by Rich Moreland, July 2016
This post wraps up a few details about Olalla as I’ve interpreted the film.
Here we consider the portrait’s importance in the story and take a look at some of the cinematography.
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The central image in Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Olalla” is the portrait in the English soldier’s bedroom. It presents “a woman, still young” whose body is “very slim and strong.” Yet, she is “marred by a cruel, sullen and sensual expression,” the Englishman notes, and he fears the lady may still exist “in the body of some descendant.” Nevertheless, he is drawn to her.
In the film, the portrait travels across time. It is in Roberto’s bedroom in the 1885 setting and then in Nathan’s in the modern era.
At one point, Nathan, who is the final incarnation of the house guest, gives credence to the Englishman’s apprehension. He gazes at the woman’s face and it fades into Olalla’s, a bit of blood dripping from her mouth.
Like the English soldier who is “haunted by cries of pain” in the night, Nathan hears Olalla’s whimpering coming from her room. Could it be that Felipe is his sister’s abuser in Stevenson’s mind? Amy Hesketh lets us in on that secret in her updated version of the story.
Later, Nathan wants to photograph Olalla using his tablet. She resists at first, but gives in, and the photo reveals much.
First, her image is there, questioning the traditional (Bram Stoker) interpretation that vampires aren’t reflected in mirrors. Then, there is Olalla’s comment that she appears pale, perhaps denying any self-recognition that she is vampiric. Nathan counters her remark with the word “gothic,” an interesting concession to Stoker.
That strikes a chord with Olalla because she responds with one the film’s major themes. “I want to look normal.”
The portrait and the photo solidify the Olalla story. Both have the same shadowing that mutes the left side of the face. Olalla, like her ancestor, is crushed by a past she cannot escape. It’s the darkness that has engulfed the family for generations.
Coincidentally, there is a portrait of Christ immediately to the left (from the camera’s perspective) of Olalla’s ancestor. This foretells a cinematic ending that magnifies the conflict between suffering for sin and yielding to evil.
To bring all the images together, there is one more picture in the room, a soldier taken in profile. It’s a tribute to Stevenson’s original English officer, though the photo is of Victorian origin that fits with Amy’s interpretation of the Olalla back story.
As an aside, there is one more observation concerning Nathan’s tablet. Like the flat screen TV in the apartment Olalla shared with her boyfriend, the tablet is modern technology. However, the family hacienda lives in another era as we’ve seen. Only when someone from the outside, like the boyfriend or Nathan, appears in the narrative does Olalla experience what she desires, the freedom to break away and be “normal.”
Then, in a never ending cycle of entrapment, she kills off her chances of escape with deadly fits of blood lust.
Throughout the film, the camera captures important details that help us interpret the story. Here are a few examples.
Olalla is frequently barefoot, understandable since uncle Felipe derides her as a “stupid little girl” confined her to adolescence. In the family’s presence, Olalla’s body language assumes the awkward posture of a child. Her hands and her feet are restive in an atmosphere that clearly makes her uneasy . . . as children often are among adults.
In the living room, a glass curio cabinet is filled with bric-a-brac, much of it religious, such as the porcelain Madonna and angels.
Can we assume the family’s blood-thirst clashes with a faith they’ve long put on the shelf? Or, are the religious relics merely socially acceptable trinkets for display, not to be taken seriously? On the other hand, perhaps their blood cocktails are more sinister . . . a perversion of the blood of Christ celebrated in church ritual.
Taking this into consideration, we are inclined to believe that the crucifixion of Olalla’s mother, who committed no crime, was an act of redemption that gives the family a pass to be their wonderfully deviant selves.
Nathan and Olalla are united in one respect. He tells her that he has seen so much death that he can’t “feel alive anymore.”
The reality of that statement is ready to be tested by the family who is itself a reflection of his thought. Soon the party will begin and a table neatly organized with napkins, glasses, and the like is prepared. The arrangement is a set-up for a violent end: a pistol is centrally positioned among the dinner ware.
Nathan’s arrival is eagerly anticipated as one would the daily farmers’ market where fresh fruits and vegetables tempt the taste buds.
A Few Words about the Production
Olalla is a finely crafted film. Numerous close-ups connect the viewer with the characters. Additionally, Amy favors overhead and high angle shots, putting the family in a metaphorical fishbowl that invites us to watch their goings on with a mixture of macabre humor and pathos. Cinematographer Miguel Inti Canedo’s work is impressive.
A superb example is Olalla’s first appearance in the long hallway. It’s shot in single point perspective from high above with her a small figure at the opposite end moving toward the camera.
Later when Uncle Felipe overpowers Olalla, he binds her in a crucifix posture that references her mother’s death. The overhead shot tells us she may someday suffer a more grisly fate than a few beatings to reestablish her submission.
Nearing the end of the film, another overhead shot shifts the focus to the pitchfork crowd in the 1880s. Notice that the whip marks on Olalla’s mother replicate the strokes inflicted on a tied down Olalla. Mother and daughter are forever united.
Oh yes, don’t forget that the Englishman’s final memory of Olalla in Stevenson’s story. He sees Olalla “leaning on the crucifix;” Amy puts her put on it.
Olalla is a horror film, of course, but one that does not rely on special effects. Nonetheless, there is one spectacular moment when Jac Avila’s editing steps forward to show the fires that consume Olalla.
A note for anyone who doubts the versatility of indie film projects. Everyone does everything. Actors do make-up, take on the jobs of PA’s, build sets, capture the film grabs (production stills) and operate technical equipment when needed.
It’s the closest thing we have to neighborhood theater, a truly refreshing experience.
And speaking of performers, Jac Avila’s and Amy Hesketh’s Pachamama/Decadent Films is also an acting troupe. Revisit the second post in this series for the names of the talented people who do their very best to make every film a first-class production.
Finally, indie productions must deal with the bane of budgetary restrictions. Considering that, Olalla is exceptional. Though the outdoor sequences are not elaborate, they more than adequate to supplement the story.
By comparison, the 1800s flashback scenes emphasize the family’s once wealthy position that Stevenson establishes in the original story.
Their home is well-appointed.
Also, the church that becomes Olalla’s last refuge is visually impressive. Both are awash in color.
Because I mainly review films in an industry that operates outside mainstream Hollywood, I’m well aware that talented directors rarely have the money to bring their projects to the screen in the fashion they’d like.
Despite whatever financial hurdles they face, Amy Hesketh and Jac Avila create narratives that are intriguing interpretations of timeless stories produced with an innovative modern feel. As a team, they and their troupe deserve the highest accolades.
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There is on more post to come. It centers on Amy Hesketh’s performance in Ollala.