3.3. Los Miserables by Fernando A. Rivero and Elias Breeskin (Mexico, 1943)
Although the opening credits mention Victor Hugo and his novel more than once, Roberto Tasker and Fernando A. Rivero’s adaptation actually starts in Paris in 1831. The main facts missing in the film are told two thirds of the way through, during a confession Jean Valjean makes to Marius after having saved him. Valjean’s words are pictured with flashbacks whose durations, that gradually increase in length, end up being taken as a primary narration by the spectator. Of course, arguing about the use and abuse of flashbacks makes sense only if the film is adapted from a very well-known tale or novel. In this case, in fact, the filmic version may ‘shatter’ the form of its illustrious source. This is not the case with films that can be compared only with themselves such as Welles’s Citizen Kane or Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963), both based for different reasons on the flashback technique.89
89 There are exceptions that concern not only whether or not the film works, but also a narrative principle: the farther the flashback is from the primary diegesis, the less plausible it is. In this version of Les Misérables flashbacks come very late to recall events that are too far from when they are told.
90 Where necessary a translation from Spanish has been added in curly brackets. [EN]
Jean Valjean (Domingo Soler) is not young and not particularly charismatic, at least not as much as one would expect from the interpreter of such a mythical character. In any case, Soler is a very experienced actor and does not need to act emphatically.
Also the 29-year-old Manolita Saval is definitively too old to interpret the young Cosette (the same applies for Marius’s actor). Especially Saval but, to a certain extent, every actor except Soler, are very mechanical. Every look and every movement seem to be drawn from a ‘repertoire’ where everyone goes and takes what the script is asking for. Therefore, most of the scenes are not spontaneous and behind every line one can feel the presence of a very dogmatic acting school.
With regard to music, poor considerations prevail: it exceeds so much with its presence that it can be beneficial to the film only when it is not playing (but, in the second half of the movie, musical cues are not as many as in the first part). Underscoring, with its non-thematic character and its low melodic profile that constantly follows the image, bothers more than anything else.91 Composing underscoring music is not easy and is almost exclusively a prerogative of Hollywood composers whose experience with it is hard to imitate. In this version of Les Misérables there are long episodes that are musically characterized by the absence of clear thematic elements, whether or not associated with a leitmotivic function. The opening titles can prove it. Here, none of the many musical episodes has an unequivocal nature and/or is long enough to allow a truthful description.
91 For more information see Sergio Miceli, “Analysis. Musical Forms in Cinema,” in Film Music, p. 480-496.
The only trace of a theme is quickly covered by a texture richly composed of many different musical materials which I called ‘insertions’ both to give them not too much importance and to be concise. Technically, I could examine them one by one, but this would take too long and it would not have a real justification, at least in terms of the educational goals of this essay. For one or more ‘insertions’ to exist, there must be a theme to which they can be attached, but in this film everything is very rhapsodic. The only element that has good film-music features – conciseness, transparency, memorability – is played at the very end, on one of the many intertitles that pays homage to Hugo. The second theme could have represented an oasis of calm, but it is too short. To conclude, the orchestration is like everything else: chaotic.
Los Miserables, 1943
After being so negative, I now have a humorous observation (or at least, this is my intention). A short excerpt for orchestra – the first theme that coincides with the intertitle saying “Domingo Soler” – is sufficient to feel a sort of Mexican atmosphere spreading everywhere. In fact, Cosette is a typical South-American beauty who has nothing to do with a young French girl. Therefore, when La Marsellaise starts playing, or when a character mentions Paris, one wonders in bewilderment: “What do they have to do with this film?”
DVD Los Miserables.
Les Chefs d’Œuvre du Cinema Mexicain.
L’incroyable version du chef d’œuvre de Victor Hugo!
Année de production: 1943 – Origine: Mexique – Format: 4/3 – Image: NB.
Langue: VOST [espagnol; sous-titre français] – durée 102 mn – Son: Mono.
Zone: 2 PAL.
Bach Film, with no alpha-numerical edition marking, 2013.
Source: Archive S. M., Florence.