picture, and placing it upside-down behind three candles. Later, after Luzardo and Barbara speak, she realizes that he is unlike the other men she's dealt with in the past, and becomes somewhat attracted to him. Though she then turns his picture back upright, she doesn't douse the candles’ flames. In fact, when she learns that her daughter is a rival for Luzardo’s affections, she allows certain other events (like the theft of some valuable feathers, 50 lbs. worth!) to proceed in hopes of hurting, if not ruining him financially.

I won't continue with the rest of the plot or subplots, which include the other aforementioned characters as well. However, I would like to point out that the characterizations, and the actors themselves, do perform credibly even if the story runs a little too long and lost my interest after a while.

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