Magical realism is very difficult to translate from page to screen. There have been various attempts, mostly not successful. So far, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s best known work of magical realism, 100 Years of Solitude, has not been adapted for the screen. However, the 1983 film Erendira, directed by Brazilian Ruy Guerra, took inspiration from one passage of the book, as well as two short stories by Marquez, specifically The Incredible and Sad Tale of Erendira and her Heartless Grandmother. Marquez himself wrote the screenplay for the film.
Claudia Ohana, who is also Brazilian and was briefly married to Guerra, stars as Erendira. As the story opens she is a 14 year old girl who is being raised by her crazed grandmother (Irene Pappas). Treated like a virtual slave, she falls asleep one night without blowing out the candles. Wind brushes curtains against the candles, causing a fire that destroys virtually everything her grandmother owns. Her grandmother tells her she owes her a million pesos and must repay the money with her only asset: her body.
She sells the girl’s virginity to a local shopkeeper and the two of them embark across the desert, becoming an almost carnival-like attraction. Erendira is forced to accommodate countless men, as most in the desert cannot afford to pay much for her favors. Her grandmother becomes richer and richer, literally packing her clothes with gold bullion as their entourage grows larger, including servants and a mysterious photographer.
One night Erendira is visited by a beautiful young man named Ulysses (Oliver Wehe). They fall madly in love. Eventually, they plot to kill the grandmother and set Erendira free.
Interwoven with this very sad story are touches of magic. Eredira sees creatures that don’t belong in a desert, such as a vision of a fish while she is being raped by the storekeeper. She sees a butterfly that seems to fly into a wall. When she touches it she realizes it’s only a picture of a butterfly. There is a dreamy quality to almost everything. Dreams are part and parcel of the grandmother character, who yells out long and wild monologues even when she is in a deep sleep.
The story is not entirely a downer. There is also comedy (there’s a running joke about smugglers in the desert). As is typical of works by Marquez, there is criticism of politicians and the Church.
What emerges in the end is an odd take on the princess in a tower fairy tale. Erendira is the captive of a combination dragon/ogre/wicked witch who is her own flesh and blood. Ulysses is the brave and noble knight who is willing to kill to rescue his true love. Yet the ending doesn’t quite fit in with the typical fairy tale, acknowledging that the fairy tale is not about freedom, but rather an exchange of one captor for another.
The film was criticized when first released, mainly because many thought Guerra did not go far enough with the magical realism, but I think it’s just right. He let Pappas totally unleash as the grandmother. She is a monster, but a very engaging monster, whose incessant orders almost begin to sound like poetry. Ohana is heartbreaking as Erendira, a girl who starts out submissive to her grandmother’s cruelty and eventually evolves into a woman who trades love for true emancipation.