Fernando Arrabal is a Spanish writer and filmmaker known, like his associate Alejandro Jodorowsky, for surreal and disturbing movies. Like their older expatriate Luis Buñuel, their surrealism has an air of anarchy in response to authority. It comes as a bit of a surprise that Arrabal also made this French-Canadian children’s movie, Treasure Train (or L’Empereur de Perou) starring Mickey Rooney, but the connections are there.
A little girl and her younger brother are spending the summer on the estate of an uncle and aunt. The boy feels especially put-upon and every ten minutes imagines himself into a fantasy where he’s a heroic astronaut or explorer whose exploits and ingenuity are hailed in live TV broadcasts. He’s always accompanied by his duck Federico, a loaded name for a surrealist movie mascot.
A Cambodian refugee boy comes to stay until he can be adopted. His father is in a concentration camp and the kid doesn’t know where his mother is, so he wants to go back to Cambodia to marry her! The movie is also dotted with his simply staged reminiscences of the last times he saw his family in his war-torn country, and although these moments are as aesthetically unreal as the other boy’s fantasies, they resonate with Arrabal’s other films.
The kids wander every day in the woods, where they make friends with “a crazy old cripple” who calls himself the Emperor of Peru. This is Rooney’s patented late-model, over-the-top, cantankerous but supposedly loveable old duffer. The cops will soon drag him to a rest home, but he supports the kids’ plan to revive an old locomotive for the trip to Cambodia so the refugee can marry his mom. To them, reality is something to be fled from and their plans are utterly divorced from it, as Arrabal’s seem to be.
Grown-ups are alternately kind or angry, and their well-meaning plans (whether as guardians of children or officials of the town) seem randomly cruel and patronising to the kids and the old maniac. Even so, you can’t help perceiving that the latter truly don’t understand what’s best for them, as the lovely escapist setting keeps bearing reminders of a cruel world. The story is airy with dark undercurrents, while the young performances and the pace make things a bit leaden.
The eccentric ending, which I liken to E.B. White’s Stuart Little for its inconclusiveness and ambiguity, may or may not be happy depending on your own grasp of reality. Although the movie’s moments of open surrealism are grounded as “fantasy” or “dream”, the overall nature of the enterprise subverts the pretended reality of the context, especially when the clowns arrive.
Most of the characters, especially Rooney and the older girl, acted in English, though some acted in French. Both soundtracks are offered, and it means that both have some characters dubbed and others not. Neither is completely satisfactory but the English is best, since that’s where you’ll hear Rooney’s voice. There’s a 2011 interview with Rooney in which you can see him enthusiastically stringing together much-used observations like boxcars, one reminding him of another and never entirely on point. I’d have removed the questions to make this less obvious or dropped the segment entirely.
Arrabal’s brilliant and bracing Viva La Muerte and I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse, along with the later The Guernica Tree about the Spanish Civil War, are available from Cult Epics. Odyssey Moving Images is a new company founded by that company’s owner. According to the press release, the new label will release films “with prominent actors and directors in a variety of genres, which cater to a more mainstream audience”. (My goodness, if that’s true, I’m interested in Jodorowsky’s The Rainbow Thief with Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif and Christopher Lee.)