La Tía Tula (1964)

Continuing in my endeavour to devote February to my blog readers, a film that was not just recommended to me by a reader, but actually gifted. Bawa, who was one of the first people to encourage me to watch and review international cinema on this blog, gave me an English-subtitled DVD of this classic Spanish film a couple of years ago. I’ve been meaning to see it ever since, and finally got around to watching it this week.

La Tía Tula (‘Aunt Tula’) is one of those films where not very much actually happens in the way of story. Or, rather, the story rests not so much on a series of events, but on a slow, subtle progression (which, by contrast, makes the handful of important events in the plot even more dramatic than they would otherwise have been).

Aurora Bautista and Carlos Estrada in La Tia Tula

The eponymous Tula (Aurora Bautista) is introduced in the very first scene of the film, which takes place at the funeral of Tula’s sister, Rosa. Rosa, a faceless form whom we merely catch a glimpse of in her coffin, is surrounded by mourners – family and friends who have come to the house.
In her interactions with them, Tula is revealed as a practical, dignified woman; a woman who grieves for her dead sister, but whose grief is never melodramatic.

And she is caring. It shows briefly in the way she reaches up to pull together the lapels of her brother-in-law Ramiro (Argentinian actor Carlos Estrada) when the pall-bearers lift the coffin.

Tula shows her caring side

When a friend informs Tula that Rosa’s little son Ramirín (Carlos Sánchez Jiménez) is sitting all by himself in a room, Tula goes to him, to comfort him and get him to eat something. When Ramirín’s little sister Tulita (Mari Loli Cobos) cries for her mother, it is Tula who consoles her, gathering the little girl into her arms, cooing words of comfort and kissing her.

It is apparent, too, that both children – Ramirín and Tulita – are very attached to their aunt.

Tula comforts her niece and nephew

The mutual affection between Rosa’s now-motherless children and their aunt leads to an unsurprising development: she decides that she will look after them. Tula is unmarried, after all, and has her own home; she is well able to bring them up. Except that Rosa hasn’t just left behind two grieving children; she’s also left behind a husband.

Never mind; Tula, ever-efficient, very capable and generous, makes all three of them move into her home.

At home in Tula's house

What ensues is, at least at first, the very picture of domestic harmony. Ramiro works in a bank; the children go to school. Tula manages everything at home: cleaning, ironing, cooking, making sure Ramirín has completed his homework and Tulita is bathed, entertained, and comforted whenever she’s missing her mother.

Tula with little Tulita

In between, there are glimpses, too, of a Tula who is not just a good homemaker, but also generally very efficient. When her tenants come to pay rent, she is polite yet firm in reminding defaulters that they must pay up soon; at the same time, she is generous enough to give Rosa’s and the children’s old clothes to the poorer tenants. This is a woman, we realise, who seems to be the very embodiment of composure and self-confidence.

Tula attends to her tenants

That, perhaps, is what makes her treat Ramiro with the same firm dignity that she adopts with the children. Seeing him at home in the morning, wearing his trousers and a vest, she makes no bones about telling him that he can’t wander around in this state of undress. When he tries to sit at a dining table which is already crowded – with the children’s books and toys, plus Tula’s ironing – she is quick to tell him to sit elsewhere.

Tula ticks Ramiro off for walking about without his shirt on

When Ramiro falls ill with a sore throat, Tula takes care of him, getting him to do his inhalation while she makes his bed, then wipes his face with eau de cologne, even combs his hair for him. It is almost as if, for Tula, Ramiro is just another child. An older version of Ramirín, perhaps. She is not openly affectionate towards the man, but in her firm control over how he behaves (including with his children), it does seem as if Tula regards Ramiro not so much as a grown man, but as one of the children her sister has left behind.

Tula cares for an ill Ramiro

Tula, however, has an admirer, Emilio (?). Emilio has been in love with Tula for a while now, and even though she’s told him to get lost, he persists in trying to follow her back from her outings with her friends. Tula always manages to get her friends to stay close so that Emilio keeps his distance, but Emilio is nearing the end of his patience.

Emilio finds himself thwarted

One day, Emilio decides to take Ramiro into his confidence, and asks Ramiro to put in a word with Tula on his behalf.

