Film Review: The Mask of Zorro (1998)
The Mask of Zorro
Director: Martin Campbell
Release date: 1998
Plot summary: As California is freed from the Spanish in 1821, the legendary Zorro (aka don Diego de la Vega) is captured, his wife is killed and his daughter taken by his ennemy to be raised as his own. 20 years later, de la Vega escapes from his jail and trains a young bandit, Alejandro Murrieta to become his successor as the masked hero.
With my husband, lately, (and to my initiative), we've been sort of binge-watching the 1957 Disney series Zorro, a classic from my childhood and I am such a big fan And I'm not saying that there aren't any problems of representation in this show, there probably - most certainly, even - are, but I suppose I have a soft spot wherever this series is concerned for now... So instead, I decided to watch and analyse a bit a much more recent adaptation of the adventures of the masked hero of California: The Mask of Zorro. And as usual (I'm starting to get used to it), I was quite surprised by the Rotten Tomatoes ratings of the film: 72% of the audience liked it, and the film was rated "81% fresh" by the site's critics. Well, suffice it to say that I do not agree with them!
(it actually doesn't suffice, so here's my review)
The first question that comes to my mind, while either watching the introduction to this film or having a look at its poster is: why is the Z in fire?! And, going on with the introduction, why are there explosions in the animation of the title?? I didn't know Zorro was known for his multiple-explosions fiery adventures Another problem I found with the beginning of the film is that it is waaay too long. Don Diego and Alejandro only meet (as both adults, that is) after a long half-hour of this-is-history-slash-jealousy-only-brings-death-slash-I'm-a-child-thief-slash-we're-badass-bandits-slash-not-so-much ramblings. I'm here to watch Zorro, the first masked hero of the oppressed, not a historical drama filled with resentment and revenge; where's my action? Where's my rebel? Where are my dashing sword-fights?
Then, I want to question the choice of having two Zorros, an old teaching to a new... Of course, this brings something new to the legend, but I found that this innovative plot was rather poorly managed. Indeed, even though some think that a rapid editing of training scenes with a motivating music in the background is not very original to pass quickly on the hero's training with his mentor, at least it gives some good training/fighting scenes to watch and the music brings unity and rhythm to the rapidly edited scenes. But here, we get a few rather floppy fights, don Diego philosophises about a circle on which his pupil should concentrate but does not really extend the metaphor further, and I really can't believe that Alejandro became THIS good with only THAT training. I really must question the willingness of my belief's suspension here. Same goes for don Diego's strength and dexterity of which he did not loose any bit while he was rotting in the worst jail possible for 20 f***ing years.
Another problem brought by the double Zorro plot is that we expect the old one to be a wise mentor and to still care about the people but actually, no, what he wants is revenge and that's pretty much it in the end. Of course, I'm not saying that don Diego is a bad person, he absolutely isn't, but whereas he teaches Alejandro that he should see the bigger picture, only take his revenge in due time, and help the people, in the end, Diego decides to personally focus on the revenge part (OK, and getting to know his daughter) while delegating the saving of the day to his protégé. If you've read my review on Thor, you probably already know what I think of mentors played by Anthony Hopkins who are more words than deeds.
All this being said, The Mask of Zorro is not ALL bad, in that it is a good action film with sword duels and humour (although I don't always like Alejandro's comical effects). Nevertheless, there is one more aspect (a rather long one) that I didn't appreciate at all in this film: the female protagonist, Elena, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones. It is true that in the Disney series, women are close to non-existent and confined to damsels in distress, a fiery woman who urges Diego to do something because if she were a man, she would, and a villain, whom Zorro doesn't find the heart to see punished like her accomplices and sends back to Spain with her husband (a punishment enough, since she was a power-craving creature and her husband shall probably never reach the position of power she had devised for him). However, I find the representation of women (through one female character) in The Mask of Zorro even more problematic. Indeed, it is easy to find excuses to the Disney series: it was shot in the 50s, not particularly the most feminist era, women's powerlessness in the series may be seen as kind of technically matching the situation of most women in 1820, etc. But all this doesn't stand for The Mask of Zorro for two reasons: 1) this is not the 50s anymore (thanks, Captain Obvious); and 2) the film creates a strong-minded sword-fighting female character only to deflate this figure of female empowerment a few moments later, thus flouting historical verisimilitude for no reason and presenting the female character as week, ultra-sexualised and unable to resist to the hero's sex-appeal.
There are two key moments in the development of Elena's relationship with Banderas's character: one involving Zorro and one involving Alejandro. When Alejandro joins a party organised by her father, Elena and he dance together, all alone on the dance floor and the least we can say is that this dance is muy caliente Except that there is no way so much intimacy and attractivness would have been an acceptable display at such a public event in 1820 (and remember, they just met like one hour before). So this clearly sets the film in the trend of modern interpretations of period stories. This is important to keep in mind. (On the other hand, during the same party, when Elena voices political opinions in disagreement with those of her father and his friends, he quickly discards her professed opinions, joking about women and politics... so clearly Elena did not grow up in a feminist/woman-friendly environment).
