Unlike its glamorous Hollywood counterparts, El Leyton depicts three unappealing characters in an earthy, neorealist style. Writer-director Gonzalo Justiniano succeeds at holding viewer interest, but you may not like what you see.
Two fishermen friends are a study in contrasts: Leyton (Juan Pablo Sáez) is a lazy, easygoing "ladies' man" who doesn't mind romancing married women; Modesto (Luis Wigdorsky) is a quiet, hard-working figure. Trouble begins when Modesto marries Marta (Siboney Lo), a shy young woman with limited sexual experience.
At first, Leyton aggressively tries to seduce Marta. Although she resists, she neglects to tell Modesto about the incident. Later, Marta willingly gives into Leyton's sexual demands, and tries to keep the affair quiet. But Modesto finds out about her tryst and vows revenge. Suddenly, the peaceful friend turns violent and the conclusion is both tragic and comic.
El Leyton's set-up is reminiscent of dozens of romantic dramas from the past, which seems to be a favorite kind of melodramatic formula: the sexually inexperienced bride finding passion with a man who is not her dull new husband. Usually the infidelity is more understandable (even Ryan's Daughter, with its miscasting) than what goes on here, since Leyton is not only a wastrel but not even as handsome as his "ladies' man" reputation would suggest. Moreover, Leyton's sexual harassment (and near-rape) of Marta makes him entirely unsympathetic and her character also less likeable when she finally submits to his advances. Modesto, for his part, lacks any heroic qualities and comes across like a na™ve, boorish cuckold. The townspeople seem like caricatures, mostly one-dimensional gossips, so the entire culture of this community is given a black eye by the director.
And yet Justiniano films his story in a style that recalls a cinma-vrit documentary or Woody Allen's own ode to marital mischief, Husbands and Wives. The camera shakes constantly, whether the scenes take place on land or sea, and while the naturalistic, dirt-poor setting could be right out of the neorealist classics, Visconti's La Terra Trema or Fellini's La Strada (yet another triangle plot!), the grotesque, wide-angle-lens close-ups of the characters could better be found in Fellini's later fantasy films--and the tragicomic ending is ludicrous. So it is not clear what Justiniano wants to show: a vivid slice-of-life or a cartoon version of events. The narrow, askew view also blunts any kind of sociopolitical message (assuming there ever was one).
In any case, El Leyton maintains a fair amount of suspense, as we wonder when (and how) Modesto will learn the about the affair, and then what he'll do. Even with all the flaws in the characters (and the filmmaking), we become intrigued. Obviously, the love triangle plot has become a movie standard-bearer for a reason.