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By Ron Wells | March 1, 1999

In his English language debut, Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia has made one of the best films of the year. I just hope the rest of America gets a chance to see it. This is the second film from a novel (59 Degrees and Raining: The Story of Perdita Durango) by meta-noir writer Barry Gifford. The first was David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart” relating the story of Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern). Two residents of the freak show we meet in that film are eccentric, brutal crime lord, Santos (J.E. Freeman) and a dangerous old acquaintance of Sailor’s, Perdita Durango. Now channeled through Rosie Perez, we meet Perdita as a young woman who’s traveled the nine circles of Hell and back. The latina is a long-time citizen of Gifford-land, a savage, bloody world beyond “noir” with no law but your own. Here, you take what you need and celebrate life for it can be taken from you at any moment. Every night Perdita dreams of a jaguar that caresses her and sleeps by her side.
One day in Mexico, the jaguar takes the form of Romeo Dolorosa (Javier Bardem), a man with a spark in his eyes, love in his heart, and blood everywhere. Any other film, he’d be the villian, but it’s hard not to like a guy who has Screamin’ Jay Hawkins for a sidekick. Perdita’s instantly smitten. He calls himself a scientist, but his discipline is Santeria, an ancient religion that grants him luck and power in exchange for blood sacrifice. Perdita doesn’t buy it, but she’s just crazy enough to keep up with him.
Romeo is soon hired by kingpin Santos (Don Stroud) to use his powers to drive a truck across the Mexican border to Las Vegas. The refrigerated truck is loaded with human foetuses destined for a U.S. cosmetics company for use in facial cremes.
When Romeo plans a ceremony before the job, Perdita jokingly convinces him not only to use a live human sacrifice, but to use a “gringo”. The pair cross the border to an Arizona part town, and take blonder than blonde college students Duane (Harley Cross) and Estelle (Amiee Graham, Heather’s sister). The young couple are soon initiated into this dark world. Then everything gets really weird.
California writer Gifford is the sort of high priest of “noir” fiction who works the conventions into the next level. A dark, cynical world begets a savage, alien one, where David Lynch may not have had a total affinity for the material to create a complete world. Maybe he just hasn’t seen enough Sam Peckinpah movies. Former Almodovar protege De la Iglesia has, giving him the edge in Gifford’s road adventures of the soul. The result is often like Alejandro Jodorowky directing “The Wild Bunch”.
One amusing connection to “Wild at Heart” is that the earlier film had a much more violent, darker unrated cut play at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palm d’Or. This screening of “Perdita Durango” used last year’s Cannes screening print, and it’s in no danger of making an “R” rating any time soon. One Santeria ceremony alone prevents that, not to mention all the sweaty, physical sex. The cast is excellent, though, and Perez finally has a part to unleash her primal energy, and she’s never been better. I’m still hoping this film will see an American release this year, in whatever form. As the director’s 1995 “The Day of the Beast” was just released, there’s a solid chance. This country’s cinema can always use a little shaking up, and we can’t let America’s idea of an edgy, transgressive film be “8MM”.

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