The LA Film Festival‘s splendid Leopoldo Torres Nilsson retrospective continues with what is sometimes referred to as his masterpiece, La Mano en La Trampa (The Hand in the Trap), winner of the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes in 1961. Continuing the close collaboration with his novelist/screenwriter wife Beatriz Guido, it’s a sexual horror story that centers on a convent school girl home for the holidays. She becomes fascinated by her reputedly freakish half-brother who’s kept locked upstairs. But it turns out to be something altogether different…

Elsa Daniel once again takes the lead as Laura, this time more cunning and ready to use her allure on men, but still retaining a fresh and virginal air. This is literally the case with the film’s opening, which presents her as an iconic Mary in the school play. Why she should suddenly be seized with the desire to see the freak who’s been upstairs all her life may not be explicable, but it coincides with her growth into young womanhood. She had been a different, younger girl the previous summer, and although still remonstrated that she is too young to see it, she knows perfectly well that she is growing up.

The open secret of the freak, however hides another, stranger (though not quite convincing) secret. A desperately clung-to lie, a self-punishment for sexual transgression: if this represents an old-fashioned moral to the film – unmarried sex will be punished (as will curiosity) – one senses in the horror of the punishment, that for Nilsson it is a cruel and ironical one (taken from St Augustine’s claim that he who puts his hand in a trap must carry it around forever).

But as ever, the heady atmosphere is the thing: the canted angles are played down and the score is a disappointingly bland jazzy affair. Laura’s seamstress mother and aunt allow for plenty of good use of lace and veils and there’s a fetid air of rottenness to the provincial town founded on the blood of aborigines. This is embodied by the handsome, unthinking playboy scion of one of the two founding families (Laura’s is the other, now fallen from wealth), who has the bullish animalism of young Ben Gazzara and a daughter who is delighted that the mayor thinks they look like lovers. It is he who enacts the warning that men will uncaring take what they want, ushering in the horribly bleak ending in which a sense of inevitable repetition, punishment and imprisonment is perfectly encapsulated in the slow, careful ritual of removing his cuff-links.

Rating: 8.3/10

Are you interested in seeing La Mano En La Trampa (The Hand In The Trap)?