Then comes her fight with el Zorro himself. Finding him in the stables (while the soldiers have lost his trail - she seems to be a genius!), she decides to confront him in order to stop his escape from the house. How very brave of a 1820 woman, YAY Elena! When he expresses astonishment at her readiness to cross swords with a legendary bandit, she proclaims she's been taking fencing classes since she was 4. Well, how very feminist of her father! Oh wait, isn't he the same father who discards her political opinions in public? ...who stole her as a baby from the real Zorro and may be right to fear (because this is fiction) that she may have inherited some of her real father's fighting skills and rebellious spirit? (Oh, and by the way, she has. And this makes no sense at all: why is she so rebellious? As her past is absolutely not talked about and we can assume that she received a proper education from her villainous father, we are left to deduce that her rebellious spirit does come from her Zorro blood. =>) Is there any logic here?
And don't get me wrong, having a fiery woman character fight the hero to protect what she believes in (at that point of the plot) is an excellent idea, but its staging falls short of everything that would be needed to make it significant:
- she doesn't win (OK, we want Zorro to win and the plot requires it, but still)
- she literally fights in her 19th-century undies: how is she not mortified? (considering the time's mindset regarding nudity, of course). + as the fight goes on, Zorro mischievously removes pieces of her night shift and exposes her legs (remember an ankle is supposed to be risqué by the time's standards). How is this not just objectifying the heroine's almost naked body??
- During the fight, Zorro also kisses her twice, clearly without her consent. Of course, from his point of view, she has already fallen under his masked charm once, not calling the guards when she met him in the yard, and she is developing a relationship with Alejandro by day as well, but she doesn't know that here and she is fighting off an intruder who rips her clothes off one by one. Although by the end of the fight, once Zorro has established his superiority in duelling, she cannot resist passionately kissing him (remember she is naked) and would very gladly have done much more had not her father interrupted the scene. So it seems that establishing a man's superiority in a field traditionally associated with men is enough to make a woman yield to his every desire and yearn for him to give her pleasure. So much for a progressist character!
- She doesn't just lose the fight and submit herself entirely to her opponent. She also loses her dignity as a woman, as she gets strip-teased against her will as the fight progresses and finally literally naked in an attempt at comical effect meant to reinforce Zorro's victory and dueling, as well as charming abilities. So she isn't just defeated, but humiliated as well. Great!
- Then her father and his soldiers arrive (it was about time!) and find her in the above situation. This is bad enough. Yet, she finds it necessary to add (perhaps to justify his victory) "He was young and vigorous. He was very vigorous, father". How does her father not immediately conclude that her daughter is not a virgin anymore (which would probably be a great deal to him) after such an obvious double meaning?
(- and since she is so important, why doesn't have her name on the poster? There's a blank space for her just in the middle!)
My problems with Elena are unfortunately not over. After her relationship with Zorro, I find her relationship with her two fathers rather rushed. Apparently, although she must have been two years old max last time she saw him, she kind of remembers Diego's voice, as well as the scent of the flowers her nanny used to put in her crib. She must have super abilities of some kind. And these two details seem to be enough to make her swing allegiance from one father to the other. Wow, that was quick! Also, her relationship with her second father is never really addressed (or very incoherently: he gave her fighting lessons but expects her to be a good little girl, while she develops a fiery spirit; he didn't tell her about her past but brings her back to the place where literally everybody could break the truth to her; at the gold mine site, she realises the horrors he did and yet decides to save him from Diego's mortal strike...
And finally, at the gold mine site, when she sees that all trapped slaves are going to die if nothing is done on the spot to release them, she waits for Diego's injunction to save them to... well, save them. So basically, my problem with Elena is: she could have been a strong independent heroine fighting the patriarchy in a time when it was very well established, but her heroic features are always deflated: she loses the fight against Zorro in mockery and succumbs to his charm as if she finally had no will of her own, and whereas she finds it in herself to protect the villain who estranged her from her real identity (the daughter of a rebel who fights for the people), she can perform his deeds in his stead only if he tells her to. Elena thus more or less vigorously challenges the patriarhcy only to prove that she can only exist as a woman in the frame of the patriarchy symbolised by the two important men in her life: her father and her lover. The image below summarises this thesis to perfection:
As Diego dies, he passes the duty of caring for and protecting Elena to Alejandro (from one Zorro to the other). This makes Elena a weak character who needs protection despite her own fighting abilities. Again, had the film not created this heroic female character, I might have shown much more indulgence towards this ending, finding excuses such as it reinforces the film's historical verisimilitude, and the patriarchal moral is not to be read as the film's but as the period's (although it could be argued that it would still convey problematic representations of the relationships between genders in Western society) but the film deliberately departs from historical verisimilitude with Elena's character, so either it sticks with the original plan, or it is bound to get an acerbic review here. Well, option 2 it is.
As a conclusion, there are many elements that I found questionable (to the least) in the film: its rhythm, its plot, its humour, the characterisation of its protagonists, but mostly the representation of woman. Which is why I can only conclude this review with:
Tags : film, history, feminism, USA
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