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TELENOVELA WATCH: PASION PROHIBIDA Initial Impressions

After three weeks, Telemundo’s latest offering, PASIÓN PROHIBIDA (weeknights at 8 p.m. ET),has the makings to be the best Miami-produced telenovela in years. So far, an almost scene-for-scene remake of the Turkish production ASK-I MEMNU, adapted for Telemundo by Juan Camilo Ferrand, PASIÓN PROHIBIDA is a work of atypical subtlety, intelligence, and seriousness for the network, a chamber play in which each of the nuanced, complex characters whirl through an intricate dance brimming with ambivalent motives, latent desires and concealed resentments. The telenovela challenges its audience. The actions of the characters are often left open for interpretation. Rarely does it feel as if the show is signaling the audience one way or another as to how to respond to what is on the screen. The characters don’t spend much time explaining their actions or feelings, and you can’t necessarily believe them anyway because they are not honest with each other or themselves.

At the center of this atypical telenovela is an atypical protagonist: Bianca Santillana (Mónica Spear) - inscrutable, tantalizingly capricious and unresolved, an anti-heroine. Bianca is introduced as a sullen young woman harboring a seething hatred toward her mother Flavia (Rebecca Jones), whom she blames for the death of her father. He discovered Flavia with another man and suffered a fatal heart attack during the subsequent argument as Flavia savagely blamed him and their daughters for ruining her life, all witnessed by Bianca.

Three months later, Flavia is in financial straits. Her older daughter Penèlope (Sabrina Seara) is marrying into a wealthy family, but her would-be father-in-law demands the girl sign a prenup. Penèlope is willing, but Flavia feigns outrage before negotiating, behind her daughter’s back, to permit her daughter to sign the prenup in exchange for a million dollars.

Still five million in debt, Flavia sets her eyes on a millionaire widower, Ariel Piamonte (Roberto Vander), whom she hopes to seduce. Bianca encourages her mother’s efforts as part of a petty revenge scheme for what no one knows is Bianca has already beguiled Ariel into amarriage proposal. When Ariel arrives at the Santillana house with something important to ask Flavia, she believes he is going to propose to her and is mortified when instead he asks for her daughter’s hand in marriage.

Orchestrating the humiliation of her mother seems a terribly fleeting victory for Bianca. It is not long before Flavia is guilt-tripping her daughter to help her lest they lose the family (i.e., her beloved father’s) house and otherwise insinuating herself into the Piamonte family.

Conversing upon Bianca’s marriage to Ariel, Penèlope wonders if she loves him or just wants his money. Egotistical Flavia says it is solely an act of revenge against her. In reality, all three are somewhat true, which is the kind of complexity that separates this story from the usual fare.

The relationship between Bianca and Ariel, a man more than twice her age, was fostered out of a mutual sadness. Their assignations occurred at the cemetery where her father and his wife are buried. When Penèlope asks Bianca point-blank if she loves Ariel, she can only say she is fond of him and trusts him. To some degree, it seems Bianca is searching for a surrogate father, the relationship is about feeling protected rather than ardor.

In a later scene, Penèlope asks Bianca if she is only marrying Ariel for his money and she takes offence at the suggestion, saying she is not like her mother. But the vehemence with which Bianca tells her mother she won’t be getting a dollar of “her money” spurs Flavia to lead her daughter to look at herself in a mirror, telling her she recognizes herself in her daughter. That seems the central conflict of the novela – not the battle between Bianca and Flavia, but Bianca’s struggle with the attributes of her mother inherent in her own character.

Ironically, it is in Bianca’s efforts to one-up Flavia that she most resembles her, revealing an ambition and selfishness that makes it clear she is her mother’s daughter. As Flavia was an unfaithful wife who resents her children, so Bianca will be the dutiful, loving wife who cares for her husband’s two children – at least that is the image she presents in public for the audience of her mother.

But Bianca’s marriage to Ariel disrupts the harmonious status quo within the Piamonte family and behind closed doors, Bianca is engaged in an ongoing struggle to dominate her new environment – dealing with threats to her own happiness with the cunning instilled in her by the mother she loathes, even listening on occasion to advice from her mother. Flavia tells Bianca the only way to get everything she wants is by becoming the most important person in the life of Ariel, usurping the place nearest his heart from his family, but Bianca was already well on her way toward achieving that goal.

There is a femme fatale sang-froid with which Bianca squares off with those she sees as threats. She does everything she can to diminish the place of Mademoiselle Denise (Mercedes Molto) in the house – the French governess and the previous dominant female figure in the lives of the children, with the family for seventeen years and very much in love with Ariel – Bianca is relentless in emphasizing Denise’s place in the house as a servant rather than family member. When Denise attempts to leave the house to save herself from the pain of seeing the man she loves with his new wife, Bianca is happy to nudge her toward the exit, it is only the intervention of Ariel that keeps Denise from departing.

