Isabel Sarli: A Sex Bomb at Lincoln Center

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Frank Scherschel / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images

Actress Isabel Sarli in 1958

The censors called her movies dirty, but no one could say that Argentine sex bomb Isabel Sarli wasn't the cleanest woman in international cinema. She certainly bathed enough: in the ocean, a lake, a stream, a waterfall, a swimming pool, the shower, a wash basin in a whorehouse bedroom. Never missing a curve or a crevice in her ablutions, she would devote special care to her overflowing breasts, caressing and kneading them, the camera as attentive as she to their contours. And in the darkened theaters that showed Spanish-language movies, a million men took urgent notice.

In the movie genre that Variety dubbed sexploitation — the hothouse, soft-core sex dramas that flourished in the 1960s, between the puritan era that preceded them and the hard-core stuff that effectively put them out of business — Sarli was an icon, a scandal, a legend in South America. North of the border, she had little impact; only a few of her films played the grindhouses of New York's 42nd Street and its equivalents in other cities. The New York Times' Roger Greenspun was an admirer of the 1969 Fuego, writing that "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." But she never attained even the underground eminence of a sex-movie star in the U.S.

This weekend, in one of the great "huh!?" moments of high-low culture, the Film Society of Lincoln Center is paying tribute to Sarli, in the summer of her 75th birthday, with a retrospective titled "Fuego: The Films of Isabel 'Coca' Sarli." (The actress's nickname comes either from her Coke-bottle-shaped figure, which is not doing Sarli anything like justice, or from her addiction to the Yanqui soft drink.) Curated by two women, as if to mute cries of sexism, the series offers five Sarli feature films plus Diego Curubeto's career-spanning documentary Carne Sobre Carne: Intimidades de Isabel Sarli.

In her prime she was a voluptuous brunette within shouting distance of Elizabeth Taylor's raven splendor and Sophia Loren's statuesque sultriness. Her nearest equivalent today might be the bounteous Paraguayan model Larissa Riquelme, who achieved Internet fame as the "soccer mam," rooting for her national team in the World Cup by appearing in or out of tight T-shirts. But Sarli was more than a large-chested woman who didn't mind taking her clothes off. Her celebrity was magnified to apotheosis or parody by the lurid melodramas she starred in, nearly all of them written and directed by (and often co-starring) her longtime inamorato Armando Bo, 21 years her senior. Sarli would mime orgasmic passion before the camera and, behind it, Bo would prod her on.

He was obeying the same impulse that, these days, leads countless men to put themselves and their girlfriends on YouPorn. Is it love? ("You're so sexy, I simply must photograph you...") Generosity? ("...and share you with the world!") Or pimping? ("Hey, a guy's got to make a buck.") Whatever the explanation, many sexploitation directors forged long on-camera relationships with their spouses or equivalents. In Europe, Jesus Franco and Lina Romay; in the U.S., Joseph W. Sarno and Peggy Steffans; but the fullest, most fulsome cinematic lust affair was consummated in 27 films by Sarli and Bo.

The films' titles were simple, direct enticements to a viewer-voyeur's lust — Fuego (Fire), Carne (Meat) — and often needed no translation: El Sexo y el Amor, La Tentación Desnuda, Éxtasis Tropical and the sublimely ridiculous Furia Infernal (this last known in English-speaking territories as Ardent Summer, The Hot Days or, in the documentary's odd rendering, The Horny Days). Seeing them today, nearly a half-century after they were made, a moviegoer thinks of lurid Hollywood love stories like Duel in the Sun, but with a much higher body temperature, and especially of Latin American telenovelas, those churning mixtures of female concupiscence and narrative coincidence. The world-class Spanish writer-director Pedro Almodovar learned much from them, though it's not known if he used the Sarli-Bo films as his models.

One American auteur who paid attention was John Waters, whose breakthrough affrontery Pink Flamingos came out in 1972, three years after Fuego, and whose cunning homage can be seen on YouTube. Thumbing through a commemorative book on Sarli, and wishing he could read Spanish, Waters tells us, "If you watch some of my films, you can see what a huge influence Fuego was. I forgot how much I stole. ... Look at Isabel's makeup and hairdo in Fuego. Dawn Davenport, Divine's character in Pink Flamingos, could be her exact twin, only heavier. Isabel, you inspired us all to a life of cheap exhibitionism, exaggerated sexual desires and a love for all that is trash-ridden in cinema. We salute you, Isabel Sarli, a truly outstanding woman in film."

Fuego — the title appears on the screen and bursts into flames — begins as Carlos (played by Bo, who's as meaty in his way as Coca is in hers) happens to spy Laura (Sarli) at waterside, being bathed, massaged and nibbled upon by her lesbian maid Andrea (Alba Mujica). Instantly, the triangle is formed. Laura's putative boyfriend invites Carlos to a party that evening. As Andrea dresses Laura for the occasion — in a low-slung beaded gown, an extravagant fur, a houri's eye-shadow and earrings the size of twin silver tarantulas — the two women exchange dialogue that encapsulates Fuego's lunatic eloquence. Imagine each phrase both whispered in passion and spat out in spite:

Andrea: You look more stunning than ever for those imbeciles. But I know you better — you can never leave me.
Isabel: There are times when I love you, and others when I hate you!
Andrea: I understand. You despise me now, but I know what you are thinking. No! I won't let you go! No!
Laura: I'll go when I like — when I meet the man that'll satisfy all my desires.
Andrea: Laura, you're insatiable! Your desires can't be quenched. You're partly an angel, and partly — a devil!

Sapphic love of the slave-master variety was no match in the hetero '60s for man-on-woman wrassling. Soon Carlos and Laura are on an Andean mountainside, she desperately rubbing snow on her chest (to quench her desires), then disrobing so they can make mad love in the snow in the nude. The fever is contagious.

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