Fresh from commercial and critical success in its native Argentina, Felicitas was introduced at the LALIFF by Edward James Olmos (it’s his festival) as a real treat, one which he had forborne from watching on his fancy home video system in favour of the sort of environment in which it was meant to be seen, the luxurious confines of the Egyptian Theater*.
The film is the true mid 19th-century story of the ironically-named Felicitas Guerrerro de Álzaga (Sabrina Garciarena), whose happiness is constantly defined by the men around her (and even by her apparently loving sister) as what they consider to be est for her and her family’s estate. A valuable asset, at age 15 she is plucked from the arms of her lover Enrique (Gonzalo Heredia) and married off to the richest man in Argentina, forty years her senior (Luis Brandoni). The grotesquery of the white-haired husband caressing his porcelain-skinned child bride aside, Álzaga is hardly an ogre, but a life in which she could conceivably find happiness and mutual respect is threatened by plague, a secret from his past (undeveloped beyond a cog in the plot mechanics to get him briefly out of the way) and the reappearance of Enrique.
This latter gets short shrift, required simply to look pretty or brooding, but he does transform unexpectedly from the idealised partner of the opening rural idyll into a war-brutalized ogre and finally, bogeyman, his attitude towards women-as-property eventually no more enlightened than that of Felicitas’s father. When their rupture comes it is so sketchily explained as to be almost bewildering, but his contribution to the tragic ending – presented with admirable restraint in a short sharp shock – tearing her from the bosom of real, grown-up happiness, finally strips the film of all romanticism, exemplifying the impossibility of Felicitas’s finding happiness on her own terms in the society of the times.
The film starts out like a “they’ll never let us be together” story (yes, those words are spoken) but is as much concerned with depicting the oppression of women in this time and place. One of the film’s problems is that it cannot quite decide to be one or the other and ends up superficially straddling both camps: it’s only a matter of time before the frogs Felicitas collects and keeps in jars are explicitly granted metaphor status, and the brief mention of her (male) cousin’s proto-feminist thesis is given no context regarding the wider struggle for women’s rights outside the narrow compass of the story, or even in terms of his character.
Likewise, Enrique’s role is muddled, and by the end one can no longer quite understand his power over Felicitas, for whom the torch had apparently burned out some time ago. But at the centre of it all, Garciarena gives a full-hearted performance, delightful as the laughing child-woman, and luminous as the strong and beautiful young widow ready to take on the responsibilities of her estancia, Barbara Stanwyck style. The passions are not quite as swoon-inducing as they might be and the film, though full of incident, rarely (before the end) touches on excitement, but its deficiencies of emotion and incisiveness are amply compensated for by consistently lovely photography, a lush but restrained score, and the marvelous frocks, furniture and sets of the gorgeous production design.
*Shame on you, therefore, Mr Olmos, for staying only long enough to scoff your popcorn and slope out after twenty minutes.