DEL AMOR Y OTROS DEMONIOS (Of Love and Other Demons)
Chale Nafus
Director of Programming, Austin Film Society

For you, I was born. Because of you I’m alive. Because of you I die. -- Father Cayetano, repeating words whispered to him

In October 1949 future Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez was 21. La Violencia, the bloody eleven-year war between Liberals and Conservatives in Colombia,  was in its third year, inflamed even more by the assassination of the popular Liberal presidential candidate, Jorge Gaitán. The Universidad Nacional in Bogotá was shut down, causing García Márquez to transfer to the Universidad de Cartagena, where he reluctantly continued his studies in law, as desired by his parents. Already an aspiring writer, he talked his way into composing a daily column for one of the newspapers of Cartagena, El Universal. Even as a teenager he had shown a facility for writing and was continuing his project of reading the major authors of American and European literature.

One particular day in 1949 – October 16th, to be precise – would leave an indelible mark on his memory. Nothing much was happening in Cartagena – somewhat removed from La Violencia – so his editor, Clemente Manuel Zabala, sent the novice journalist to the ruins of the nearby Convent of Santa Clara, where the burial crypts were being emptied to make way for construction of a “five-star hotel.” This convent, once belonging to the severely cloistered Clarissan nuns, had been turned into a hospital in the mid-19th century and was now to be demolished. The roof of the chapel had been caving in over the years, but the bones of bishops, abbesses, and “other eminent personages” remained entombed. Before demolition, the remains had to be taken out of the crypts, placed in individual piles, and labeled with the name found on the crypt marker. Any descendant could claim them for a new interment. Others would be buried in a common grave.  García Márquez writes about looking at the bones, skulls, and papers marked with long forgotten names in pencil: “I can still feel the confusion produced in me by that terrible testimony to the devastating passage of the years.”

Among the disinterred were the bishop, Don Toribio de Cáceres y Virtudes, and the abbess Mother Josefa Miranda. While the tomb of the Marqués de Casalduero, Don Ygnacio de Alfaro y Dueñas, was empty, that of his wife, Doña Olalla de Mendoza, contained remains. The third niche in that family section held the greatest secret. When the worker’s pickaxe broke through the stone, a “stream of living hair the intense color of copper spilled out of the crypt.” According to García Márquez, the hair measured over 22 meters [66 feet!] long and was attached to the skull of a young girl, Sierva María de Todos los Angeles. The foreman told the incredulous young reporter that hair grows a centimeter a month after death. 200 years of growth = 66 feet of hair.

While staring at this morbid treasure of copper-colored hair, García Márquez remembered a story told by his grandmother. In the 18th century there had been a 12-year-old marquise with hair “that trailed behind her like a bridal train, who had died of rabies caused by a dog bite and was venerated in the towns long the Caribbean coast for the many miracles she had performed.” This actual confrontation with the girl’s remains and this tale told by his grandmother planted the  seeds of his book DEL AMOR Y OTROS DEMONIOS, to be written over four decades later.

The 1950s would be full of trials and tribulations for the young writer, who wrote novels, stories, screenplays, and continued supporting himself (barely) with journalism while living in Europe and Mexico. His masterpiece, though not his first novel, ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, was published in 1967. By the mid-80s filmmakers began adapting his stories and novels for the cinema, with varying degrees of success. DEL AMOR Y OTROS DEMONIOS was first published in 1994, and it greatly impressed a young Costa Rican, Hilda Hildago. When she enrolled for a screenwriting workshop with García Márquez in Cuba, her life would change.

Hidalgo had already made some short films about forbidden love – love between people of different ages or cultures. She told the Colombian author that she had found DEL AMOR very cinematic – could even see scenes in her mind – and wondered why it had not been made into a film. He asked her if she was interested in making such a film. She thought he was joking, but replied, “Of course. Who wouldn’t?” So he told her, “Do it!” To back up his support, he would give her the rights to the novel if she could make it into a feature film.

