Interesting directors always lurk in film history’s hidden corners and forgotten backwaters for the determined to discover and/or reassess, and this year the Los Angeles Film Festival is affording just such an opportunity with the almost entirely forgotten Leopoldo Torre Nilsson. The first director from Argentina’s bustling post-war film industry to establish a reputation on the international stage, Torre Nilsson, the son of a successful local film director and a Swedish mother, was invited to the Cannes and Berlin film festivals four times apiece from the late 1950s through the early 1970s, although by then his psychological, European-influenced style had been eclipsed in the opinion of the era’s tastemakers by the emergence of the more radical Cinema Novo in neighboring Brazil. With his death in 1978 at age 54 and the extreme neglect with which prints and negatives of his films were maintained and administered, Torre Nilsson’s name vanished from cinephiles’ collective consciousness more than three decades ago.
But thanks to some very special efforts, four of Torre Nilsson’s best films will be shown at the Redcat beginning this weekend. I was able to preview two of them in advance, his breakthrough 1957 “The House of the Angel” and the even better “The Hand in the Trap,” which won the international critics’ prize at Cannes in 1961, and can unhesitatingly recommend them for their stylistic sophistication but even more for their allegorical portrait of conditions in the country in which they were made.
Despite having been shot to a surprising degree on location, both films are defined by a hothouse atmosphere as stifling as an orchid greenhouse. Set amidst an anxious, uptight yet arrogant upper class in which severe repression is put primarily at the service of keeping dirty secrets under wraps, the films feel like a fusion of Douglas Sirk and Joseph Losey, as if the velvet cocoon settings of the former were inhabited by the violently neurotic characters of the latter.
Although corrupt politics and even scenes within senate chambers play a significant role in “The House of the Angel,” the specifics of the post-Peronist-era policies are not directly confronted. They do, however, completely saturate the world on view in both films, one that bears a kinship with the feeling of societies resembling fascist Spain and Italy, of a stultifyingly Catholic country mortified by the idea of modern ideas seeping in, especially from Europe, and corrupting young people. Top priority is given to maintaining the innocence, in all senses of the word, of females, who must therefore discover for themselves the twisted behavior and dirty laundry of their elders.
Torre Nilsson’s predilection for analyzing the ills of his society through the psychological travails of female characters was no doubt heavily influenced by his wife Beatriz Guido, who co-wrote many of his key films and whose novels, as in the case of “The House of Angels,” sometimes provided their inspiration. Visually, they once again bring to mind Losey, specifically his black-and-white British films, with their angular framing, cloistered settings, wide-angle closeups of distressed characters and sometimes jarring editing of equally jagged images, all to the accompaniment of discordant music.
It’s easy to see how Torre Nilsson found favor with high-brow critics on the festival circuit at the time and the sampler being provided by the L.A. Festival reflects both a genuine talent and a very particular mirror on a rotting social structure seldom seen in other feature films.