Based on the true story of a 19th century Buenos Aires aristocratic woman who created a scandal by running off with a priest, the 1984 Argentinian film Camila is a captivating mixture of romance, lush costume drama, and political commentary. It certainly was when it was first released, a short time after the end of a long period of fascist rule in Argentina.
The story was dramatized on film once before, in 1910. Unfortunately, this film is considered lost. Even 150 years after the events, the descendants of the family of Camila O’Gorman, the woman at the center of the story, objected to a new film version. The mid-1980s turned out to be a perfect time for director Maria Luisa Bemberg to tackle the project.
Set during the tyrannical regime of Juan Manuel de Rosas, everyone is obligated to show support for it by wearing red ribbons at all times. Wealthy landowner Adolfo O’Gorman (Hector Alterio) reluctantly allows his mother to return from a Brazilian prison so she can live under house arrest at his estancia. She carried on an adulterous affair for which her son never forgives her.
One of his daughters, Camila (Susu Pecoraro), becomes fond of her grandmother and thrills to the stories of her passionate love affair. Courted by a young man her father deems suitable, she is pressured to accept him. Camila does not want to marry simply to please her family and society. She wants deep passion and love with a man she sees as morally superior. Her father is also angry with his daughter because she dares to speak out against the brutality of the Rosas government.
A Jesuit priest Ladislao Gutierrez (Imanol Arias) arrives and immediately sparks controversy because he is not wearing the red ribbon in support of Rosas. He soon complies, but still speaks about against injustice. Camila falls deeply in love with him. Ladislao reciprocates. Even though he is reluctant to break his vows, he runs away with her.
They live happily for a while in a small town, but are eventually tracked down by another priest. Both are arrested. Rosas, appalled by the way the scandal is being used by his opponents to weaken his power, sentences both to death. They are executed side-by-side by a firing squad, in spite of the fact that Camila is pregnant.
One of Bemberg’s most interesting choices is to never show Rosas. His presence is only visible through portraits, the red ribbons, and the acts carried out in his name. Camila’s father is an ardent supporter because he believes that Rosas has restored order after the bloody civil wars that raged during the 1820s. The attempts to maintain “order” often result in summary executions and the display of heads on spikes when anyone defies his rule. This includes a bookseller who obtained forbidden romance novels for Camila.
Under Rosas, the Church was an important ally. While it was not unusual for priests to have affairs (or, indeed, for society women to have them, i.e. Camila’s grandmother) they were expected to be discreet. Women were pressured to either enter the convent or marry because a single woman was considered unnatural and a cause of chaos. The Camila scandal took on a life of its own. Rosas was criticized for it in foreign newspapers, which is likely why he made the brutal decision to kill both Ladislao and Camila.
There’s a dreamy, romantic, and sensual quality to the film. It echoes Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (most strongly in a lovemaking scene in a moving carriage). Ladislao and Camila love and desire each other deeply. They seem happy in their new life as poor school teachers. But the shadow of the Church and the totalitarian government never goes away. The lovers are almost naïve in their belief that they can evade them forever, including Ladislao’s own devotion for the Church.
That’s not to say the lovers did not have those who tried to save them. Camila’s mother and even her erstwhile suitor beg her father to plead for her life. (In real life, her father did write a letter to Rosas, blaming everything on Gutierrez.) At the execution, the firing squad falters when they are ordered to shoot Camila. Fear of reprisals force them to comply.
The most interesting thing about watching the film now is the way some of the characters are navigating under a government that is a cult of personality, while others prop it up to maintain a certain status quo, regardless of the human cost. Something that still resonates today.