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  • The Film Society of Lincoln Center is taking a huge departure beginning tomorrow through Sunday from the screen classics and acclaimed art house films usually being screened at the Walter Reade Theatre [West 65th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue] with Fuego: The Films of Isabel "Coca" Sarli, a three-day retrospective saluting the famed Argentine "Firecracker," whose films never saw wide distribution here.

    The series is curated by Daniela Bajar and Livia Bloom. "Growing up in Buenos Aires," says Ms. Bajar, "my sister and I made a deal with our parents. Instead of joining them at our country home weekends, we offered to do the dishes and laundry, then at midnight we'd watch Isabel Sarli's movies on television."

    Sra. Sarli is nicknamed "Coca" it is often said because of her love for Coca-Cola. "Of course, that's nonsense," she states emphatically. Maybe her male admirers began calling her that in tribute to her Coke-bottle figure.

    aSraIsabelSarliPoster69.jpgRavishing beauty Isabel Sarli, who says she's shy but never showed that trait onscreen, has come full circle. From condemnation by church and government, and having her films truncated by censors, now she's programmed on late-night TV and honored by the Argentine film industry and at film festivals.

    She turned 75 in July; but, without evidence of having any work done, looks much younger. After a long absence, she's returned to the screen. 

    Arroz con Leche [Rice and Milk], a comedy, was released throughout Latin America and Mexico in 2009; and Mis Dias con Gloria [My Days with Gloria], which costars her adopted daughter, Isabelita, also a beauty, will premiere in late September.

    Though largely unknown to contemporary American film audiences, La Coca's humor and sultry beauty brought her great renown in the Latin American cinema of the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

    "Fuego" translates from Spanish as "fire" and it's an apt title [and one of Senora Sarli's films being shown] for the woman known as "the Argentine firecracker."

    "A true screen goddess," says Richard Peña, program director for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, "Isabel Sarli brought a searing, larger-than-life quality to her roles that evoked a sense of freedom at a time of increasing repression throughout Latin America. For years, she's been the object of a fervent international cult and now we're delighted to introduce her work to American audiences."

    Isabel Sarli isn't a household name to today's U.S. moviegoers, as Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe might be to those of a certain generation; however, in the 60s into the 70s, she was one of world cinema's celebrated sex symbols - and the subject of condemnation and controversy. To her legions of male admirers, she was the very ultimate female.

    Her film premieres attracted thousands of screaming fans filling blocks of downtown Buenos Aires - their magnitude would equal Times Square on New Year's Eve. La Coca, always magnificently dressed [a close friend informed that sometimes the outfits were held on by a very thin strap that would inevitably break and create a "wardrobe malfunction"], was brought to the theatres, sirens blaring, on a fire truck and escorted through the madding crowds by firemen. 

    She entered the pageant to select Miss Argentina in 1955, won [crowned no less by President Juan Peron], and went on to the U.S. [Long Beach, CA] to compete for Miss Universe. No one remembers the name of the winner, but for decades male audiences have remembered the name Isabel Sarli as the woman of their erotic dreams.

    Her ravishing beauty had her being compared to Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, and Elizabeth Taylor. On meeting director Armando Bo, who was soon being referred to as Argentina's answer to Russ Meyer, wanted to remake her as Brigitte Bardot. Sra. Sarli wasn't interested.

    "If I was to be an actress," she says, "I wanted to be an actress. Armando didn't take no for an answer easily. Bergman was all the rage at the time and he took me to see one of his films. He pointed out that while one of the actresses was nude, she was also acting."

    Bo wrote/co-wrote, produced, directed, and often composed music for 99% of the films he and La Coca made. He shot, according to Sra. Sarli, "simple stories, quite often based on true incidents" in Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Mexico, Panama, and Venezuela Many films reached limited American [NY, LA, SF, Chicago] and European and Asian markets [Sra. Sarli was boffo box office in Japan and China].

