'Holy Beasts' ('La Fiera y la Fiesta'): Film Review | Berlin 2019

Holy Beasts Still 1 - Berlin International Film Festival - H 2019
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Trying to catch the camp wave proves elusive.

Geraldine Chaplin and Udo Kier embark on a disastrous film shoot meant to honor the late Caribbean writer, director and producer Jean-Louis Jorge.

It isn’t hard to imagine the kind of sexy 1970s pastiche that filmmakers Laura Amelia Guzman and Israel Cardenas set out to make with Holy Beasts (La Fiera y la Fiesta). The goal was certainly a campy, tongue-in-cheek fictional film-within-a-film in honor of flamboyant filmmaker, writer and theatrical producer Jean-Louis Jorge (a real person), who was an active member of the trendy '70s underground scene — think Warhol, think Studio 54, think European version of the above. He became a legend in Santo Domingo on the strength of his eccentric B-movies, until his work was cut short when he was murdered by three teenagers in 2000 at the age of 53.

Little known outside Santo Domingo, Jorge is no doubt a figure worth remembering, but he struggles to come into focus in this bizarre, irritating, yet visually enchanting feature. At best, its bow in Berlin’s Panorama section could find the Latido release support in LBGTQ quarters.

The story reunites a group of old friends who knew Jorge back when they were all members of the underground club scene. Now in their seventies, they plan to shoot his unfilmed screenplay on his own island, before it’s too late. Scrappy diva Vera (Geraldine Chaplin) has assumed the role of film director, and producer Victor (Jaime Pina) has agreed to find financing. The crew is rounded out by Martin the cinematographer (played with quiet resignation by Colombian filmmaker Luis Ospina) and Udo Kier as Henry, her loyal choreographer.

When arch-sophisticate Vera arrives on the Caribbean island with her glamorous wardrobe and electronic cigarette, Victor is delighted to see the film coming together. Unfortunately, her opinion of the set design, which he has commissioned without consulting her, is very negative, and she is disappointed to find Martin aboard as DP (the lenser she wanted has died). Ensconced in a luxurious hotel, she divides her time between constant partying, harassing her producer and spending time with a young man with hair to his waist (Jackie Luduena). This is the first time they have met, but she takes him for her long-lost grandson. The youth is a magnificent natural dancer and a stand-out in the chorus (and in the film). 

The script they are shooting, Le Palace, is about vampires and starlets, which sounds only a tad more outré than Jorge’s known work. The lead dancer, a local girl, is giving Henry hissy fits and holding up shooting — so no one seems unduly perturbed when she turns up dead in the bathtub bleeding from the neck. The ever-inventive Vera is happy to replace her with the hotel maid, who turns into an animal on the dance floor.

The story climaxes during a tropical storm. Vera insists on shooting around a deep tank with a mechanical wave machine despite Martin’s misgivings over thunderstorm warnings. (“Only those who have brakes can stop,” she proclaims. “I have none.”) Guess what happens.

This is the last moment the pic holds together in some semblance of kitschy cohesion. The next minute the artistic seams burst. Vera blames Jorge’s ghost for all the production troubles and she and Henry are shown to be supernatural creatures, which feels more like an anti-climax than a surprise.

It’s a kinky, messy film that overreaches itself badly, but if nothing else, the casting is perfect. Chaplin’s superbly expressive face and body language are truly out of time here. She manages to play focused and spacey simultaneously, as in her innocent reply to a police detective who asks how she knows the boy is her grandson: “Because we have the same blood.” Kier seems to be just passing through the pic, but he uses his usual cool irony to happy effect. 

The inspired part of Holy Beast is the way the filmmakers create a brooding tropical island atmosphere out of camera and lighting setups (Cardenas did the cinematography) and modern interior design, coupled with Leandro de Loredo’s amusing music choices, black-and-white photos and inserts from Jorge’s movies.

Judging by these intriguing morsels, Jorge’s transgressive life and death would certainly have made an engrossing documentary. His three feature films have the look of camp classics: The Serpent of the Pirate Moon (1973) stars a young Sylvia Morales (the future director of Chicana) as a woman who works in a nightclub while she loses her grip on reality; Melodrama (1976) is based on the screen romances of Rudolph Valentino and Pola Negri; and the 1998 When a Love Story Ends is inspired by a true story about a woman accused of infidelity and child abandonment.

Production companies: Aurora Dominicana, Batu Films, Lantica Media
Cast: Geraldine Chaplin, Udo Kier, Luis Ospina, Jaime Pina, Jackie Luduena, Pau Bertolini, Jeradin Asencio, Fifi Poulakidas
Directors-screenwriters: Laura Amelia Guzman, Israel Cardenas
Producers: Gabriel Tineo, Rafael Elias Munoz, Laura Amelia Guzman, Israel Cardenas
Executive producers: Alberto Martinez Martin, Gabriel Tineo
Director of photography: Israel Cardenas
Editor: Andrea Kleinman, Israel Cardenas, Pablo Chea
Music: Leandro de Loredo
Casting director: Valerie Daniella Hernandez Oloffson
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)
World sales: Latido

90 minutes