Luis Buñuel’s El fièvre monte à El Pao (Fever Mounts at El Pao) is the story of a South American dictatorship on the brink of liberalization. Though the film would become Buñuel’s least favorite of all his French productions, it’s difficult to dismiss the film if only because it’s the great director’s most overtly political creation. The plot is a feverish gumbo of political intrigue, red tape, loose sex and double-crossings: Governor Mariano Vargas (Miguel Ángel Ferriz) is assassinated by Lieutenant García (Raúl Dantés), who blames the liberal-minded governor’s aide, Ramón Vászquez (Gérard Philipe), of conspiring to murder when the aide’s relationship to the assassinated governor’s wife, Inés Rojas (sex kitten María Félix), becomes known. However powerful many of the vignettes may be, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. The opening narration describes El Pao as an island so isolated from the rest of the world that leaving the island is next to impossible. The island’s unseen president governs from atop a hill while thousands of prisoners work day and night constructing the mayor’s plantation. As the newly elected governor, Ramón must reconcile his liberal agenda with regard to an oppressive dictatorship that scoffs at worker’s rights. Buñuel more or less wears the film’s anarchist agenda on his sleeve (slogans uttered throughout include “if he would only show more humanity,” “they’ll hang him one day” and “when they’re hands aren’t busy they’ll be thinking”) though he fabulously evokes El Pao’s mounting “fever” via Inés’s hellfire temperament, a metaphor-laden bullfight and the sounds of native drums not unlike those that herald the second coming of Christ in L’Age d’Or. (Comparisons between the film and Metropolis, a film Buñuel was very critical of when it was first released, are obvious and its easy to equate Inés with Lang’s infamous Bolshevik Maria.) What with all the missives and writs of agenda waiting to be signed, Fever Mounts at El Pao is noticeably burdened by excess paperwork. All is forgiven though when Buñuel fascinatingly contemplates the ultimate price of freedom when Ramón Vászquez scoffs at those very missives and is liberated as a result.
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