Hidalgo was fascinated by this theme of love between a girl of 13 and a priest 36 years old in 18th century Cartagena. Sierva Maria was born into wealth and aristocracy, but the family was falling into decadence and torpor. Ignored by her mother who is chronically ill and resigned to her bed, Sierva is raised by slaves. In fact, she learns the particular African language spoken by her nanny, who is virtually her surrogate mother whom she loves completely. In fact, the young girl is more African than Hispanic in the sense of her religious beliefs, her awareness of herbal cures, and the warmth she finds within that culture.

After being bitten by a dog, which is possibly rabid, Sierva Maria is tended by a younger slave who applies herbal medicine to the ankle wound. All would have been well were it not for the beliefs and power structure of the time period. The bishop of the diocese of Cartagena is concerned about the girl being from a family which has wandered away from the Church. Under the guise of worrying about the state of her soul, he succeeds in taking her away from the parents and placing her into a convent, not as a nun, but as a prisoner to be watched for any signs of demonic possession. In his irrational mind, Satan enters the body through illnesses, thereby endangering the well-being of the soul.

Also concerned by one of his free-thinking assistants, Father Cayetano, Bishop Toribio de Cáceres y Virtudes assigns the young priest to minister to the girl. Despite his protests about knowing nothing about demonic possession and exorcism, the bishop will not relent. His power and decisions are not to be challenged.  

One could easily guess what will eventually transpire, but it is to Hilda Hidalgo’s credit that she waits until almost the end before allowing the 13-year-old girl and the priest to accept their love and budding sexuality. In a sense both are virgins, certainly the young, inexperienced girl, but also the very repressed priest, who has taken his vows of celibacy and has not really been exposed to temptation until now. They will fumble toward ecstasy.

Like nearly all the great love stories we have enshrined in Western culture, such a love is inevitably doomed in such a time and place. As Hilda Hidalgo says, “This is a story of intolerance.” That intolerance is backed up with an overwhelming level of power and control – threats of excommunication, the Inquisition, accusations of witchcraft, the totalitarian power of the Holy Office. There is ultimately no way for them to escape their fate. Love is purposely not the only demon in the film (if demon it really is); the Church is much more demonic in its relentless pursuit of heresy and those who don’t adhere to a particular list of rules and actions.

Hidalgo makes a very insightful statement when she says that such a love can be born only in adverse conditions. On the street, Father Cayetano would doubtlessly have noticed the young girl with her brilliant hair, but it is doubtful she would have seen him as anything other than a priest in a brown robe. He could have gone back to the monastery to flagellate himself, while she might have begun dreaming of boys her own age or only slightly older. It is the superstition and ignorance of the Bishop and his religion that brought the two people together and charted the course for their forbidden love.

Even with García Márquez virtually handing over rights to the novel, Hidalgo still had to write the script, which she felt was nearly all there in the book. Then she had to find the right people for the roles. Unsurprisingly it was the role of Sierva Maria which would prove the most daunting. For two years the director traveled to Cuba, Brazil, Colombia, and back home to Costa Rica in search of her Sierva Maria. She saw over 800 young girls before finding the child right under her nose – the daughter of one of her casting directors, who now felt that her 13-year-old Eliza could take the role. Hidalgo had actually met Eliza when she was 11, but there was no way she could be considered at that time. Now, at 13, she was the right age, had a totally amazing look and bearing, and was eager to play the part. It helped that, although she had never acted, she had grown up in a family of filmmakers. The rest of the principal cast was found in Spain, experienced actors all. Principal photography took place in Cartagena.

For Hidalgo the most frightening time of all was showing the final edit to García Márquez. His inscrutable expressions for the first 20 minutes of the screening were almost unbearable, but when it was over, he told Hidalgo that he felt like he had been time-traveling. The atmosphere, the locations, and the performances all impressed him, but most of all he felt that the essence of his novel was there. That was all the praise she needed.



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