Tuesday 11 December 2012

RIP: José Bénazéraf and Celso Ad Castillo


We don’t want turn this blog into an obituary column, but as the last couple of weeks has seen the death of two greats from “the wild side of world cinema”, we feel obligated to note their passing.

It’s an indictment of the narrow focus of much film criticism that Celso Ad. Castillo is not better known, but in the Philippines he is generally regarded as one of that country’s most innovative and provocative film makers. Born in 1943, he initially planned to become a lawyer, like his father, but soon gravitated towards the entertainment business as a writer of comic books. In the mid 1960s he began to adapt these as screenplays for the then booming local film market. He directed his first feature in 1965 and his breakthrough came in the early 70s with films starring Fernando Poe Jr, one of the best loved stars of the local industry.

No stranger to scandal, Castillo went on to create provocative stories that mixed sex and religion, both (then as now) explosive subjects in the Philippines. Nympha, Isla and in particular Snake Sisters drew audiences but created controversy. He also made a number of horror films, including the classic Let’s Scare Barbara to Death, starring Fernando Poe Jr’s wife – Susan Roces.

He worked in a dizzying variety of genres: drama, comedy, action, horror, martial arts, sexploitation, etc. His best films are characterised by an almost wilful individuality, touches of visual poetry and an intense desire to move, excite and entertain. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s always fascinating to watch. He will be missed.

I first met José Bénazéraf twenty years ago whilst doing interviews for the Immoral Tales book. He was very hospitable and extremely entertaining, sounding off at the drop of a hat about the mediocrity and moral vacuity of most of his fellow film makers. He was pretty much retired by then, having made and lost several fortunes over the years. He was doing OK, though, living with his wife Simone, an elegant former fashion model, in a luxurious apartment in Neuilly, one of the most desirable of Parisian suburbs. He was very amused when I told him that next on my list of interviewees was Alain Robbe-Grillet, who then lived only two streets away. JB roared with laughter and regaled me with scabrous tales about ARG’s sexual proclivities.

JB could be a crusty old sod and was filled with contradictions (an avowed communist, he lived pretty much the ultimate bourgeois lifestyle, with houses in Paris, Spain and the south of France). His communism, like much of his filmography, seemed to derive from the same source: basically he liked to be a controversialist, that was his life’s blood. He had strong opinions on just about everything and would occasionally phone me to roar down the line his fury at something happening in the UK that he’d read about in the papers. He had been a war hero, although he would never describe himself in that manner, and was still capable of sounding off in a passion about those struggles of far off days, raging at the way certain sections of French society had capitulated to the Nazis. The only ones to truly oppose the oppressors, he maintained, had been the marginals: the gays, the Jews, the Communists.

One of my strongest memories of him is visiting one day and being taken round the corner to a nearby underground garage where was parked his latest toy - a brand new Porsche Cabriolet convertible. With a twinkle in his eye, he insisted we go for a drive and set off down the Champs Elysées at full tilt, top down, yelling at me to check the speed as he couldn’t drive and look at the dash at the same time. Passing a restaurant he knew, he decided we would stop for lunch and skidded to a halt, double parked in the middle of the busy city centre road. As we tucked into almost raw steaks, I had to crane my neck to keep a tab on the Porsche, which was soon surrounded by curious passers by and, eventually, a passing copper, no doubt thinking that it had been abandoned by a teenage car thief. I believe José must have been in his 80s at this point.

He was a force of nature, that’s a description that truly fits him, and as with all forces of nature you never believe they can be finite. But it turns out he was mortal, just like the rest of us.

What can you say about his films? They were reflections of the man who made them. As a catalogue description for his 1963 production Le Concerto de la peur says: “It pricks the conscience, probes the libido and excites the senses!”

What more can you ask for from wild world cinema?

Celso Ad Castillo, 1943-2012
José Bénazéraf, 1922-2012

- Pete Tombs, December 2012


  1. Any chance of seeing the Bénazéraf films released in the UK/US? I've been itching to see them since I first read Immoral Tales back in 1998. I've noticed that some boots have started to crop up but I'd rather have a legit release, tho I gather there's probably stuff going on that prohibits this from happening...

  2. I hope so too. Difficult to say now he's no longer around. There were some official French releases, but Jose (God bless him) was a tough cookie to deal with in business matters so I think the companies behind those releases just gave up after the first titles were out. Hopefully we'll have more info soon

  3. Sad news...Is Snake Sisters ever going to be released? It's been on your trailer reel for years now and there's been little info about it. Has it been scrapped? It would be great to get a release of it even if it's not the best print to keep his films alive.

  4. Just an aside: The communists and the Jews obviously had no choice but to oppose, while leading fascist writer Brasillach was homosexual. Still, in fact the major part of communists was willing to collaborate, as long as the Hitler-Stalin-pact was on. They had indeed a hard time because of that under the Daladier gouvernment already, which partly imprisoned them. And it isn't exactly the case that the Gaullist resistance turned out to be toothless...

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Very interesting points. I would love to have heard you debate these with Jose! I guess the point he was making (to me at the time) was that after the war it seemed everyone was claiming to have been part of the Resistance and wreaking their vengeance on those who were seen as obvious "collaborators", whereas the truth is the line was much more difficult to draw, as you so rightly outline above. You are right to remind us that the official pre-war French Communist Party line was to support the Molotov non aggression pact, but I also think it fair to point out that Jose's defintion of "communist" was quite broad. It had to be to include himself! And he fell out badly with the official party. I am also sure he personally would have condemned the non agression pact, although maybe in hindsight.