“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,” wrote Roger Greenspun in The New York Times of one of Argentina’s most celebrated sex symbols, an actress all but unknown to contemporary American film audiences.
Born in 1935 in the province of Entre Rios, Sarli was the first actress to appear completely nude in an Argentine film. Known to the world as “Coca” for her love of the popular soft drink and her Coke-bottle–shaped figure, the former 1955 Miss Argentina was discovered by Armando Bó, who became her writer, director, and husband. He was also Sarli’s frequent onscreen lover in her X-rated ventures, as was his son, Victor, much to the public’s amusement and dismay.
Sarli’s movies, particularly those that she made with Bó, reflect a wild, unsettling, and campy aesthetic reminiscent of the work of Russ Meyer, and although they are no longer in circulation, several of the movies received international distribution during the Sixties and Seventies. She starred in over 30 features over the course of her career, and continues to appear in new films to this day.
This interview accompanies the first English-language series of Sarli’s films. “Fuego: The Films of Isabel “Coca” Sarli” offers the opportunity for audiences to view sultry, funny, and censored films nearly impossible to see anywhere else, and in this candid discussion, the icon describes her upbringing, her relationship with her husband and business partner, and recounts anecdotes from her notorious career.
How would you describe your childhood?
I was born in Entre Rios, Concordia. One day my father said he was going to Uruguay to look for a job, because things were not going that well in Argentina, and he never came back. So my mother was both mother and father to me. I had a younger brother who died when he was five years old, so I grew up alone with my mother. She was pretty old-fashioned. She was born in Naples and came to Argentina when she was still a girl. I dropped out of high school and decided to learned stenography, typing, and English at the British Cultural Center. I wanted to become a good secretary and help my mother.
When you were growing up, what films did you enjoy?
I liked Burt Lancaster and Elizabeth Taylor’s films a lot. I’ve always been an admirer of Liz Taylor.
You resemble Elizabeth Taylor in some of your films, but you remind me even more of Sophia Loren.
That is what Leopoldo Torre Nilsson always said, that I reminded him of Sophia Loren. As an actress, my contemporaries were Sara Montiel of Spain, María Pérez of Mexico, Brigitte Bardot of France, and Gina Lollobrigida of Italy. They were my rivals.
You had a successful career as a model before turning to acting. How did it all begin?
I began working as a secretary at an advertising agency, and one day I had the opportunity to be part of a photo shoot. I started doing ads for ships like the Eva Perón, the Juan Perón, and the 17 de Octubre. They were not nude photos but graphic images for magazines and newspapers. I later represented aviation companies like Pan American Airlines, as well as food and beauty products. I did photo shoots for Argentina’s most important places, like the Hypodromo and the Colón Theatre.
Suddenly, I had so much work as a graphic model that I quit my job as a secretary. In 1955, I was elected Miss Argentina and went to Long Beach, California, for the Miss Universe contest. My mother came with me. It was a wonderful experience, but I was so nervous that despite having studied English for some time, when I arrived in the United States, I couldn’t understand a word! I was also very shy. I am shy even today, as a woman of a certain age. I am shy despite the kind of films I made. Armando Bó is the one to blame.
How did you meet Armando Bó, who was your husband as well as your frequent director, co-star, and business partner?
He saw several of the advertising campaigns I had done and he called me to star in Thunder Among the Leaves [El trueno entre las hojas, 56]. He said he wanted to make a different kind of film and sell it to foreign markets, including Latin America—at that time the Latin American market was dominated by Mexican cinema. At one point, he took me to see a Bergman film. The movie had a nude scene at the beach and he said he wanted to do something similar. I said, “A nude scene? No.” “Well, we can use a nude-colored swimsuit,” he responded.
Later, when we were shooting the film in the middle of the Paraguayan jungle, needless to say, there was no swimsuit. I made them keep the camera very far away. I didn’t know anything at the time. I wasn’t even aware of zoom lenses and things like that. When I watched the film at the premiere, it was a terrible shock. My mom found out thanks to a construction worker who had seen the film. She was furious! I had a pair of riding boots that I used to cross the river by horse, and she would hit me with them.
What was your first impression of Armando?
I liked him very much. My mother said, “Uy, be careful, because he is married!” Mothers are always protective, especially at that time! We were together till the day he died, at 3:15 a.m. on October 8, 1981. It is going to be 29 years soon. I loved, love, and will love him forever.
