The combination of heavily didactic intent, undisciplined storytelling, relentless melodrama and a mentality that thinks it’s clever to visually equate the story’s bad guy with vultures flying overhead results in a quite dreadful viewing experience in The Animal’s Wife. Not to compare this to the dreadfulness of what the virginal title character is forced to endure after being kidnapped, raped, impregnated and held prisoner for years by a veritable beast of a man in the hillside slums outside Medellin. But there’s nothing edifying about sitting through writer-director Victor Gaviria’s lumbering account of a hideous man’s reign of terror over helpless girls he ceaselessly brutalizes.
Perhaps in the local Colombian context it’s considered daring to indict a culture of overweening machismo and the forcible subjugation of women by violent thugs no one is willing to stand up to or report to authorities. But writer-director Victor Gaviria, whose Rodrigo D: No Futuro and The Rose Seller made the festival rounds, portrays the dismaying events in the most blatant and obvious terms. Worse, he allows his cretinous antagonist no more dimension than a scorpion or a snake; had he granted the brute the distinction of belonging to the human race, he might have had a shot at something legitimate and worthwhile.
A grim film about grim lives.
The relentlessly depressing yarn, which is slapped on the screen in the most elemental hand-held verite style, sees virginal 18-year-old Amapro (Natalia Polo) being snared by the eponymous shantytown crimelord Libardo (Tito Alexander Gomez), a veritable pig of a man who makes her his latest “wife.”
Drunken, drooling and good for nothing, Libardo has his way with the innocent girl, just as he has with many in the past, which is part of Gaviria’s point; all the women in the village know what he’s up to either because they’ve seen it many times before or they’ve been through it themselves. Either way, they’re too scared to do anything about it. Even the man’s mother looks the other way and blindly defends her son against any rebuke.
While Libardo and his useless goons lie around most days getting drunk and high (his little gang must rank at the lowest end in the grand scale of Colombian crime), Amapro and her school-deprived growing daughter bounce from shack to shack, allowed to do nothing. It’s hard to imagine a much more hideous life, that of an abused prisoner with no prospects, and the best insight the film has to offer is its view of the community’s complicity in the Animal’s activities.
Filthy, fat, sweaty and revolting in every way, Libardo is undeniably brought to vivid life by Gomez, who, like everyone else in the cast, is a non-professional. He certainly conveys the cretin’s predatory mindset well enough for Gaviria not to be compelled to constantly cut away to vultures circling around. But the most convincing thing on the screen is the poverty on display, which is utterly dire.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)
Production companies: Polo d Tierra, Viga Producciones
Cast: Natalia Polo, Tito Alexander Gomez
Director-screenwriter: Victor Gaviria
Producer: Daniela Goggel
Executive producers: Vladimir Pena, Francisco Pulgarin, Victor Gaviria, Erwin Goggel
Director of photography: Rodrigo Lalinde
Production designer: Ricardo Duque
Editor: Etienne Boussac
Music: Luis Fernando Franco
Not rated, 116 minutes