    A distributor was once asked why Sra. Sarli was so popular in Japan, and he quipped, "Because one of Isabel's breasts is larger than the average Japanese male's head!"

    La Coca certainly enjoyed showing them off, and Bo photographed them in as many endless angles as possible. Needless to say, though some of the films pushed buttons and certainly raised ire, only one comes close to being anything except what they are.

    As important as the Lincoln Center Film series is to introduce Isabel Sarli to a wider audience here, cinephiles will be amazed at what Bo accomplished. Though a hack and a terrible actor [son Victor was only a step behind him in the acting department], he was a hack who pushed boundaries and not the way, say, Russ Meyer did. "

    He first became controversial by introducing what was then considered offensive street language in his most celebrated pre-Sarli film, Pelota de trapo [1948; English title: Cloth Ball], a gritty B&W very much inspired by his admiration for DiSica, whose Bicycle Thief was released about the same time.

    In the Sarli films, he teased Argentina's brutal military dictarorship and introduced stories on human rights abuse, drug use, anal sex, explicit homosexual [male and female] lovemaking, gay marriage, cross-dressing, and bestiality [for example, in the film Fever [1970], the story of a woman who gets "excited" looking a horses, two gorgeous Arabians go at it with nothing left to the imagination, including a heaving La Coca in the background getting "excited"]. No, Bo was never subtle.

    He was an indie before indie was popular and he made films on shoestring budgets. One of his cinematographers pointed out that to save money, Bo would reverse negatives in the camera to obtain overlapping opticals and fades instead of sending negative to the lab. One of the most jarring things about his films was the heavy-handed use of organ music that signals just about anything modestly, or immodestly, dramatic. If you thought TV commercials are loud, you ain't heard nothin' yet! 

    But as long as Isabel Sarli starred, no one [save the censors] cared.      

    Save for those individuals, mostly men, who were brave enough to approach the box offices of the Rialto and Apollo Theatres on the "old" Times Square at 42nd Street, this is a rare opt for audiences here to experience Isabel Sarli red hot films that scandalized Latin sensibilities to the degree that her films were butchered by the censors or banned outright. However, in one film, you that woman onscreen may not always be Sra. Sarli.

    Peña recalled that several years ago LCF screened La Dama Regresa [The Lady Is Back] [1996], loosely based on Durrenmatt's The Visit. "However, that was a one-off, her only appearance on our screen till now. This is a first, a dedicated series that will give audiences an overview of her films."

    aaaaaIsabelSarliStunningWClothes.jpgThere're five films featuring new translations and prints, and a recent documentary. They are: 

    August 6 and 7
    : Carne [Flesh], Screenplay/Director: Armando Bo [Argentina, 1968]. Sarli, in probably her most famous role, is "a virginal worker in a meat processing plant who gets repeatedly raped on the way to work and then raped again at work in the meat freeze on an enormous beef slab." The film has been called "a masterpiece of kitsch."

    In one sequence, Sarli is raped by a group of locals who kidnap her into the back of a cold storage truck, empty except for a cot.

    After the aforementioned rapist has his way with her again, several guys enter leering and drooling. Sarli covers very little with her dress and later her panties. But as violent as the scene is [and it is!], there's comic relief. Yes, in the midst of all that violent abuse, huge laughs. Veteran Argentine character  actor Vincente Rubino portrays a vicious union boss, but upon entering the truck he transforms into a screaming queen admiring Sarli's crocheted bra.

    All this time, Victor Bo, Armando's quite tall and handsome, soccer-player son, as her lover, quite leisurely wanders the streets as he hunts down the truck.
    After Sarli escapes, she goes home to shower. It's a very strange scene, as you have no indication, as he fondles her breasts with lots of suds, that she'd been gang-raped. As ludicrous as that sequence is, the grand finale tops it as Bo, mortally wounded makes love to Sarli [seemingly forgetting that he's been mortally wounded], "the only man capable of seeing her pure soul through her delicious meat."

    The Latin division of Columbia Pictures, entering a long association with Bo, released the film internationally.

