Friday, April 20, 2007

The Girl from Rio

Jesús (Jess) Franco, prolific Spanish-born master of schlock and exploitation, has shot more than his fair share of movies in or about Latin America. Indeed, he has pretty much cornered the market in the genre of women-in-prison-on-unnamed-South-American-island-or-in-unnamed-South-American-jungle films. (See for instance 99 Women, Women in Cellblock 9, Quartier des femmes, or Sadomania).

Girl from Rio posterIn The Girl from Rio (like many of Franco's films, released in various different versions and under different titles, including The Seven Secrets of Sumuru and Rio 70), the women are, at least temporarily, on top.

The plot revolves around Sumuru (who in the film alternatively goes by the name of Sumitra or Sumunda), a "space-age sorceress" and evil bisexual mastermind who has established a city of women, Feminda, whose sole inhabitants are a small private army of half-naked gun-toting female warriors plus a quantity of gold bullion and a handful of prisoners condemned to glass-enclosed pentagons swirling with dry ice. One of those prisoners is a woman named Ulla, who may or may not be the girl from Rio of the film's title, and whose father has paid adventurer or private eye (it's never quite clear) Jeff Sutton to infiltrate Feminda and rescue his daughter.

Jeff's task is made considerably harder by the fact that he has a group of Rio-based gangsters on his tail, who think he is carrying around ten million dollars of stolen money, while the new girlfriend he has picked up, a manicurist by the name of Leslye, turns out to be a paid-up member of Sumuru's army. All ends well, however: Ulla is duly liberated, Leslye is disarmed with the words "Don't be nasty, daddy doesn't like it," and Jeff leaves town with these two and a third scantily-clad beauty all adoring his daring helicopter-piloting prowess.

The film is full of hokey and low-budget special effects, copious soft-core nudity not least in its dream-like pre-credit sequence, bizarre futuristic outfits, bikini-clad lovelies cavorting in swimming pools, torture scenes involving either portable fans or a contraption that looks like a dentist's x-ray machine, and unavoidably a chase scene through the crowds of Rio's Carnival.

Girl from Rio Torture scene
What's striking is not only the placement of this community of Amazons in the land of the Amazon, but also the way in which Brazil is imagined as the location of a science-fiction super-modern urbanism. Feminda is a city of concrete, steel, and glass, not unlike the new city of Brasilia that had risen from the Brazilian interior less than a decade before this film's release.

Brazil is thus presented as the site of a rather unsettling combination of femininity and modernity: sexually inviting but also dangerously hard-edged and not a little inhuman. No doubt this combination was at the heart of much male anxiety during the sixties. Films such as The Girl from Rio (but also, for instance, much of the James Bond franchise, likewise often set in exotic locales) attempted to re-establish the law of the father yet take advantage of the decade's sexual openness by presenting a series of man-child heroes, who negotiate the violence involved in the quest to restore order with a certain dapper reserve or irony.

There's no better example of this ambivalence in this film than the gangster boss's reaction to the torture he has ordered of the uncooperative Leslye, whom his henchmen are dunking head-first into his swimming pool. He alternates between peeking through one of the ubiquitous plate-glass windows to supervise the interrogation's progress, and turning to read a Popeye comic. It's as though Franco's comic book exploitation is a little too real, a little too close to the edge; if only he could retreat to the old-style pre-war comics, Popeye and Olive Oyl, set back in the good ole US of A.

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