... and confides in Ramiro

But Tula, when Ramiro passes on the message, is adamant: she does not want to get married. What will happen to the children if she marries? Who will take care of them?

Ramiro talks to Tula about Emilio

While Tula is going about being the busy mother, Ramiro is slowly beginning to see her in a different light. She is his sister-in-law, true; but she’s a very pretty woman (as he tells her once, to her surprise). And Ramiro, watching her as she oh-so-efficiently handles home and children, sees also the affection she showers on the children, and the care she gives him when he’s ill.

We get another insight into what’s happening to an increasingly restive Ramiro when he stops one day near a roadside tavern for a beer. A couple of men come by on scooters, each with a young woman riding pillion. While the men are inside the tavern, Ramiro unblinkingly stares at the women – he is so blasé about it that they notice, and giggle to themselves, whispering about him – and he still doesn’t look away. There is more than a hint of a man who is being forced into celibacy, and does not like it…

At a roadside tavern

Just a short while later, Ramiro runs into Emilio. Emilio, chatting with him, tells Ramiro that it’s only a matter of time before he (Ramiro, not Emilio) marries Tula, isn’t it? After all, they’re living in the same house. She is looking after his children. She isn’t getting married. Not to Emilio, not to anyone else. Everybody around, says Emilio (and he seems resigned to this) believes that Ramiro and Tula will get married sooner rather than later.

Emilio talks to Ramiro

And so, Ramiro, finding Tula home alone, proposes to her. He asks her to marry her, giving his reasons – for the sake of the children, because he loves her – and Tula turns him down. Turns him down very vehemently indeed, telling him that he doesn’t love her; he never even loved her sister Rosa. (This knowledge stems from a long-ago letter that Tula has discovered among Rosa’s things; it was from Ramiro to Rosa, before they were married, and alludes to Ramiro having seduced Rosa, with the result that he now must marry her).

The proposal

Ramiro doesn’t take this rejection well. He tries to plead with Tula, who again refuses – and eventually Ramiro clams up. Life goes on as before, with Tula treating him with her usual calm friendliness. But Ramiro is brooding and bitter; it shows in the way he looks at Tula, the way he responds to much of what she says.

Tula and Ramiro

And one night, Ramiro loses control, and tries to molest Tula. She escapes by locking herself inside the bathroom. She sits on the floor, crying and shaking, a far cry from the composed and dignified Tula we’ve seen throughout the film till now.

Tula manages to fend off Ramiro's advances

Can Tula recover from this sudden, disturbing jolt? Till now, she has gone through this faux domesticity, being foster mother to Ramiro’s children, and a sort-of stand-in for his wife, oblivious to the fact that Ramiro is, increasingly, beginning to regard her as not just his sister-in-law. Can (and will) Tula adjust? Will she do what everybody (as Emilio suggested to Ramiro) expects her to do?

I will admit to being a bit immature when it comes to a lot of films. I like ends tied up neatly. I like questions answered. I like characters I’ve been rooting for to be happy (or at least for there to be a glimmer of hope for them). By those standards, La Tía Tula shouldn’t have been a film that appealed to me, because it’s a tragic story, and leaves some important things unsaid.

Instead, this film mesmerised me. I kept thinking about it hours after I’d finished watching it. I found myself rewinding the DVD and seeing certain scenes again – just to catch an expression here, a small gesture there. I asked myself questions. I answered them for myself, and then wondered if my answers were probably just a reflection of how I’d wanted the film to play out. I wondered what happened after the last scene.

And isn’t that a sign of a great film?

What I liked about this film:

The quiet subtlety of it all. The first truly dramatic event that happens – more than halfway through the film – is Ramiro’s attempt to force himself on Tula. Prior to that, the changing chemistry between Ramiro and Tula is so subtle, so discreet, that one almost ends up wondering if that was what the director (Miguel Picazo) meant by that particular expression or gesture.

For instance, there’s a short scene towards the beginning of the film, when Ramiro and his children have moved in with Tula, and Tula is getting little Tulita ready for school. Tulita has been mentioning that some of her other little friends will be going to their first communion this time; when will she go? Tula consoles her and says that since the family is still in mourning, Tulita won’t go for her first communion now.