    August 6 and 7
    : La Diosa Virgen [The Virgin Goddess], D: Dirk De Villiers [Argentina/South Africa, 1975]. The film has been described as a reworking of the 1935 film She, based on H. Ridder Haggard's novel "of a beautiful woman bathed in flame who lived 500 years."  Ironically, in this one, there's much more nudity among the native women and men than from Sarli.

    She plays a shipwrecked woman of royal blood found on a beach by African tribesmen who mistake her for a goddess. She can enjoy eternal life as long as she remains a virgin. However, jump forward 500 years and treasure seekers Victor and Armando Bo, both again trying to act along with De Villiers, arrive. Sarli, who spoke in heavily-accented English, was dubbed for the probably less than one hundred words she speaks by a woman who sounds like a very young Judy Dench. It's very disconcerting, but the film is so badly plotted and edited, that after a while you just give up. It makes the Bo films seems like masterpieces.

    The Bos couldn't be bothered to learn even a little English, so they just spoke the names of their fav soccer heroes - knowing that De Villiers was going to have them dubbed. Partially filmed in Kruger National Park where the stunning Sarli embraces a giraffe [nothing more, I assure you!], and basks in the sun with a pride of lions [with no glass partition separating them].

    There are eye-popping costumes that cover the just enough of the upper essentials to sneak by the censors. They are by the brilliant Paco Jaumandreu, who supplied couture for Evita Peron during her acting career and had a long association designing lavish outfits for Sarli. 

    August 6 and 8
    : Desnuda en la Arena [Naked on the Sand], S/D: Bo, who co-stars with son Victor [Argentina/Panama, 1969].  This version isn't the one exhibited in, say, Sweden; but a sanitized print with alternate takes with Sarli in some aspect of clothing, tiny though it might be. The title is quite misleading [well, in relation to this version], because it's not salacious as some of the other films. 

    The most interesting aspect of DELA is that it shows Sarli could have gone on to become a wonderful comedienne, and that she actually could act as well as tease. Even considering there was some pretty heavy nudity in the Latin, European, and Asian prints, this is probably the best-plotted, funniest, and least offensive of the Sarli/Bo association.

    Sarli plays a hard-working mother who stripteases and, on hooking up with Victor Bo, trying hard to act as he portrays an international conman, schemes her way Panama - all to support her young son who's supposedly on death's door [but never looks it].

    Bo used guerilla tactics long before they became popular. In a sequence shot for the unsanitized print, where Sarli is seen swimming and sunbathing off  a causeway that leads to the Pacific Ocean entrance to the Panama Canal, the fact that it a high security military area didn't bother Bo. He couldn't get film permits, so he drove along and when the partrolling MPs passed, he'd have Sarli jump out, throw herself on the beach or climb down the rocks, disrobe, and splash around [in shark-infested waters]. Then, they'd get the hell out of there.

    The movie is stolen outright by roly-poly Argentine comic Jorge Porcel [think Lou Costello] as a smitten diplomat who gets snared in the Sarli/Bo blackmail scheme. In the scenes with Porcel, Sarli exhibits a great gift for comedy that was never fully tapped. 

    Pan American Airlines and the Panama Canal play featured roles.

    aFuegoPoster.jpgAugust 7 and 8: Fuego, S/D: Bo [Argentina, 1969]. One critic wrote: "An opera's worth of strang and drum." Sarli plays "a nymphomaniac who may be possessed and is sexually berserk. She can't be satisfied from any single man or woman. She cries, 'I need men! I need men!" and she gets just about every one in sight. In the end, she's filled with redemptive self-loathing.
    It was also the first time a woman-on-woman lesbian scenario was introduced in Argentine cinema. You won't forget the title tune!

    Columbia's ad read: She burns. She consumes. She's a woman on fire. She's fuego!

    Sra. Sarli and Bo made quite a fortune on the film, "except in the U.S. The English version  distributor, who we discovered was involved with the Mafia, never paid us a cent. We didn't think it wise to sue!"