Did your mother ever get used to your films?
Yes, after several successes. I had to keep doing it. Armando used to tell me, “If you do not continue, people will be disappointed.” Then, when the films premiered, I appeared in Time and Life magazines on repeated occasions. It caused quite a stir! Argentine stars were not featured in American magazines at the time.
How did Argentine audiences react to the film?
It was a scandal! You have to consider the time period. It’s been more than 50 years! Thunder Among the Leaves premiered on October 2, 1958. It had the first nude scene in Argentine cinema.
We shot that film in the middle of the Paraguayan forest—a pretty inhospitable place during the summer, with excruciating heat! We did not have a fridge, so everything would always go bad. We spent Christmas of 1956 and even that New Year’s Eve there. It was terrible! Censorship in Argentina delayed the film’s release. In Paraguay, they didn’t want to release it because General Stroessner, who was in charge of the government at the time, said that human exploitation would not occur in his country. We had to add a legend, at the beginning of the film, stating that human exploitation was part of Paraguay’s past.
How would you describe Armando’s creative process?
He had wonderful collaborators. He wrote two films with Roa Bastos. Dalmiro Sáenz, who is very well known in Argentina, was one of the authors of The Female: Seventy Times Seven [Setenta veces siete, 62] and Intimacies of a Prostitute [Intimidades de una cualquiera, 72], which in Argentina was titled differently because censors would not allow the word “prostitute” to be used in a title. A lot of my films were based on real stories. Fever [Fiebre, 70], for example is based on the real story of a stable caretaker whose daughter would get excited looking at the horses. Armando would often find inspiration in real events and add beautiful landscapes and catchy music. He knew me very well and was familiar with what I was able to do, so he would sit at the typewriter and write very fast. He could write a script in a few hours.
When Armando died, I spent 15 years without working… I just wanted to die. I was really depressed. Then, in August of 1992, I had a brain hemorrhage. I was in a coma, and had to have surgery, which gave me a second chance. In 1995, I came back to film with The Lady Is Back [La dama regresa, 96], directed by Jorge Polaco.
What is your favorite film of those you starred in that was directed by Armando?
I really like one we shot in Paraguay, The Burrerita from Ypacarai [La burrerita de Ypacaraí, 62]. My mother liked it too since it is a mild film, sweet. The “burreritas” are women who ride donkeys or burros through the streets of Asunción selling their wares. The film also has several wonderful songs by the Paraguayan musician Luis Alberto del Paraná.
You and Armando did more than 25 films together. How would you describe working with him?
I would never have stayed with him for so long if we hadn’t had a great working relationship. Once I learned a little bit more about the technical aspect of film, we even discussed camera angles together. I liked the production part of filmmaking. I was very close with the whole crew; we were like one big family. Since I was a good typist, I would write their contracts and prepare their checks every weekend. Our collaboration grew and slowly, in time, Armando and I became equal partners, sharing 50 percent of everything. We were together for almost 26 years, traveling and premiering films… It was great!
At the time, was it uncommon for a director to give such recognition and authority to his female star?
Yes, that is true, but I had so many offers that he didn’t have much choice! I met Dino Risi in Czechoslovakia at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, and he offered me a role in an Italian film called Poor But Beautiful [Poveri ma belli, 57]. In 1962, I was offered a long contract, and then when La mujer de mi padre premiered in Los Angeles, I received a call from Metro… But I never wanted to leave.
What prevented you from taking those offers?
Look at the partner I had! I loved Armando very much. I never wanted to be far away and I didn’t want to leave my country, my animals, my plants…
You have done a handful of films with other directors over the course of your career.
Tinayre, Demare—the best Argentine directors offered me roles and I would always say “No, no, no.” Then, one of Armando’s partners said to me, “Since Armando is going to do a film about soccer, and there isn’t a role for you in that film, why don’t you shoot a film with me?” Armando had done the successful film Pelota de trapo  and was about to do Pelota de cuero . His partner gave me a list of three directors to choose from: Tynaire, Demare, and Torre Nilsson. I was a very good friend of Beatriz Guido, Torre Nilsson’s wife, and I chose Torre Nilsson. Together, we made The Female: Seventy Times Seven. In that film, I starred opposite Francisco Rabal, who was a big Spanish star at that time, and Jardel Filho, who was a big Brazilian star. They were the heartthrobs of Latin America!