And the first scene after Ramiro’s proposed is Tulita’s first communion.

Tulita at her first communion

Tula looks placid, collected, dignified: the perfect mother, proud of her little girl. What is the underlying thought here? That Ramiro’s proposal has signalled an end to the mourning? Has Tula, despite her rejection of Ramiro, formally installed herself as the de facto mother? Or is this simply a way of telling the world that she can be a mother to Tulita without marrying Ramiro?

There are the small gestures, too, that indicate so much that is otherwise left unsaid. For example, a scene (after Ramiro proposes to Tula) in which Ramiro is pacing about the room, talking to Tula. What they’re discussing is beside the point; the important thing here is the way Tula reaches up to Ramiro’s shoulder and tugs away a loose white thread that is clinging to the dark cloth of his jacket. She pauses briefly to smooth the cloth down, before drawing away.

A moment of domesticity

There’s something very indicative of a domestic intimacy here – it’s the sort of thing one would typically expect a wife to do to a husband: neaten him up, without stopping to think that she was touching him, even if the touch was completely non-sexual. It makes one wonder: has Tula forgiven Ramiro for his unwelcome proposal? Or has it actually brought her, in some indefinable way, closer to Ramiro? Is this gesture an expression of possessiveness?

I could go on and on.

As good as the direction and the very nuanced, subtle screenplay is the acting. Aurora Bautista is especially brilliant as Tula: the dignified, unruffled Tula, as well as the Tula who is left emotionally shattered by all that happens to her.

Aurora Bautista in La Tia Tula

Lastly, the name of the film. Aunt Tula. A woman defined not by her own self (which, considering Tula’s personality, is quite substantial), but by her relationship with two children. Is that what Tula is all about? The aunt of Ramirín and Tulita? Till the very last, painful moment of the film, Tula does go on insisting that they’re her children, that she cannot bear to be separated from them – but it is Ramiro, too, whom she is looking at, Ramiro whom her arms stretch out to.

What I didn’t like:

Nothing. Truly. This film is a masterpiece.

34 thoughts on “La Tía Tula (1964)

  1. Beautiful – the way you’ve described and written. I doubt I’ll ever get to see it, so please give me the ending DO. I’m really really so anxious for the children. Will the father’s behaviour, and aunt Tula’s reaction come in the way? Will the father take the children and go away? I have all these questions :-) Write a big ‘spoiler’ and please please tell me.

    • Thank you, pacifist! I’m glad you liked the review. Since you’ve asked for it, here’s the rest of the story:

      Major spoilers ahead:

      Some days after Ramiro tries to force himself on Tula, all of them – Tula, Ramiro, and the two children – go to the countryside to meet Tula’s Uncle Pedro and his teenaged daughter Juanita. While Ramiro and the children are swimming in the river, Juanita has been looking at Ramiro with obvious admiration (and confusion) – she finally gets so hot and flustered, she jumps into the river fully dressed.

      That night, Ramiro rapes Juanita. She keeps quiet about it, and doesn’t emerge from her room next morning when they leave. A few weeks later, Ramiro gets a letter from Uncle Pedro, saying that Juanita is pregnant, and Ramiro must marry her now. Ramiro tells Tula, and she is distraught, disgusted, and also (or so I thought) very depressed.

      The film ends with Ramiro (now married to Juanita) getting on to a train with Juanita and the children – they’re moving to another city, to begin afresh. Tula has come to the station to see them off, and though she’s clinging to the children and going on saying “My children! My children!”, the last shot is of her hands and Ramiro’s, drawing apart as the train pulls away.

      Spoiler ends.

      • Thank you so much DO. Just as I had suspected.
        Well, you can’t argue with what some people want, I guess. Not being a psychiatrist, I wouldn’t know why she would treat the situation, post the attempted seduction/rape by Ramiro, as though nothing had happened.
        Is it an example of ignoring something that terrifies you a great deal?
        Not acknowledging something will make it nonexistent?
        Behave like nothing happened, then the other would be forced to follow suit?

        Was Ramiro the typical example of what she thought men were like? He didn’t improve this by his behaviour twice over – after behaving like that with his sister.