    August 7 and 8
    : Setenta Veces Siete [The Female: Seventy Times Seven], D: Leopoldo Torre Nilsson [Argentina, 1962]. Under one of Argentina's top directors, Erskine Caldwell meets the Spaghetti Western and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Young Sarli is ravishing even in B&W and much less voluptuous than in later films. She shows great promise as an actress, very reminiscent of Sophia Loren in Two Women and Anna Managni in Bitter Rice.

    "Choosing between her sheepherder husband and a horse thief" puts Sarli on the path to becoming a Mexican prostitute, preyed upon by johns. In a famous sequence, she's "troubled by a hole in the ceiling, which triggers flashbacks regarding her fate and the fates of her husband and lover - fates she played no small part in bringing about."

    Her co-stars were popular heartthrobs, Argentine actor Francisco Rabal and Brazilian hunk Jardel Filho. Though the nudity was shot with more discretion, the film caused a sensation when it was screened at Cannes, where it was in contention for the Golden Palm.

    What was exhibited in the U.S. wasn't exactly was they saw at Cannes. A hack named Jack Curtis recut and inserted nude footage of a double.

    August 6 and 8:
    The documentary Carne sobre Carne [Flesh on Flesh]. D: Diego Curubeto [Argentina, 2008]. This focuses on the three decades of condemnation and censorship the Sarli/Bo films were subjected to. The duo was very savvy. They saved all the erotic cutting room scraps scissored to make her films palpable to various markets around the world and now they are being exhibited for the first time, even some of the most controversial and scandalous bits. The documentary contains some hilarious staged sequences with a censor and amusing animation. Sarli explained that putting the outtakes together took six years "because we had to clean and restore the negatives."

    ISABEL SARLI is the daughter of Italian immigrants. Her father deserted the family. Her younger brother died when he was five. To help her mother, she dropped out of high school, entered business school, where she learned stenography. "My goal," she states, "was to be a good daughter and help my mother by becoming a good secretary."

    aIsabelSarliCinemaTribute03.jpgLa Coca took English classes at Buenos Aires' British Cultural Center. She was a huge fan of movies "because they offered me escape. I was a great admirer of Elizabeth Taylor. It was my dream to emulate her."

    She worked as a secretary for an ad agency, representing among other clients, Catalina swimwear,
    Pan American Airlines, and appliance makers. She did modeling and appeared in graphic storyboards for newspaper serials.

    Sra. Sarli was married in the early 60s to a German. A close friend said that he felt "it was her way of getting away from mama." All Sra. Sarli will says is, "It was a mistake, so it was a very brief marriage." 

    Oddly, considering the nature of the films, not exactly porn and not exactly soft porn, and some of their plotlines, long after becoming Miss Universe, Sra. Sarli was featured  in Time and Life magazines [and, into her film career, often in Playboy].

    "When my photos appeared," she explained, "they caused quite a stir. Argentine stars were not featured in American magazines." Maybe there was some jealousy.  

    Veteran award-winning Argentine costume designer, author, and longtime Sarli friend Horace Lannes states that was true. "When Isabel attended industry galas or was honored at film festivals, the men surrounded her, but so-called 'legit' actresses shunned her. Of course, considering that Isabel was also a very savvy business woman, they may have envied the fact that she was very well off."

    Sra. Sarli and Bo owned the majority of their films in a 50/50 split and reaped huge rewards, especially in Europe.

    Although La Coca was a gifted comedienne, Bo insisted on casting her in naturalistic melodramas. She was known as "the cleanest girl in films" because Bo had her in the nude in rivers, oceans, under waterfalls, and at beaches. Her director/lover put her in some dangerous situations: roaring waters, being covered with ants, and some violent fights with men and equally violent catfights with women. Though sometimes bruised and battered, Sra. Sarli was quite the trouuper.

