At first glance, “El Principe” – the new-to-America prison drama from Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Muñoz – might appear to be nothing more than just another entry in a long line of homoerotic fantasies paying homage to a certain fetishized image of hyper-sexualized, violent masculinity that originated generations ago in the underground history of queer culture.
That assessment would not be altogether wrong, but it takes on a new perspective – and acquires a mantle of higher respect – with the knowledge that it won the prestigious “Queer Lion” prize at the Venice Film Festival when it premiered there in 2019. Deepening its pedigree even more is the fact that it directly connects to an important, if obscure, slice of queer history in its own right.
Muñoz’ film, which dropped on VOD and DVD in the U.S. under its translated title, “The Prince,” on July 7, is based on a little-known novel of the same name by Mario Cruz. Written in the early ‘70s, its explicit depiction of homosexuality made it impossible to distribute through Chilean bookstores at the time, but it nevertheless gained an eager cult audience who could find it sold only in the newsstands of Santiago’s San Diego Street. Cruz never wrote another book, and his contribution to the Chilean queer underground’s cultural imagination had faded, along with his name, by the time the filmmaker picked up an old copy of “El Principe” at a used book store.
Says Muñoz in a director’s statement, “I did not expect that behind what seemed a cheap erotic novel I would discover an amazing portrait of 1970s Chilean society… As a gay man in his 40s, and part of a generation that won the right of being homosexual without euphemisms, I could not even imagine how disruptive this book was for its time.”
Inspired to take the story to the big screen, the filmmaker penned (with Luis Barrales) an adaptation, which embraces both a stylized and naturalistic cinematic approach as it unfolds the allegorical tale of Jaime, a 20-year-old narcissist who is sent to prison after murdering his own best friend. Frightened and alone, he is taken under the wing of an older inmate known as “The Stallion,” a career gangster with influence and powerful connections who exerts a firm control over his fellow prisoners. What starts out as a quid-pro-quo “prison marriage” develops into something deeper as Jaime finds unexpected connection and tenderness with his protector, and the pair form a bond that approaches something deeper. In the harsh and repressive prison environment of 1970s Chile, however, it doesn’t take long before cellblock politics intrude upon their brief idyll, and both younger and older man are dragged toward their respective fates by the rivalries and power struggles of the condemned.
It’s difficult, perhaps even impossible, not to look at this audacious film without reckoning with the influence, traced through both its source material and the cinematic heritage of which it is a part, of Jean Genet. For those unfamiliar, he was a French author, playwright, and philosopher who went from an early life of hustling, vagrancy and crime in the sexual underworld of mid-20th-century Europe to establishing himself through his work as a leading countercultural figure, before finally assuming a late-in-life role as a fierce political activist. An early champion of queer visibility, he was an icon in his own lifetime for his unapologetic homosexuality and a subversive literary output that directly challenged the era’s rigid standards of “decency” by pushing a perspective, informed by existentialism, that flew in the face of social norms. The world we see in “The Prince,” with its aggressively macho posturing and deliberately provocative sadomasochistic overtones, may be familiar to a generation of gay men who grew up with imagery from artists like Tom of Finland and the significance of leather and fetish culture within their community’s collective imagination – but if so, it’s almost certainly because of Genet, who enshrined his own real-world experience and transformed it into the heightened and erotically charged fantasy he depicted in his novels, poems, and plays.
In bringing Cruz’ lurid-yet-profound novel to the screen, Muñoz doubles down on the influence that surely informed its original author as well, drawing heavily from the imagery of Genet’s only film (the 1950 short, “Un Chant d’Amour”) as well as from “Querelle,” the 1982 adaptation by German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder of one of the writer’s best-known novels.
It’s a perfect fit, unsurprisingly. The director gives us a film designed to simultaneously shock and arouse us – frequent full-frontal nudity, explicit and sometimes graphic depictions of gay sex, a relentless blurring of the lines between violent impulse and sexual attraction – and refrains from any temptation to sentimentalize or equivocate. These moments are consciously theatrical, heightened by overt subtext and accentuated by heavily symbolic visual composition; they are also powerfully erotic, capturing the transgressive, forbidden appeal of jailhouse sex without trying either to stigmatize it or to “pretty it up,” as many contemporary films do – if they even dare to address it at all.
Yet at the same time, Muñoz film provides an unavoidable contemporary perspective, simply by virtue of having not been made decades ago. The fetishization of violently toxic masculinity captured in “The Prince” may have been embraced by Genet and others of his generation as a subversive response to cultural repression, but many modern observers tend to read such homoerotic fantasy tropes of that era as expressions of internalized homophobia. It can’t be denied that there’s a lot to reconcile for post-equality audiences in a story that explores and even sexualizes the subject of shame, guilt, and inflexible gender expectations on the queer psyche; but greater awareness can lead to greater understanding, and knowing the incalculable damage that is done by these things lends a poignancy to the story that only reveals itself when we look past our current “wokeness” to see the humanity clearly on display under the surface, allowing us to discover our compassion for these lost souls no matter how problematic we may find their behavior to be.
Credit for that should also be shared with a cast headed by young Chilean TV actor Juan Carlos Maldonado, who brings an aloof self-absorption to the title role while also revealing the turmoil of a sensitive soul trying to find his place in a world that doesn’t have a place for him. He’s aided by strong support from Alfredo Castro as his older lover/surrogate father figure, as well as by performances from Gastón Pauls and Lucas Balmaceda as a rival couple in whom their relationship is mirrored.
It might go without saying that “The Prince” is not a film that everyone will find appealing. Still, audiences with an appreciation for the queer heritage it represents – or simply an enthusiasm for challenging cinema – are sure to find it more than worth their time.
After all, who doesn’t enjoy a good prison fantasy once in awhile?