'The Prince' ('El principe'): Film Review | Venice 2019
Chilean production designer Sebastian Munoz's directorial debut is set in a prison in 1970, just before Allende came to power.
A pretty boy — or, to be more precise, an angular jawline and a head of lush curls in search of a personality — is thrown into a dark and dank prison in 1970 Chile in The Prince (El principe). For most people, this would be a horror scenario, but this feature is such a work of homoerotic fantasy, pilfering liberally from sources ranging from Un Chant d’amour to Querelle and the opera omnia of Jean-Daniel Cadinot, that the protagonist doesn’t mind being locked away with a bunch of handsy, well-endowed inmates for even one hot minute. Quite the contrary, as behind bars he’ll find plenty of man-on-man action, cute bell-bottoms and perhaps even the homosexual Holy Grail decades before the age of marriage equality: love.
Based on an obscure novel by Mario Cruz, this feels like the kind of work that would have played as quite radical in 1970 Chile, just before Allende was elected to replace a CIA-backed regime. But seen through the prism of the world we live in today, the idea that, for example, rape — or at the very least non-consensual sex — would be part of a kind of utopian, gay-prison fever dream feels icky and outdated.
This directorial debut from Chilean production designer Sebastian Munoz, who worked on fellow Venice title La Llorona as an art director, will head to San Sebastian after its bow in the Venice Critics’ Week. It could pop up at a few other Spanish-language cinema showcases and at indiscriminate queer festivals. The film, filled to the brim with barely clothed men but nary an idea, inexplicably won the Queer Lion in Venice.
Jaime (Juan Carlos Maldonado) is a blandly beautiful young man who’s thrown into prison after he has knifed down a long-haired, not-very-talkative friend. He’s put in a cell with just one bunk bed already occupied by four others. They include the clear alpha male and oldest of the group, nicknamed Stud (Alfredo Castro, Larrain’s Tony Manero), who orders his young lover (Sebastian Ayala) to sleep on the floor so that Jaime, who receives the nickname “the prince,” can serve as Stud’s new bed buddy. The two attractive but largely ornamental men on the top bunk are also clearly in a relationship, though they don’t do much else besides look at each other longingly, which almost becomes a kind of strange running gag in the background.
“To survive here, you need to be a macho,” Stud instructs Jaime on his first day. “I’m a beginner,” Jaime squeaks in reply. But he does follow Stud into the showers, crawls into the bottom bunk with him and doesn’t vocally oppose Stud when he penetrates Jaime anally, no questions asked and after having only met him a few hours prior.
If there is an are-you-gay/are-you-into-gay-sex sorting hat that was used by the 1970 Chilean prison authorities so they can put all the queers together in a cell, it didn’t make it into the film. And even so, it is not like gay men would necessarily want to be penetrated by any other man they just happened to find lying around in their bed. It is also not clear whether there are, indeed, any straight people at all in this particular prison, which makes for odd viewing because the tone of the film is otherwise relatively realistic (there's none of the poetry of Genet, for example, which could suggest a kind of fantasy element).
The mysterious, broad-chested Che Pibe (Argentinean actor Gaston Pauls) sleeps in another cell but is also clearly not opposed to some hot man-on-man action, which he gets from the overeager young man Dany (Lucas Balmaceda). Indeed, Dany — who with his lighter curls and bee-stung lips looks like a negative image of Jaime, who has black curls and barely-there lips — is insatiable, casting longing eyes at Jaime even though both already have their hands full with another man. The relationships become so fluid that it feels like a flowchart would come in handy around the halfway mark to figure out who hasn’t yet slept with whom.
Besides the bed-hopping antics between a few cells, what passes for a story here includes some flashbacks to Jaime’s development as a sexual being in the real world and to the young man’s friendship with the victim (Cesare Serra). But these moments play more like nostalgic, stand-alone shorts than parts of a larger narrative arc that would shed some light on who Jaime is or has become and what — if anything — he wants out of life. It is clear he slowly becomes interested in men after having had a sexual experience with a woman, but there’s no context or sense of how that makes Jaime feel.
To make things even stranger, there seems to be zero opposition to gay characters or gay sex outside of prison, either, as if straight people were in the minority and they wouldn’t dare to shame anyone for being different.
The finale at least makes it crystal-clear what Jaime’s position in the prison hierarchy is. But, again, there is zero sense of how the boy feels about it or whether he even wants that position. And Munoz, who wrote the adaptation with Luis Barrales, makes a final misstep in the closing moments, when he lets the reality of 1970 Chile intrude upon the prison fantasy he’s created for his characters. What is a viewer, who by this point must have accepted the penal complex as a kind of alternate reality/paradise for gay men, supposed to make of this reminder that a different reality exists outside the prison’s sweaty walls?
Castro is the only actor whose name will ring a bell for international audiences. He is clearly best in show here, imbuing his stock character with a sense of heartache and the type of bravado that comes from having been confronted with an eat-or-be-eaten mentality for too long. Maldonado, who has some TV experience, virtually disappears opposite the acting veteran. Indeed, people in much smaller roles, such as Pauls, Balmaceda and Ayala, leave more of an impression.
Given Munoz’s day job, it’s perhaps not a surprise that the production design, credited to Claudia Gallardo, at least looks grimily fabulous. Even if it is made abundantly clear that the men in this particular prison didn’t exactly come for the interior decor.
Production companies: El Otro Film, Nina Nino Films, Le Tiro, Be Revolution Pictures
Cast: Juan Carlos Maldonado, Alfredo Castro, Gaston Pauls, Sebastian Ayala, Lucas Balmaceda, Cesare Serra, José Antonio Raffo
Director: Sebastian Munoz
Screenwriters: Luis Barrales, Sebastian Munoz, based on the novel by Mario Cruz
Producer: Marianne Mayer-Beckh
Cinematography: Enrique Stindt
Production design: Claudia Gallardo
Costume design: Carolina Espina
Editing: Danielle Fillios
Music: Angela Acuna
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Critics’ Week)
Sales: Patra Spanou Film Marketing & Consulting
In Chilean Spanish