    "Isabel Sarli was a first for Argentina," says Sr. Lannes. "She was idolized as the perfect woman wherever her films were exhibited - even in Argentina with the films heavily censored. At five or six o'clock, the theatres would be packed with lawyers, bankers, doctors, you name it, white collar, blue collar." 

    Since most of the films were 90 minutes or less - even less after trimming, they could be home in time for dinner with the wife and children.

    Bo first got into acting in the early 40s. In 1945, he played the love interest opposite young Eva Duarte in La Cabalgata del Circo [The Circus Cavalcade].  


    Bo knew who Isabel Sarli was. It would be hard not to. They met after her Miss Universe bid while appearing as jurors for a TV competition. "He was much older [by 20 years] but," says Sra. Sarli, "it was love at first sight."

    Seemingly, for both because they began an affair soon after. It lasted until the day he died.

    In the late 40s, Bo began producing, writing, and directing. He has the distinction of being one of Argentina's first indie filmmakers. In 1948, when he was in his early 30s, he founded the Sociedad Independiente Filmadora Argentina (S.I.F.A.) [Independent Film Society of Argentina].

    In the 60s, with "Freedom" a worldwide chant, the films Bo made suffered the wrath of condemnation from the Catholic Church, the government's military dictatorship, National Cinema Institute, and the anti-Communists. But the more controversy he stirred, the more controversy he'd whip up.

    Sra. Sarli relates that things got very heated when members of the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance issued death threats. "Mother and I considered leaving the country, but Armando had a secret meeting with Isabel Peron [then president of Argentina], who [while not exactly a fan of the Bo/Sarli films] sent soldiers to guard our home."

    Explains Sr. Lannes, "Some cleavage was okay, but Armando and Isabel were the first 
    to take nudity to, what is the expression you have? The full monty? They went the full monty and more. He did close ups of voluptuous breasts and full frontal nudity. More than the nudity, there was objection to the violence and rape - especially a situation where Isabel would be violated by several men."

    La Coca says she never wanted to do nudity, but was coerced into it by Bo. "All blame can be laid on Armando," she says. "I kept saying 'No more' and he would tell me how disappointed my audiences would be if I discontinued. He was very persuasive."

    Bergman films were all the rage in sophisticated Buenos Aires. Bo took Srs. Sarli to one and pointed out an actress could act while being nude. She was having none of it.

    For their first film El Trueno Entre las Hojas [Thunder Among the Leaves], Bo told Sra. Sarli she'd be wearing a flesh-colored body stocking, but when it came time to shoot it could not be found. Sensing something was up, Sra. Sarli was ready to walk. She says Bo persuaded her to do the scene, promising he'd shoot from afar. He did; then, unbeknownst to her, he zoomed in. When the film debuted, moviegoers [save for the men] were scandalized.

    When Sra. Sarli's "old-fashioned" mother heard about her daughter's nudity from shocked friends and relatives. "She strongly disapproved," relates Sra. Sarli, "to the point that she took one of my riding boots and beat me black and blue."

    Bo was savagely criticized as nothing more than a pornographer. "People said the only reason he included so much nudity was to create a sensation and make money," states Sra. Sarli. "Armando was very good writer and had good ideas regarding technique. He also did things quickly, so there were never budget problems."

    Tired of always being known for nudity, she finally said, "I will not do nudity in my next film." It was Setenta Veces Siete, directed not by Bo but by celebrated Argentine director Nilsson. "Torre was an artist," notes Sra. Sarli. "His films were shown at top film festivals. When the film was released, 
    people complained!"

    La Coca reported that when it played New York, the distributor added nude scenes using a body double. "The screen would go from a close up to the naked body of some other brunette. I was mortified. If Armando hadn't been with me, I would have jumped in front of a bus! I wanted to sue, but in the end, nothing was achieved."

    A film exec and family friend of Srs. Sarli and Bo described the writer, director, and sometime actor as "an incredibly handsome, six foot plus basketball player. He married the daughter of an aristocratic family, who made millions from their casinos [in Argentina's resort city, Mar del Plata]. They also owned a film studio.