        • Tula’s reactions to Ramiro change with all the major actions he takes. After he proposes, she doesn’t seem to change much – she’s still as caring, still touches him (that ‘thread on the coat’ scene). But after he tries raping her, she goes cold and distant, almost shutting him off – though she doesn’t take any more drastic action.

          It’s only when she discovers he’d raped Juanita that she seems to crumble. Not melodramatically, but still.

          I think your theories that she was trying to avoid acknowledging it in the attempt to make it non-existent, or pretending that it didn’t happen, in the hope that Ramiro would take the lead, seem very plausible – both struck me as possibilities.

          I couldn’t gauge if Ramiro was Tula’s idea of the typical male, though. My impression was that she was attracted to him at some level, but ignored both their feelings in a misplaced sense of loyalty towards the children – thus ending up wrecking her own life, ultimately.

          • Sorry DO. I made a mistake. It is after the proposal that life goes on as normal for Tula, and not after his attempt at forcing himself on her.
            One wonders if Tula was only capable of recognising and giving physical (as in non sexual) comfort to those around
            her, rather than their emotional needs, though I may be wrong as she seemed to console the children on the loss of their mother – or was that because she herself experienced that loss (it was her sister after all).
            Hmmm she’s certainly a person to be analysed :-)

            • As we said, a complex character.

              At times, even before Ramiro proposed to her, I got the feeling that she did feel attracted to him. For example. her telling him not to go about in his vest (and no shirt) at home might be a result of finding it just too distracting. :-D

  2. What a lovely review, Madhu; and you have described the film so well. I watched it years ago at a friend’s place, and was absolutely rivetted. Thank you so much for reminding me of it again. By the way, this will fall into your category of films based on books. The novel had the same name.

    To me, Tula was a very complex character, and in some ways unlikeable. I would have liked to have discussed that with you, but I won’t say any more (not unless you decide to give in to pacifist’s plea and throw in the spoiler) *grin*

    pacifist, the whole film is available on YouTube – without subtitles, unfortunately.

    • Thank you, Anu – and yes, I knew it was based on a novella of the same name; it was mentioned in the DVD.

      I agree; Tula was a complex character. Or rather, probably just a very well-etched character, in that she was very human, with many shades of grey.

      Since I’ve given away the rest of the story in the spoiler, I can say that I thought, too, that there were places in the story where she wasn’t very likeable. Her refusal to admit that Ramiro finds her attractive (or whatever – maybe he’s just seeing a reflection of his wife in her?) is rather blinkered. And even after he’s proposed to her, it doesn’t seem to have much affect on her behaviour towards him – she still treats him with the easy comfort that she was used to. It makes it seem as if she’s completely oblivious to Ramiro’s feelings.

      • Okay, now that you’ve added the spoiler and put pacifist out of her misery: I found Tula more sexually repressed than put-together. Her admonitions to Ramiro everytime he expressed an interest in, or even looked at, any woman were very irritating. Because she takes over the family without so much as a by-your-leave, and in doing so, effectively pushes Ramiro away from his place as father – she is the one who makes decisions for everybody. In effect, she has taken her sister’s rights in the family without any of its responsibilities.

        Does Ramiro rape Juanita? It’s been so long since I watched the film; I thought he seduces her? Apart from seeking sexual favours among the other women.

        It is funny, come to think of it, that my recollection of the film is feeling sympathetic towards Ramiro, not as much towards Tula. Perhaps I was too black and white in my thinking those days.

        (Also, I *hated* the ‘marry him’ suggestion – what makes anyone think that marrying the man who tried to rape you is a good idea?)

        • Yes, when it came to her sexuality, I agree that Tula was pretty repressed. The way she seems to deliberately treat Ramiro as if he was a child rather than a grown man tended to (at least in my eyes) emphasise that.

          “In effect, she has taken her sister’s rights in the family without any of its responsibilities.

          Couldn’t have put it better! Very, very true.

          Ramiro may have started off trying to seduce Juanita, but just before the camera moves away, Juanita is pleading with him to stop. It may have been consensual in the beginning (or perhaps Juanita was just too young and naive to realise where this would lead?), but she was definitely begging him to stop.

