OF DEATH AND BEAUTY
MOVIE / TV TREATMENT:
Of Death and Beauty
Based on the novel by Barbara Grenfell Fairhead
Copyright 2013 Barbara Grenfell Fairhead
Contact: James Clois Smith Jr., Sunstone Press / (505) 988-4418
LOG LINE: A young man unwraps an angel that has been specially made for him by a master carver. The face he sees is that of the Angel of Death, but far from being horrified, he knows that no beauty is possible without this. How he comes to integrate this awareness into his experience is the challenge that life throws at him at every turn, and one that he must resolve if he is to overcome the wounding he has suffered from childhood.
It is 1954. A red Chevvy pick-up drives into the small, conservative town of Las Madres, New Mexico, the bare arm of its driver dangling lazily out of the window. The arm belongs to the beautiful and mysterious Magdalena Chávez, who has moved there with her son Sebastián. That night Elena Trujillo, the old woman who tends to the house of Father Octavio, the town’s priest, assures him that something “other” has entered the community, and that the town is about to be blessed.
Magdalena and her son take possession of a house that used to belong to a local santero—a sculptor of images of the saints—who had been known for the mixture of devotion and irreverence in his work. His masterpiece was a painting of Martha and the two Marys adoring Christ, in which Christ casts a just short of lustful gaze on Mary Magdalene. When Magdalena opens a salon in the santero’s house the townswomen are scandalised, but Father Octavio, gives his blessing to the undertaking, saying that Saint Sebastián would benefit enormously from a little wine, while the presence of the saints might have good influence on the men.
The men of Las Madres are immediately drawn to the salon and to Magdalena—and her blue-eyed dog, Perro Mestizo. In her presence they feel themselves expand. She is a great story-teller, and there is one story in particular the men love to hear repeatedly. It is the story of Don Alonso Rodríguez, a local horse breeder obsessed with the purity and excellence of his own breeding, as well as that of his beloved horses; his son Esteban, and Carmelita, the daughter of Don Alonso’s groom. A great love grows between the two young people, but it is forbidden from the outset, as Carmelita’s father is of mixed blood, and therefore not considered fit to have his line mix into the pure Rodríguez one. When Carmelita becomes pregnant, she is sent away as soon as her child is born so that Esteban can marry the girl his father has chosen for him. At first some of the men champion Carmelita’s cause, but gradually they come to feel that Esteban’s father was right. They are horrified, however, to learn subsequently that Esteban and his wife have no children, and that Don Alonso dies without an heir.
Meanwhile many of the townswomen are jealous of Magdalena’s success, and are threatened by their unacknowledged attraction towards Sebastián. After an attempt to frame him for a crime of which he is innocent, he and Magdalena decide to leave the town in spite of an attempted intervention by Father Octavio. They settle in a fertile valley about two hours’ drive from Las Madres, which shows evidence that a band of Penitente monks used to live there. Magdalena calls her new home The Adobe, and she and Sebastián soon make themselves comfortable with the help of Father Octavio and many of the men who used to frequent her salon. She and Father Octavio establish a ritual of going to the opera together each year, and a deep friendship develops between them. They also share a concern for the future of Sebastián, who is troubled and angry about aspects of his childhood.
[Flash-back] Sebastián, aged about five, runs along a dusty road, talking animatedly to two dogs of whom only one is visible. He introduces his invisible dog, Ladrido, to his mother. He tells her that Ladrido has come to protect him from falling into “the place where the light ends.” Sebastián is curious about the world and a keen observer of the women who frequent his mother’s dress-making business. Magdalena is worried that he spends too much time in his imaginary world, and decides to buy him a real dog. Sebastián chooses a black and white dog he calls Amigo, and cheerfully concludes that the two animals should get on well together.
Sebastián’s untroubled world is destroyed when a teacher shames him for making up a heroic story about his absent father. After this incident he is much more guarded, and approaches the world from a safe, intellectual distance. When he is eighteen he moves to Las Madres with his mother, where he helps her in running her salon. He is befriended by Father Octavio, in whom he confides. They have one particularly important conversation, in which Father Octavio stresses the importance of being in love and living on the edge of oneself in order to do work for its own sake, in the same way that an apple tree bears apples.