    "His family was solid, wealthy, Catholic, respectable," he continued. "Isabel never entered their home. When I was there, I noticed there wasn't a photograph of Isabel anywhere, not even a production still or poster. She was their cash cow, responsible for bringing loads of money into their accounts. Armando confided that he and Isabel could only be together away from Argentina, one of the reasons he shot at least one film a year outside the country." I imagine they got together more than once a year.


    There were rumors that Armando's son, Victor, was the love child of he and Sra. Sarli; however, he was born in 1943, so those rumors were put to rest. 

    "Some of Victor's scenes with Isabel were quite steamy," says Sr. Lannes. "They made love, but he never had her. She was madly in love with Armando, and always faithful to him. In fact, in their scenes, Victor never took off his pants! In the film Desnuda en la Arena, when things very steamy in one scene, Armando replaced Victor and the sequence was shot from the vantage of their backs."


    La Coca and Bo maintained an intense relationship until his death in 1981. They were in L.A. when he was rushed to St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica. He was diagnosed with colon cancer. There was little hope. Back in Buenos Aires, "She was there in hospital," says Sr. Lannes, "always by his side, even sleeping on the floor next to his bed." Bo's last moments were in her arms. 

    After he died, Sra. Sarli became a virtual recluse, dropped out of the business, and for 15 years cried and mourned.  She turned down TV offers, musical revues, and films in Italy and the U.S. There were meetings with director Robert Aldrich of The Dirty Dozen and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? fame, but they never decided on a project.

    In 1992, Sra. Sarli suffered a brain hemorrhage and was in a coma. It was one of the rare times that she and her biggest rival Libertad Leblanc, some 10 years younger and the Marilyn Monroe of Argentine and Latin cinema, became close. La Coca underwent hours-long surgery but, as she says, "God gave me another chance."

    There were films in the mid-90s, but not like the earlier ones. However, Sra. Sarli's fans never forgot her. To this day, she still receives "volumes of mail from around the world"; and she doesn't let them down. "I respond to all who contact me."

    Today, the outrage has dissipated. "Isabel is an icon all over the world," states Sr. Lannes, "even in Argentina. Where once her films were banned, they are now shown on television. And though a lot of time has gone by, her films receive high ratings, especially among younger audiences."

    At the opening of a temporary cinema museum in 2003 in Buenos Aires honoring Argentine celluloid history, it was not known if Sra. Sarli would definitely appear. Those in attendance were the Who's Who of the business. Throngs crushed the space, but no sign of Isabel Sarli. She wasn't far away, however, and was waiting to make an entrance. When she arrived, pandemonium ensued. An objective observer noticed it wasn't just the men yelling her name, wanting to touch her.

    "Somewhere along the way," says Sr. Lannes, "women grew to love Isabel. I can't pinpoint a specific reason, but I think it was because they admired her being, in spite of her onscreen persona, a one-man woman. Her relationship with Armando had created a scandal, but after he died and Isabel quit films, she gained their respect." 

    In 1969, NYTimes critic Roger Greenspun wrote: "Isabel Sarli squeezes more sexual frisson into the space between breathing in and breathing out than most of us could spread over a lifetime of ordinary love-making." 

    Throughout her 30 + features, La Coca's sensuality has been matched by her acting chops and great comedy timing - and her ability not to take herself or her past too serious.

    Tkts on Saturday and Sunday for Fuego: The Films of Isabel "Coca" Sarli are $12; $10, affiliate members, $8, seniors and students; $7, members. Tomorrow's screenings before 6 P.M. are $9/$7/$6/and $5, respectively. A package of three tks is  $30/$21, seniors and students/$18, members. They are available at the Walter Reade Theater box office. For showtimes and more information, visit www.Filmlinc.com.

    For a career retrospective interview with Isabel Sarli by Daniela Bajar, visit www.FilmComment.com. 


    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

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