Maleficarum (2011 Bolivia)

Here we slip into one man’s trash maybe another man’s pleasure territory. I’ll try (and fail) to be respectable for this one…The technical quality of the cinematography, and the authenticity of the sets and costumes gives this film a definite sense of “big budget theatrical release,” which is completely unexpected for a product in this genre. Particularly one made on a stated budget of only $105,000.The name of the film is an obvious reference to The Malleus Maleficarum, also known as the witches’ hammer – which is a guide on how to prosecute witches. It was written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer, a German Catholic clergyman, and it describes the process of how to interrogate and extract a confession from a witch, its proposed methods include horrible and savage tortures in order to get a confession.

This is a ghastly close-up of the martyrdom of woman– in this instance even doubly so, since there are two. It is historical fiction based on a true story: María Francisca Ana de Castro, a Spanish immigrant to Alta Peru, who was renowned for her beauty and wealth. She was arrested and accused of “judaizing”. After many days of Torture before confessing she was burned at the stake in 1726. This event was a major spectacle in Lima, but it raised questions about irregular procedures and about the corruption within the Inquisition. This lead to the end of The Holy Office (The Inquisition) in Peru. Despite falling into the “torture” genre, the film does not rush into those scenes, but takes the time necessary to set up its story and characters, and does so with a calm that very much contrasts with later events!

The film is accompanied all through by the most intimately pleasing chamber music, mainly guitar, which enhances the grotesqueness of the terror proceedings even more. The sets are a little too clean for the 1700s but the actors, especially Amy Hesketh and Mila Joya, really give it their all and you can’t ask for more than that.  Maria Francisca De La Cruz, is the wealthy orphan of two major contributors to the Catholic church. Upon their passing Maria strays from the church and stops giving the local clergymen money. This enrages the inquisitor Francisco who wants her to keep making large donations. Mariana De Castro is the widow of a local man who everyone suspected was a Protestant or a devil worshipper. He died of a heart attack. The local men believe her to be responsible of his death through witchcraft. Maria takes Mariana into her home after Mariana became a widow and they become lovers.

The superstitious town’s people accuse her of witchcraft, casting spells upon them and perform satanic rituals, none of the accusations are real. But the inquisitor Francisco takes advantage of the accusations and arrests the two women to interrogate them, torture them, until they confess they are witches so they can be put to death and the inquisitor can finally keep Maria’s inheritance. The juxtaposition throughout the film of the scenes in which the head inquisitor calmly questions the many witnesses against the women – with the scenes of Mariana and Francisca being brought to the dungeon, stripped, chained to the wall and subject to a variety of tortures – was masterfully effective, presenting the unimaginable tension, terror and pain that lay just beneath the facade of a calm search for the truth. Now, down to some gritty details: the dungeon, as expected, presents a sense of absolute doom and dread with its hard, cold stone walls and dim flickering lights. Talk about claustrophobic!

The ways in which the director, Jac Avila, chains and stretches the two women make it obvious that he knows how to create, consistently, scenes that are visually appealing and exciting to the viewer, while, at the same time, magnifying the horror facing his subjects. The two lead actresses, Mila and Jane, are absolutely beautiful in their extended whipping scenes, during which both show proper reaction as their tortures harshen. Jane’s whipping scene is particularly brutal, since she is forced to hang by her chained wrists with her feet off the ground, her body swinging with each lash, a position that, on its own, certainly must have caused great pain to her shoulders. Nor are there any weak flicks of the wrist from their torturer, but full arm motion with every blow. Whatever filming techniques may have been used, it is impossible to believe that Jane and Mila were not subject to some real pain during the filming of these whipping scenes. Worth a watch but definitely not for the weak of heart.

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