          “(Also, I *hated* the ‘marry him’ suggestion – what makes anyone think that marrying the man who tried to rape you is a good idea?)

          Did you mean the “marry him” suggestion from the priest, when Tula goes for confession?

          • but just before the camera moves away, Juanita is pleading with him to stop.

            Hmm, I’d forgotten that bit; I thought (vaguely remember) that she was making a play for him throughout.

            Did you mean the “marry him” suggestion from the priest, when Tula goes for confession?

            Yes. I mean, seriously??

            • Yes, that priest telling her to marry Ramiro was crazy. I’ve no idea what Spain was like back in the 60s, but considering some rape victims are still forced in India to marry their rapists, I wasn’t actually terribly taken aback by that. Disgusted, yes. Surprised, no.

  3. The way you have written the review, one sees the effect the film had on you. Mostly one gladly tells others about one’s opinion of the film and its character, but the way you are uncertain about so many aspects and angles of the film goes on to show that this film is indeed great.
    I do hope I get to watch this film someday.
    A wonderful review full of depth! It moves me to see how it has moved you.

    • It moves me to see how it has moved you.

      Yes, harvey. It’s one of those (very rare) films that don’t just aim to entertain – there’s so much depth to it. I think I’m going to have to watch it all over again, from start to finish, to actually catch more of the nuances in it.

    • Thank you so much, silverambrosia. :-)

      Yes, La Tia Tula isn’t the sort of film one enjoys; there’s too much pain in it for that. I am pretty certain that if it hadn’t been for Bawa having gifted it to me, I wouldn’t have bothered looking for it, based simply on the synopsis on IMDB. But I’m very glad I saw it – it’s a fine depiction of human character.

  4. Thanks to such reviews film lovers like us know or shall I say become aware of some brilliant films. In a way I am like you I am a sucker for happy endings, you won’t believe this but I resisted seeing Roman Holiday when I learnt that Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn go their different ways(I was a teenager when the film was re-released in Bombay). Finally mum pushed me and after seeing the film I realized the film could not have ended any other way

    • Shilpi, I still haven’t seen Roman Holiday, just because of that!

      Incidentally, there’s a somewhat similar film starring Olivia de Havilland and Robert Cummings, called Princess O’Rourke, in which they do get married and she happily gives up her kingdom to become a housewife. And I came away from that thinking “That’s so unreal! How could it happen?”

      As you see, I can be thoroughly illogical…

  5. ps: I ordered your book. The only sad part is I’ll have to wait until July to pick it up since I sent it to my cousin’s place (unless I can prevail upon him to mail them (both Engraved in Stone and My Lawfully Wedded Husband which I had ordered earlier) to me earlier. Heh!)

    • Yes, I am a sucker for happy endings – especially when it comes to romances! No wonder I’ve never been able to understand the allure of Casablanca. (Though, as bollyviewer once put it. “The real tragedy would have been if Ingrid Bergman’s character had stayed back with Humphrey Bogart!”)

      • I must protest….The real romance in Casablanca is between Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains and they live happily every after, “it’s the begining of a beautiful friendship”. Who needs Ingrid.. Bah

        • :-D :-D

          I read your comment while eating breakfast, and burst out laughing, so I’ve now got to pick the oatmeal out of my keyboard. :-(

          Are you trying to get back at me for all the times Anu’s sprayed her keyboard with coffee while reading one of my posts?!

      • :-D
        But I mean it seriously, Anu. I do watch tragedies, otherwise I wouldn’t get to watch Dilip Kumar. One of my all time favourites is Mughal e azam. I love DK’s Devdas. Some films may not be such tragedies, but suffering forms a major part of it, like Mother India, and I like that film a lot, especially because I know the sad state of the small farmers.
        What bores me is the Romeo Juliet endings, or lets just say, they both dying for various reasons if not for the reason R&J died.

    • So true! I feel all grown up when I can appreciate a tragedy.

      I have to admit Mother India is just not my cup of tea – too much melodrama through it all, but on a similar note (of the sad state of small farmers), I liked Do Bigha Zameen a lot. And tragedy, when a happy ending would be forced (as in the case of Teesri Kasam or Mughal-e-Azam), works better than a happy ending would, I think…

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