Luis Barrios’s Polvo enamorado is a melodrama set in a small fishing town on the Peruvian coast. The central figure is Natalia, a young woman who was once a nun but then left the convent to marry elderly widower, and town mayor, Matías. But the condition that the obsessively religious Natalia imposed on the marriage was that her virginity should be respected: she would remain chaste and consecrated to Christ. Matías agreed, promising to be more doting father than desirous husband.
Life is placid enough on the surface: Natalia spends most of her days either at mass or in prayer; Matías is ensuring she gets her very own grotto for her upcoming birthday, but pours out his frustrations to the elderly local priest. And the priest in turn tries to convince his most devoted congregant that sex within marriage is really hardly a sin. But nothing seems likely to change in the near future. The only cloud on the horizon is an ongoing dispute between local fishermen and a large corporate enterprise that insists on fishing in their waters.
Under the surface, however, all is not well. Over time Matías, understandably frustrated at his wife’s strictures, has started to take matters into his own hands by periodically doping her bedtime drinks with some kind of sleeping powder, then extracting his conjugal “rights” from her dormant form. And as perhaps a symptom of other repressions, Natalia’s friend Ofelia complains of recurrent stomach-aches for which the doctor can find no physical cause.
Suddenly, all change: one day Natalia wanders into the church and discovers a new priest has arrived in town. Literally smitten, she promptly faints at the sight of the handsome young man in his fetching clerical garb. The priest himself turns out to be more one of the boys than pious defender of the old order. He goes out drinking in bars, takes a leading role in the fishermen’s protest movement, cancels mass for the sake of communal work projects, and sees little reason to take part in the community’s traditional annual pilgrimage to local shrine. Until, that is, Natalia persuades him that it might be a good idea. And so it is while they are camped out in the countryside that the two find themselves in a passionate embrace, and then some. The holy father has usurped the husband’s place.
To continue the Oedipal theme, it turns out that Matías’s son also has the hots for his young stepmother. And it is he who first suspects the illicit affair, and spills the beans to his dad. The old man reacts with outrage and anger, throwing his son out of the house, but then heads towards the priest’s house to find out for himself what’s going on. It seems that the young lovers have forgotten a golden rule of priest-parishioner sex: keep the front door locked at all times. For the mayor easily wanders in and finds the pair in flagrante. But rather than taking out his anger and disappointment on either his rival or his unfaithful wife, instead he begs Natalia to shoot him with his own pistol. Which she duly does, without too much compunction, loyal at least to one of her spouse’s desires.
However much they are stricken by guilt and shame, neither Natalia nor her lover are in any rush to confess their crime: they burn the body and bury it in a shallow grave, subsequently participating in a mass organized to pray for the disappeared mayor’s safe return. And when the corpse is eventually discovered, just about everybody and anybody except the guilty pair are arrested: a couple of security guards for the fishing company first, and then Matías’s son, whom the local policeman had spied arguing with his father on the fatal night in question.
But the son squeals on the priest, if not on his stepmother. And when finally Natalia decides to turn herself in, her confession is ignored: rather, she’s declared a saint for seeking to take the rap for the imprisoned holy man.
As is evident from this plot description, the film presents a cavalcade of ever more unlikely situations and events. It’s as though the movie, though shot in a style that is in turns soap opera melodrama and stylized art movie (complete with absolutely redundant 360-degree pans, for instance), in fact aspired to be an instance of cinematic magic realism. Why not, in short, accept that the story and characters are already unreal and unlikely enough, and so play up the fantastic to give it some kind of allegorical weight?
But, no. For some reason, we’re supposed to take everything on faith. It’s possible that we’re even expected to believe the notion that the doomed lovers really are modern-day saints. The film shows no flicker of irony, so one can only assume that it really takes itself as seriously as it seems. Personally, I’d rather a real soap opera than this pretend one: kitsch, like fantasy, should be presented knowingly and self-consciously, not treated as though it were real human drama.