Monday, January 26, 2015

The Virgin Goddess (Argentina/South Africa, 1974)

Helmed by Dirk De Villiers, a South African director of prolific output but little renown outside his home country, The Virgin Goddess is proof that Argentinian sex bomb Isabel Sarli was more than just a buxom puppet in the hands of her director paramour Armando Bo. Don’t assume, however, that Bo was not close at hand. He shares a co-production credit on the film and also appears in a supporting role. Furthermore, his son, Victor Bo, plays the male lead. Victor, I should mention, would go on to give Armando Bo a grandson, also named Armando Bo, who would grow up to share screenwriting credit on Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Oscar nominated film Birdman. And thus is a membrane-thin veneer of contemporary relevance laboriously attained.

Like so many jungle adventures before it, The Virgin Goddess begins in a modern city, that pinnacle achievement of man in all of his so called “civilization” (but are we really so civilized… ARE WE?). Here, a flinty adventurer—appropriately named Flint and played by director De Villiers himself—regales a table full of sophisticated gentlemen with the story of his latest adventure—in a manner so putatively captivating that, before he is done, the entirety of the patrons and wait staff of the bar they are in has gathered around their table.

Interestingly, Flint’s tale requires a preamble that starts in 1495. It seems a certain, beautiful, monster-titted noblewoman (Sarli) was making a treacherous passage by schooner when a violent storm lead to her being washed up in picturesque dishabille on the shore of some unknown African land (the film was shot in Kruger Park, one of South Africa’s largest game reserves). Because everything that gets left in the jungle—cigarette lighters, old copies of the New Yorker, Jell-O molds—ends up being elevated to the level of a deity, the natives waste no time in scooping Sarli up and making a goddess out of her. And it is at this point that we get the first of many, many travelogue style scenes of natives dancing around and chanting. This provides for lots of National Geographic style nudity, which takes the onus off Sarli, who apparently had some kind of Amy Yip clause in her contract.

Sarli is taken under the wing of the village witch doctor, Makulu (Jimmy Sabe) who acts as her Henry Higgins in terms of teaching her the ins and outs of being a rain goddess. Soon her fevered undulations bring rain. The crops thrive and the village prospers. Meanwhile, Makulu himself has become hoodoo’d by Sarli’s overflowing charms and demands that she become his bride. She refuses, and he puts a curse on her: she will live forever, as will he, as long as she remains a virgin. Makulu, it seems, is running the whole show here, and does so with an iron fist. When a young warrior named Gampu (Ken Gampu) attempts to assassinate him, he ends up being run out of the village and goes into hiding.

The Virgin Goddess is an odd film. Its dialogue is a mix of both spoken and dubbed English and Swahili (and to add to the linguistic chaos, the version I watched had Spanish subtitles). It also, especially in comparison to what Armando Bo—whose mania for Sarli’s attributes seemingly robbed him of all restraint—might have done with this kind of material, comes across as sort of… sedate. The pace is slow but measured, and there is an overall hush that reminds one of those old documentaries where the filmmakers spoke in whispers for fear of riling the natives or causing a rhino stampede. It doesn’t help that, whenever De Villiers cuts to a shot of the surrounding wildlife, the animals appear as if they are about to collapse from boredom.

Like her animal co-stars, the usually lusty Sarli also appears anesthetized, laying back complacently as the natives worship her and carry her around on a palanquin—admittedly, as she well might. It takes the intervention of civilized man, that notorious ruiner of everything, to finally bring her back to her old self. This comes in the form of an exploration party comprised of Flint, handsome devil Mark (Victor Bo), financier Hans (Armando Bo), and Eric (James Ryan), a mustached Chuck Negron look-alike who provides the gratuitous folk music.

The Virgin Goddess does not do a very good job of letting us in on when it has transitioned from the 15th century to the present day, so it comes as a bit of a surprise when Gampu, the outcast warrior previously seen only in flashback, steps forward to offer his services as guide to the explorers. From here, the standard retinue of jungle perils and treacheries commences, as naggingly familiar as the morning alarm clock. Eric reveals himself to be the coward of the group and is killed by a leopard while making an ill-advised run for it. Hans is the backstabbing turncoat, and is fatally bitten by vigilant cobras while trying to steal the tribe’s treasure for himself. Mark is handsome, and immediately falls for Sarli once he spies her fondling her own boobs in the local watering hole. This fateful encounter sets the stage for the cataclysmic fuck that will end the film in a hail of volcanic ash and toppling huts (spoiler).

The Virgin Goddess is not boring, even though it feels as though it should be boring. It is instead mesmerizing; mainly for the oddly somnolent approach it takes to material that, in other hands, would provide for a lot of bombast. Dirk De Villiers, it must be said, is no Armando Bo—and I am startled to find myself admitting that Bo’s over-the-top approach was missed here. Because of that, I will deem The Virgin Goddess a must-see only for Sarli completists, of which the desire-perverting tendencies of the internet guarantees there are some. Others, looking for an introduction to this unique star/director combo, would do best to check out the previously reviewed Fuego. Now that’s a picture, people!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi, where did you watch this film? I can't found it!