When his mother is established at The Adobe, Sebastián enters a nearby university and is drawn into the circle of Grenville Oakley, a philosophy lecturer who encourages him to question his assumptions. He falls in love with Georgia Fitzgerald, a talented painter who returns his passion and challenges his need for certainty. After looking at Picasso’s Guernica through her eyes, he becomes inspired to find his own voice as an artist. She shows him her work, and he is particularly drawn to one painting, called Where the Pink Hill Waits, in which he recognizes something; a quality of light and something that is longing for form, struggling to emerge. Georgia gives him this painting, and it seems as though their future happiness is assured. However, he retreats into himself once again when she leaves him soon after they make love for the first time, to pursue a promising career in Paris.
At first he takes refuge in reading poetry, but gradually becomes aware of his own growing strength as a poet. One afternoon, after attending a poetry lecture on D. H. Lawrence’s Mountain Lion, he returns to his apartment and writes his first poem. This gives him the courage to explore the sense of loss he has known since childhood.
He also makes a new friend, Rafaél Montdragón. Rafaél tells Sebastián how, as a boy, he had painted a retablo of the Crucifixion in which he had depicted Christ on the Cross, laughing. His parents had wanted to cover up the offending image, but the spectacle of a dish-cloth over the Lord’s suffering had been so absurd that they had ultimately collapsed into helpless laughter. Their concern remained, however, because the retablo reminded them of the fate of Rafaél’s grandfather, a monk who was ultimately unhinged by the irreverence of his own depiction of the Crucifixion, in which he portrayed Christ with the head of a ram. Rafaél has been strongly advised to enter the Church rather than pursuing an artistic career, but his attitude towards the priesthood is conflicted. This friendship strengthens Sebastián’s own resolve to live his life fully in the face of contradictions and uncertainties.
A few years pass, and Magdalena falls seriously ill. Father Octavio, confronted with her imminent death, realises that he has been in love with her for many years. Before dying she reveals to him that she is the woman on whom the character of Carmelita in her story was based, and that Sebastián’s father is the son of a local horse breeder. It comes to light that Sebastián’s grandfather made a full confession to Father Octavio shortly before his death, and that he has left Sebastián a large sum of money. Magdalena’s response on hearing this is to laugh uproariously, and this is how she dies.
After his mother’s death Sebastián reads his father’s letters to Magdalena. She has left them to him, together with some of the gifts she received from Sebastián’s father when they were young. He is deeply moved by their story and is forced once again to confront the loss of Georgia and through it, his sense of aloneness and abandonment. He hikes up the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and sees a gigantic condor that brushes his face as it flies past him, seeming to turn away at the point of taking him. He also has a very powerful experience, possibly in a dream, in which his icy body is warmed and he is ultimately seduced by a woman with short-cropped hair. He decides to stay at The Adobe and, with the help of Rafaél and the nun Sister Piadosa, who possibly inspired his erotic dream, to develop it in the service of the wider Las Madres community.
María de la Cruz is the sixth, and youngest daughter of striking but troubled parents. We see her father, Lorenzo, stride into his wife Catherine’s room, eager to see the new-born baby. He is bitterly disappointed at not having been given a son and heir, but falls under María’s spell the moment he sees her. Lorenzo gives his wife a dove-house with fifty doves to show his pleasure at the baby, and Catherine and the growing María often watch them fly off and return again.
Lorenzo de la Cruz is troubled by memories of his own childhood, specifically of his father’s abuse of his mother. He tries to suppress these memories through displays of wealth and power, and the women of his house, including his wife, are made to live under a strict code. Catherine is forced to give up her aspirations of being a professional singer, and Lorenzo gives her a beautiful silver hair-comb instructing her that she should keep her hair up at all times. He loses his temper at the sight of her long, loose hair, ostensibly because it is unseemly, but in fact because it triggers the memory of his mother’s beauty and suffering at the hands of his father.
One night he recounts his experience of a bullfight in Mexico to a group of guests. In response to an argument on death and beauty; where his opponent argues that death is always abhorrent and ugly, de la Cruz explains how death is made beautiful through the intimate ritual of the bullfight. At such moments, he says, the Duende—that dark wind that blows on the back of one’s neck when death is possible—enters the arena. His visitors are shocked at his excitement in the face of death, and Catherine is appalled.
The six-year-old María accompanies Lorenzo on horseback, sitting on a cushion on the saddle with his arm holding her, on a tour around his estate, and witnesses his shooting of a female elk. This causes a permanent rift between them. María responds by finding the dead elk’s calf and rearing it with the help of Diego, her father’s foreman. Together she and Diego release the calf, which María has called Santo, into the Valle Grande at a time of the rut when he is most likely to join the band of youngsters. The sight of the immense Valle Grande gives María her first inkling of how protected and circumscribed her own life is.
