The Realm of Fortune (El Imperio de la Fortuna) (1986)
El Imperio de la Fortuna (The Realm of Fortune) is the second film adaptation of a story by one of the masters of Latin American literature, the Mexican writer Juan Rulfo. The story, El Gallo de Oro (Golden Rooster), was first filmed in 1965 by Roberto Gavaldon, in a time when Mexicans were in the midst of rediscovering their own traditions. That film was more hopeful than this 1986 version, by veteran Mexican director Arturo Ripstein. Beautifully filmed and ably acted, El Imperio de la Fortuna is as fatalistic as a cockfight. Not only is it somber and tragic, but it is also better than two hours long. The last half hour, as the inevitable tragedy is drawing to its depressing conclusion, seems to last forever. There is an epic nature to this film.
The Realm of Fortune is a classic story of the rise and fall of a small town peasant named Dionisio Pinzon (Ernesto Gomez Cruz), whose crippled hand deprives him of all but the most meager of livelihoods in the impoverished village of San Miguel del Milagro [St. Michael of the Miracle]. Dionisio’s miracle is the discovery of an injured fighting rooster, whom he names The Golden Rooster, nurses back to health, then enters in local palenques (cockfights).
The recovered Golden Rooster wins again and again, leading to Dionisio’s next bit of luck. A successful gambler, Benavides (Alejandro Parodi) befriends him, and decides to take him on as an apprentice, teaching him the ins and outs of cockfighting and gambling. A quick study, Dionisio overtakes his master and ends up with Benavides’s house, as well as his woman, La Caponera (Blanca Guerra). La Caponera becomes Dionsisio’s good luck charm, and for awhile everything goes his way.
Years pass and Dionisio, who never seemed too saintly to begin with (particularly while ignoring his mother lying dead on the floor because he was busy taking care of his rooster), now becomes corrupt and nasty like his mentor, Benavides. When La Caponera dies during a poker game, of unexplained natural causes, Dionisio’s spell of good fortune is broken. He loses everything including his house. In the end he shoots himself. The bleak Northern Mexican landscape remains as unbroken, arid and hopeless at the end of the picture as at the beginning.
Along the way we see very real pictures of Mexican village life. There is lots of ranchera music which is not whitewashed at all but sounds just as it does in villages across Mexico even today. We get to see several cockfights up close and can understand their excitement and horror. We can practically smell the food cooking over charcoal in the small town festivals, as well as the acrid incense burning in the streets. We feel the dust in the air.
Ripstein is a realist who shows us the abject poverty of the people and the lengths to which they go to survive. These pictures are not pretty to look at. Ripstein’s film is vivid and depressing, and he made it long enough to make sure we got the point.