The fact that Argentinian director Leopoldo Torres Nilsson is barely spoken of these days is cause for outcry. Happily, the LA Film Festival has programmed a mini retrospective of four of his 30-plus features from the fifties to the mid-seventies. In his day, his was a name was one to watch at the European film festivals, a world cinema auteur ranked with Welles, Bergman, and Buñuel. The first of Nilsson’s films I’ve been able to see, La casa del angel (House of the Angel, 1957) is remarkably worthy of the comparison…

Present are enough chiaroscuro and Dutch angles to make Welles look restrained (low angles with rather splendid ceilings and occasional striking deep focus compositions also contribute); a hothouse atmosphere of stultifying and retributive religion to match Bergman’s psychological intensity; and a wry eye for social satire that if anything is even more bleak and piercing than Buñuel’s (though the hypocrisy is used less as a target for mockery than, in the end, a vessel for tragedy).

It’s accompanied by a terrifically atmospheric (if occasionally overbearing) modernist score by Juan Carlos Paz, all horror movie flute, strings and percussion, and told from the point of view (loosely) of wide-eyed Elsa Daniel, Torres Nilsson’s muse, whose young, open face seems to constantly embody sadness, confusion and fear all at once.

The film opens like an eerie old dark house picture but turns, with shades of Amberson‘s time-rotted melancholy, into a regretful meditation on ritual and restrained emotion before becoming a flashback in the brief meeting of eyes of a young woman and an older man. Daniel is Anna, who lives in the house of the angel, so-called for the statue keeping watch outside her bedroom window; elsewhere the nude statues are wrapped tightly in sheets to protect her modesty – she’s too young to understand and too old not to (going on 14). At this stage in her life there’s much to fear, from the puritanical strictures of her mother, to the fire and brimstone visions of her nanny, and the always-cruel attentions of her cousin (who even reads from the Book of Solomon to make Anna feel self-conscious about her small breasts).

She has less to fear (than perhaps she should) from her burgeoning sexuality, transfixed by a Valentino movie and immediately enamored of her politico father’s colleague, progressive legislator Pablo Aguirre (Lautaro Murúa). The film is as much his story as hers, as he makes a stand for freedom of expression in the chamber of deputies; allegations as to his father’s corruption (apparently true) lead inevitably to his challenging an opposing deputy to a duel. That he comes to question (rightly) his own integrity and the worth of that for which he is prepared to kill or be killed, makes the wealthy upper-class nostalgia for the “good old days” of duels and honor ring hollow.

We know these two stories will converge but are not prepared for the perfectly-executed burst of moonlit violence, nor the horrible meaning to the opening scene that it reveals. Aguirre’s fate is worse than death, reduced by the realization of his self-doubt to a creeping ghost. And all this in 74 minutes: not a line, gesture or expressionistic shot is wasted in the establishment of atmosphere, psychology and socio-political bitterness. Too expansive to be likened to a short story, yet too small and exquisitely crafted to compare to a novel, it is a perfect little jewel of a movie that glitters with a hard, bitter light.

Rating: 9.2/10

Are you interested in seeing La Casa Del Angel?