The conflict with Nina (Carmen Aub), Ariel’s beloved, sheltered, spoiled eighteen-year-old daughter, is far trickier. Nina is suspicious of Bianca while fearing she is now second-place in her father’s heart. Bianca attempts to win over the girl, but at the same time, is competing with her for importance in Ariel’s life. When Bianca’s honeymoon with Ariel is cut short so they can surprise Nina on her birthday, Bianca is dutiful smiles at the party, but quickly departs to her bedroom where she bristles at sight of a photograph of Isabel, Ariel’s deceased wife, on her nightstand, left there by Nina.

The final major piece on this telenovela’s chess board is Bruno (Jencarlos Canela), a distant family relative raised like a son by Ariel after his parents were killed in an auto accident. Bruno, a directionless wastrel and womanizer has a history with the Santillanas – he is an ex-lover of Penèlope whose cheating was exposed by Bianca. Deeply loyal to Ariel, Bruno discovers she shady deal Flavia made to sell Penèlope’s hand in marriage for a million dollars and tries to warn Ariel about the Santillanas, but when Ariel sides with his wife, Bruno decides to leave the house. It is another good example of the complexity of the tale in that Bruno is right and wrong – right in that Flavia did sell her older daughter’s hand in marriage, but wrong in thinking Bianca is an accomplice of her mother seeking to bilk or harm the family.

Bianca is the third unconventional protagonist in a row for Mónica Spear after Micaela in LA MUJER PERFECTA and Amanda/Flor in FLOR SALVAJE – that unconventionality is about all the roles share. Her Bianca is like an embodiment of wealthy indolence – all languorous elegance – a woman that floats through life in a bubble of self-absorption. There is something a bit perverse in seeing Spear, in her Venezuelan telenovelas an enormously endearing performer capable of remarkableemotional openness and vulnerabilitythat seemed utterly free of artifice, playing here a role that is, so far, largely about the suppression of emotion. In these early stages of PASIÓN PROHIBIDA, Bianca is withdrawn and shielded emotionally, everything she does seems calculated and premeditated – she’s slightly above everything, like a woman keeping score–her emotions bottled up, you wait, anticipating the dam to burst.

Rebecca Jones is thrilling as Flavia – it’s a mother from hell role but Jones is far too fine an actress to allow the character to become cliché or cartoonish. Jones’s Flavia is tacky and overbearing, a narcissist supreme – you laugh at the sheer shamelessness of the woman, trampling over all others, particularly her daughters, with a callous bravado; but whenshe sees her life of luxury threatening to crumble down around her and cracks form in the façade, Jones lets loose a piteous desperation, always present just beneath Flavia’s surface. You don’t revel in the embarrassments and defeats of Flavia, there’s not a sense of villain’s comeuppance because as awful a woman as she is, there remains a fragility and humanity, her suffering, maudlin and egotistical as it may be – is still real.

Bruno is the third leading role for Jencarlos Canela and maybe the one to which he is best suited.There is an underlying sadness to the character that is nicely rendered in Canela’s pensive eyes. He is an actor who tends to have strong chemistry with his cast mates and you believe here that Ariel’s children and the household staff are ecstatic when Bruno is around. He has a boyish charm that is often appealing, yet I think sometimes works against him – I never bought the “bad boy” facet of his roles in MÁS SABE EL DIABLO or MI CORAZÓN INSISTE – it seemed put on and phony, like the “rebel” in a boy band, ultimately safe, clean-cut and respectable where you want danger and vulgarity. Here, as well, Bruno’s salacious jibes at Penèlope and Bianca lack that carnal threat to give them electricity, he seems a sophomoric nuisance rather than a threat, he would inspire rolled eyes rather than disgust in the sisters.

Roberto Vander as Ariel exudes kindness and respectability; there is a glowing warmth toward his family, and crucially, he manages to avoid any sense of lecherousness in regard to his young wife which would impair the story, pervert it. It is important that Ariel is not portrayed as some dirty old man, but a decent man honestly in love with this younger woman.

Carmen Aub as Nina has the rather thankless task of playing a spoiled girl given to childish tantrums, which she attacks with complete abandon. It’s a character that can easily grate on an audience, but Aub manages to instill a sensitive vulnerability to offset the hysterics. That Nina recognizes her unreasonableness and is embarrassed by her antics and attempts to amend for them, that she is sorrowful when she hurts her father - her self-awareness seems to signal she is in a transitional phase, the sheltered spoiled girl trying to regard the world as a mature young woman, but still prone to childish regressions when facing strife.

Mercedes Molto is exquisite as the wistful Denise whose dignified air conceals her private suffering. It is a bit of an odd role as the character really seems removed from her time – a Victorian era conceit – the French governess whose rigid sense of propriety prevented her from acting out her feelings toward her employer and now suffers the jabs and insults of the new lady of the house with the subservience befitting her station.

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R.G. Morin writes a regular column for We Love Soaps, "Telenovela Watch: A weekly look at the world of telenovelas for non-Spanish speakers." For feedback or questions, you can email R.G. Morin at argeemorin@hotmail.com.

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