When she is nine years old María sings a solo in the local church as part of an audition to join the choir of Santiago Fuentes, the music teacher. Her extraordinary voice inspires Salvador, Santiago’s son, to fall in love with her and to start composing music of his own. As the two of them grow up their love for each other is obvious to everyone, but María’s jealous father plans to marry her to a young man from a wealthy family whom he would be able to control. After María and Salvador sing a love duet as part of a successful concert for which Salvador wrote all the music, Lorenzo forbids María to continue with her singing lessons.
As the arrangements for María’s engagement party become increasingly elaborate, she and Salvador devise a scheme by which they can escape in a borrowed lowrider and be secretly married by Alejandro Jaramillo, a carver of angels who is also a Justice of the Peace. Alejandro had a vision as a boy of ten in the course of a woodwork class, in which an angel he had just carved was surrounded by a halo of light. From this halo a voice spoke to him, identifying itself as belonging to one of the Heavenly Host, and commanding him to carve as many angels as there are stars in the sky. When Alejandro discusses this vision with his young friend Santiago Fuentes, the latter protests that Alejandro might want to do many things in his life, and that after all they are only boys who cannot yet know what they will become. Alejandro insists that he knows what he will be. He does indeed become a carver of angels, and is sometimes seen at night, looking up at the stars with instruments he has made, searching for new ideas for angels to carve.
At the last moment María escapes into the arms of Salvador, causing enormous embarrassment to her father. On learning about the elopement he pursues them, but at first his search is interrupted by a large group of pilgrims who claim to have seen two angels in a bright vehicle ascend to Heaven. They claim that these angels have healed the withered leg of the little boy, Pablito, who is with them. De la Cruz dismisses their story, but subsequently finds out that the car the pilgrims described was the lowrider that Salvador borrowed for his and María’s escape. He eventually finds them, largely as a result of the neon-bright colours of this outrageous vehicle and the crowds of people it attracts.
María is brought home in disgrace, and is forbidden to see Salvador. They remain in contact, however, through clay pigeons that María makes each morning, and to whose legs she ties tiny love notes. Each afternoon she launches them into the sky, certain that they will find their way to Salvador.
The events surrounding María’s disgrace and punishment force Catherine de la Cruz to come to terms with her complicity in her husband’s tyranny over her and their children. In a moment of rage she hurls the silver hair-comb he had given her at her bedroom mirror. The comb is recovered the next morning, but the pieces of the mirror have cut de la Cruz’ prize roses to pieces. She increasingly finds solace in the company of her childhood dog, Pepita, whom no one else can see. She is supported by Mercedes, María’s nurse when she was little, and by Encarnación, the wife of Diego. These women provide a refuge of earthy sanity in the face of the disintegration of the de la Cruz family.
On the evening before her twenty-first birthday Salvador comes for María, as she has expected. The couple is overcome with passion, and an enraged de la Cruz surprises them making love. He threatens Salvador that María would suffer the consequences if he should try to see her again. María tells Salvador that he must leave. In the aftermath of this meeting de la Cruz drives into the Valle Grande and kills an elk stag similar to the one María had reared. María herself is sent away to The Adobe, where Sebastián and the nun Sister Piadosa have taken charge after Magdalena’s death. De la Cruz finds relief from his growing sorrow and isolation in alcohol, and through an obsession with his appearances, taking particular care in choosing what he will wear on the day María leaves. On the day of her departure María, as a way of demonstrating her independence, cuts off her hair, drives the silver comb (which her father had given her for her eighteenth birthday) through it, and nails it to the wall in his room of hunting trophies. As she is driven off, the white doves leave their roosting-place and follow her.
De la Cruz tries to rekindle his relationship with his wife, but she is increasingly absent. He buys her an expensive songbird for her birthday and makes elaborate preparations for the day. The night before the birthday he and Catherine have a conversation about María in which it becomes clear that de la Cruz will never allow her to return home unless she agrees to marry the man of his choosing. The next morning it is discovered that both de la Cruz’ pick-up and Catherine herself are missing, and the songbird escapes.
María is living at The Adobe, watching the flight of the doves that have followed her from her parents’ house. There is always a breathless moment when they disappear from view altogether, and when it seems as though they will never return. In these repeated flight patterns María sees a perfect image of death and resurrection. She finds this consoling, but at the same time it suggests to her that the Duende is never far away.
