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MEXICO CITY JOURNAL

Don't make them get even

Latin American audiences are glued to episodes of a TV show about abuses no longer endured.

August 02, 2008|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — THINK OF it as "Desperate Housewives" -- make that very desperate -- with butcher knives, vials of poison and bottles of hydrochloric acid. Or an extremely stressed-out "Lipstick Jungle."

It's the hit Latin American TV series "Mujeres Asesinas" (Women Assassins), a high-gloss revenge fantasy about the fury of women scorned that has become a major TV hit and a minor pop-culture phenomenon in certain Spanish-speaking parts of this hemisphere. Already, it has run through three seasons in Argentina and is gearing up there for a fourth. It also has scored high ratings and strong critical notices in Colombia and Mexico, and seems destined to show up very soon on U.S. television screens.

"Many people from the United States and Latin America ask us every day and every week, 'When is it coming to Peru?' 'When is it coming to Chile?' " said Alex Balassa, one of the show's executive producers with Pedro Torres, at a screening of the Mexican version of the series' penultimate chapter here last week.

The series was originally created by the Pol-ka television and film production company in Argentina. In recent years, innovative shows from Argentina and other Latin American countries, as well as the United States, have made significant inroads into Mexican television, which produces relatively little apart from telenovelas (soap operas) in the way of original prime-time programming.

Loosely adapted from real-life crime stories, "Mujeres Asesinas" follows a fairly simple formula. In Mexico, viewers saw two episodes each week in which women are grievously wronged, usually by a man (father, husband, lover, "john"). Most of the female characters formerly were mild-mannered, long-suffering types. But they are transformed by the abuses they endure into hellions with telltale nicknames such as Patricia "Avenger," Martha "Suffocator" and Margarita "Poisonous."

Each of the two separate hour-long segments (minus time out for commercials hawking cellphones and collagen enhancements) builds to a gruesome climax, in which the crime is reenacted. For the Mexican version, the producers decided to add a new dramatic element by showing the crimes being scrutinized by the "Department of Investigation Specializing in Cases of Women," presumably to assure anxious viewers that justice will be served. Every episode also concludes with a moral coda stating what just deserts were reaped by their homicidal protagonists.

Predictably, "Mujeres Asesinas" has stirred talk in the Latin American media about whether it might incite women to commit more acts of revenge-fueled violence. Advertisements for the show have played up that titillating idea with tag lines such as, "Cuidado! No permitas que tu mujer vea esta nueva serie." (Take care! Don't let your woman see this new series.)

Several of the series actresses have dismissed that idea. "I think one of the values of the series is that it speaks not only of the depth of the female psychology, but rather it speaks . . . [of] the human condition, no?" said Cecilia Suarez, the actress who plays Ana "Corrosiva," an acid-wielding anti-heroine who delivers a brutal payback to her control-freak plastic surgeon lover.

Balassa likewise stresses the universality of the show. But he acknowledges that its depiction of the explosive relations between men and women and "the situations and the manner in which things finally end, are very much of the Latin American profile."

"We are a little macho in the Latin American world. And this is what is shown in all the chapters," he said.

Of course, tales about women getting mad, then getting even, have played well across all cultures, from the ancient Greek tragedy "Medea" to the 1978 B-movie "I Spit on Your Grave," about a gang-rape victim's bloody revenge. Many of the antics depicted on "Mujeres Asesinas" hardly will be unfamiliar to regular viewers of telenovelas.

Yet two things set "Mujeres Asesinas" apart from its less-sanguine competitors. One is the quality of its leading ladies. The just-concluded premiere Mexican season, which ran on cable station CTC and will be re-shown this fall on free network television here, featured several of the country's best-known actresses, including Veronica Castro, Itati Cantoral and Isela Vega, best known outside her homeland for playing a prostitute in "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia," Sam Peckinpah's black-humored 1974 cult classic.

The other is the raw, graphic violence. Similar scenes are depicted regularly in telenovelas, but seldom with as much Grand Guignol flair. In Mexico, the show was heavily promoted with billboards in which the actresses were photographed in elegant white attire, their hands and clothes splattered with blood.

Male and female fans of "Mujeres Asesinas" from as far away as China and Croatia are busily posting admiring comments about the series, along with their own personal tales of woe, on the show's official Facebook page. "A wounded woman would be capable of everything," one female fan wrote. "I believe that we are all disposed to fight."

"In the end, violence within families or sexual abuse could be in all the world," said Leo Marker, the Mexican series' press director. "It's on all sides, not only in Latin America."

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reed.johnson@latimes.com

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