Why ‘The Plague’ was nixed by critics in 1992

Analyzing the commercial failure of a movie 30 years after its release might not do much, if anything, to offset the film’s financial losses. In the case of Luis Puenzo’s failed big-budget 1992 adaptation of Albert Camus’ “The Plague,” perhaps there’s a streamer presentation that might perform a minor financial resuscitation on its P&L for Canal Plus and Gaumont. But given its subject matter, “The Plague” is more valuable as an instructive story illustrating the maxim, “Timing is everything.”

Puenzo’s sober, subdued take on Camus’ trenchant blend of natural catastrophe and political evil might find a more ready audience today, in this time of a pandemic accompanied by strange global political rumblings. In 1992, only a decade after the AIDS pandemic hit, important filmmakers were just beginning to address the tragic dimensions of the outbreak.

Jonathan Demme’s 1993 multi-Oscar winner (Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen) “Philadelphia,” was also probably a better match for the times. Its conventional medical/legal structure and setting, as well as its detailed, literal approach to illness, not as metaphor, but gripping, gut-wrenching drama, better fit the general public’s mood of acceptance and compassion. Puenzo’s portrait of a pandemic exploited by corruption, lies and media manipulation might find a bigger and more receptive audience today. In 1992, zombies and viral outbreaks weren’t driving the videogame and download sales numbers they are today.

Mario Slugan’s “Pandemic (Movies): A Pragmatic Analysis of a Nascent Genre” (QRFV 2021), traces the origins of the “outbreak” film genre back over 100 years, noting, “Fiction film representing outbreaks of communicable diseases can be tracked to at least ‘And the Children Play’ (Jacques Tyrol, 1918) and ‘The Pest in Florence’ (Otto Rippert, 1919).”

In Slugan’s view, this very specific genre founded back in the silent film era has flourished and “since then, there has been a steady stream of on the subject from around the world.”

One of the many “pandemic” films Slugan cites is Puenzo’s “Plague,” which, at the time of its release, had all the trappings of a potential critical hit that might garner some Oscar glory. The novel is a foundational masterpiece of existential thought. Puenzo had directed 1985 foreign-language Oscar winner “The Official Story,” and his cast included Academy Award winners William Hurt and Robert Duvall. The world was still reeling from a health crisis that hit Hollywood and New York creative communities especially hard.

But after it premiered in competition in Venice, “The Plague” never registered any awards season action outside Puenzo’s home country of Argentina. If you can find reviews of the film, they’re generally dismissive, usually taking issue with the film’s equation of epidemic management and fascism. One critic snarked, “You’ll want to get vaccinated by the time it ends.”

The Hamden Journal’s Lisa Nesselson probed the notion that film’s dramatization of fascist politics was its real Achilles heel. The film’s plot, per Nesselson, boldly asserts there’s right-wing trouble afoot. “On the pretext of isolating the families of plague victims, sinister public health officials declare martial law and fill vast holding pens in the local stadium.”

But while calling “The Plague” “valiant,” and crediting Puenzo with “creating the disturbing impression that the audience is quarantined along with the entire population of Oran,” Nesselson could also see box office woes ahead. “Pic’s message that the ‘plague’ — literal or figurative — is never truly vanquished is a point worth making, but audiences may prove as elusive as a cure for mankind’s ills.”