She has found a friend in Sister Piadosa, who quickly discovers that María is pregnant. María is happy at the prospect of bearing Salvador’s child, but explains to the nun that she and Salvador are being closely watched by her father, and that it would not be wise for them to see each other and to make their marriage official in the eyes of the Church.
Father Octavio, meanwhile, becomes increasingly aware of his continuing love for the dead Magdalena. As he travels towards The Adobe on one of his regular visits he considers what his next step should be, and begins to realise that he cannot continue as a priest given what he now knows about himself. He reaches The Adobe and, with María, carries gifts from his car into the vestry. When she suddenly gives a cry and faints, he discovers her pregnancy, and together with Sister Piadosa plans a future meeting between the two lovers in order to bless their marriage, in spite of de la Cruz’ refusal to consent. Before this can happen, however, Father Octavio is overcome by a violent pain in his chest, and recognises this to be a sign that his time as a priest is at an end. After a final New Year’s Mass in Las Madres he walks home, where he ceremoniously takes off his priestly garments so that he can meet his God naked, as a man. Later the inhabitants of Las Madres say that they saw a vision of a man and a beautiful woman dancing in the plaza to the sounds of a Puccini aria. Next morning his body is found by Elena. At his funeral Encarnación sings a rendition of verses from the Song of Songs as María, unseen, watches and listens.
Father Octavio’s successor is the French priest, Jean-Luc Sel. He is an educated but severe man, disappointed at the smallness of the town and the ignorance of its inhabitants. He has left France, his native country, under a cloud, but for the moment no one in Las Madres knows this. Elena Trujillo, however, who can read much of a person’s character from their hands, is appalled by the mute whiteness of Jean-Luc’s, which compulsively rub each other as if in an attempt to cleanse themselves. It is the first time that she has encountered hands that are silent. Then, as she listens more closely, she hears in them the weeping of a child.
Father Jean-Luc immediately sets about trying to uproot what he considers to be the pagan practices of the region, preaching against the adoration of the Virgin of Guadelupe in particular. The inhabitants of Las Madres are dismayed by this, but ultimately ignore him. They come to recognise his arrival by the way his car splutters up the hill, as if in protest.
After a difficult labour María’s daughter Sofia is born, and is immediately taken away to be raised by a peasant family who lives in a nearby farm house so that de la Cruz will not find her or learn of her existence. On the night of the birth Sister Piadosa waits next to María’s bed, watching helplessly as moths fly towards a glass lamp, bruising their wings. This, in her mind, becomes an image of the all-consuming love of God.
Sofia’s birth remains a secret from Father Jean-Luc Sel for the moment, but on one of his visits during her pregnancy he hears a piercingly beautiful song sung by María. He voices strong disapproval of such unbridled self-expression, and insists on meeting Sister María and hearing her confession. Sister Piadosa, with the help of the young nun Sister Ana, is compelled to pretend that María is delirious in an attempt to prevent him from interfering.
At Sofia’s christening Father Jean-Luc is intimidated by the presence of her earthy foster-mother, whose large breasts are barely contained by a single button of her blouse. He cannot keep his eyes off her, but at the same time she reminds him of his childhood shame at his own sexuality. His mother had walked into his room while he was masturbating, and had dipped his hands in a bucket of lye as a punishment. When the woman starts to breast-feed in the middle of the service his discomfort increases. As he is about to christen Sofia, he hears María’s song drift in through the window, and he makes the connection that she is the mother of the child. In his subsequent confrontation with Sister Piadosa he takes the side of María’s father. He also reveals details about a confession he has heard, much to the nun’s horror.
After the birth of her daughter María becomes increasingly weak. When it becomes clear that she is dying, Father Jean-Luc demands to hear her confession, but she dismisses him. It is Sister Piadosa who absolves her in the absence of a priest and who stays with her. Just before she dies María sees a vision of her younger self running through the pristine wilderness of the Valle Grande next to the elk, Santo. At the last moment before her death she sees an image of Sofia standing between an elk stag’s horns.
After her death Father Jean-Luc declares her a heretic and refuses to have her buried in consecrated ground. Sister Piadosa and the other nuns at The Adobe notify Mercedes and the rest of the staff at María’s childhood home (de la Cruz is away at the time and Catherine has left) and organise the burial service without consulting the priest. As the proceedings are about to begin, Penitente priests, summoned by Encarnació, arrive in order to say the blessing and conduct the service..
Meanwhile Salvador has been searching in vain for María. After eighteen months, with no new information, he is about to give up. One night, as he is sitting on his porch, he hears music pouring out of the cab of a huge transport truck. He is so inspired by this that he jumps into his own battered car and gives chase. The music is coming from Reuben Mendoza, a young man who has just returned from Argentina, where he immersed himself in every aspect of tango and learned to play the bandoneon. The two men share a sense of alienation, and soon they have become friends and musical collaborators.
One night Salvador has a dream in which he dances with a mysterious woman whose face is covered by a veil. At the dream’s climax he lifts the veil even though she has asked him not to do so. Beneath the veil is the red hair and grinning skull of María. The two friends compose a tango opera based on this dream. It is called Tango Amor, Tango Muerte, and tells the story of a rich young man’s relationship with a prostitute, Corazón, who has been cast out by her family. She leaves her lover when she discovers that she is pregnant. At the end of the opera he traces her, only to find that she has had a child and that her face has transformed into a skull beneath its veil. The work is an overwhelming success, and finally, in spite of Salvador’s concern, it is taken to Santa Fe, where it is also seen by many inhabitants of Las Madres. Salvador himself plays a violin he has made throughout the performance, but remains masked. During the interval his father approaches him and tells him of María’s death. When the performance recommences he has taken off his mask, and dedicates the evening to María’s memory. Everyone looks at de la Cruz, who is also present. Towards the end of the evening a man in the audience is heard sobbing, and a spotlight is turned on him, revealing the broken face of María’s father.
Sister Piadosa decides to write to the Bishop about Father Jean-Luc. She expresses her concern over his breaking of the Sacred Seal, as well as his treatment of María and the general breakdown in the relationship between him and the community of Las Madres. Soon afterwards, in the midst of a particularly vitriolic sermon just before Christmas, the congregation gets up and leaves en masse. The Bishop attends one of these sermons, after which he institutes an inquiry. The Church Council finally rules that María should be exhumed and reburied in consecrated ground, and that her marriage to Salvador should be recognized as binding.
At the ceremony María’s coffin is opened, and many people later claim to have seen her red hair continuing to grow, spilling out of her coffin and flowing down the aisle. Many say that they saw her ascend to Heaven. De la Cruz is deeply disturbed by the ceremony. Sebastián goes to speak to him, but ultimately cannot refrain from condemning him for the death of his daughter. De la Cruz strides off in a fit of disgust that is at least partly directed at himself. He drives home as an enormous storm approaches and elaborately prepares to shoot himself at the moment the thunder is directly overhead.
The next morning Sebastián hears that de la Cruz has suffered a massive heart attack, and he is wracked with guilt. For the first time he has to come to terms with the possibility that he could mirror the injustice and prejudice he has always deplored in the world around him. On the pink hill near the Adobe, surrounded by the landscape he loves, Sebastián absent-mindedly builds a small tower of stones while he struggles with these thoughts. Suddenly he sees a cottontail scampering off to avoid a low-flying hawk, and he has a flash-back to the condor and a revelation of his own belonging in the world. He now sees that “love, at its highest, is a state of divine and passionate indifference.”
Sebastián receives a telegram from Georgia, stating that she is in Albuquerque should he wish to meet her. He hesitates for a moment, but admits to Sister Piadosa that he is eager to see her again. He and Georgia are both awkward at first, but after she has told him of her hardships in Paris and introduced him to her blind son Lucien, they begin to relax. Sebastián tentatively suggests that she and Lucien follow him to The Adobe and stay there while she decides what to do next. In her response he sees a possibility of their making a life together.
In the penultimate scene Sofia is guiding Lucien through the grounds surrounding The Adobe and describing the landscape to him. Lucien explains that he can see, but differently. Sofia is a singer like her mother, while Lucien writes songs. After she has described everything she can see to him, and caught one of the doves for him to hold, she asks him what he can see, wondering whether she will be able to see his ‘vision.’
“I see happiness,” he says.
Finally we see a much older Sebastián putting flowers on the graves of his mother, Father Octavio, María Fuentes and Sister Piadosa. He slowly walks up to his favourite rock on the pink hill, a pack of dogs running ahead of him and one much older dog walking next to him. After a time he makes his way back to his casita and sits down behind his desk, a sandwich and a jug of iced tea next to him. He looks at the empty page for a long moment. We realise that he is about to start writing the story we have been following. He types a dedication.
For Lucien, Sofia and Octavia
And the first words: “In the end it is all about beauty.”
We are left wondering who Octavia is, as there is no mention of her in the story. Is this what Magdalena calls ‘a thread hanging out at the end of a tale?’
Or is there going to be a sequel?