People used to criticize Armando, saying that he was a pornographer who only cared about money, and that that was the only reason he included nude scenes in all his films. On the other hand, they said that Torre Nilsson was an artist; all his films ended up at the best film festivals. So I said, “Okay, I will do a film with Torre Nilsson, but I will not do a nude scene.”
Without the nude scenes, however, people complained! When they sold The Female: Seventy Times Seven in New York, they added nude scenes with a body double. Within one scene, the camera would go from a close up of my face to the body of another brunette who would do all kinds of nude scenes. When I saw the film I was mortified. If Armando hadn’t been with me, I would have jumped in front of a one of those big New York buses! I wanted to sue them, so we immediately sought the help of a lawyer. In the end, however, nothing happened; I had continued doing nude scenes, so they said the film hadn’t tarnished my good name. But overall, aside from the body double, I was happy with the film. It went on to represent Argentina at the Cannes Film Festival in 1962.
Both Armando and his son, Victor, starred opposite you in many films that Armando directed.
Armando used to say, “I am not the best actor, but I am the cheapest!” When Victor and I had to work together, we would get very nervous. In several cases, like the scene in Naked on the Sand [Desnuda en la arena, 69] where I am in a car and Victor has to caress my leg, the close-up of the hand you see was shot using Armando’s hands, instead of Victor’s. We used to do those takes. Whenever possible, we avoided nude scenes or contact between me and other actors. Armando did as much as possible himself. We shot Naked on the Sand in Panama at the time that General Torrijos was in power. He was the one who recovered the Panama Canal, and later died in a helicopter accident. What a beautiful country! Heartbreaking landscapes.
Making The Virgin Goddess [La diosa virgen, 73] in South Africa must have been very different from filming in Latin America.
Yes. It was made in 1973, during apartheid. I had black co-stars, like Ken Gampu, who was the leader of the tribe, who really knew both sides of the coin. He was treated like a king in Hollywood, but was unable to enter the lobby of a hotel in his own country to buy cigarettes. The Virgin Goddess was shot in English and was directed by Dirk DeVillieres because Armando didn’t know the language. I knew English well—all those years of studying at the British Cultural Institute paid off. Columbia Pictures wanted to continue doing English-language films, but I didn’t want to because Armando had a hard time seeing somebody else direct me.
Is it true that when making international versions of their films, Armando and Victor would recite the names of players on the Argentine soccer team instead of their lines?
Those were the kinds of crazy things Armando would do. He knew they were going to dub their dialogue anyway. When I go out for dinner with friends, which I don’t do that often, they always ask me to tell stories from my films. That is what you see in the documentary Flesh on Flesh [Carne sobre carne, 08]. I am at that stage where I am interested in telling those stories… I have so many that the director, Diego Curubeto, was unable to include them all!
I’ll give you the opportunity: would you tell a story about Flesh [Carne, 68]?
Flesh was a really violent film. The scene inside the truck was terrible. It was shot in Avellaneda, at a meat packing plant owned by Armando’s friend. He was also the one who told us the story of how women used to take a short cut through the railroad in order to get to work early in the morning. There, they were assaulted and raped. Once, a truck driver kidnapped a woman and pimped her out for money to his co-workers, and that became a scene in the film. It was hard to make, very violent. The rape scene at the meat packing plant was horrible. In the famous scene when I’m thrown down on a carcass of meat, a piece of fat fell off the hook on to my face, right near my lips. It was disgusting, but I had to stay still. It affected me a lot—to this day, I eat very little meat.
Tell me about Fire [Fuego, 69].
That was a steamy film! It had so many nude scenes. It was hard, but I did it anyway. Fire premiered in New York at the Rialto Theater on October 2, 1969. There were ads for the film in The Daily News and The New York Times, as well as full-page announcements in other American newspapers. The film was listed in Variety for weeks as a box-office hit. Columbia Pictures distributed the Spanish version of the film, but the English version was distributed by a man who most certainly stole from us. They said that we should have made a million dollars from that film. We went to a lawyer who investigated for a while, and then one day he said he was unable to do anything because the person distributing the film was in the Mafia. We never received a cent.
How did the recent documentary come about?
Diego Curubeto came to my house a few years ago with a group of British people from Channel 4 in London. They wanted to conduct an interview with me. So Diego walked around my house and saw cans of films in the garage, the office—everywhere! “What are all those film cans you have around?” he asked. “They are outtakes from my films, mostly cut by the censors, that Armando said we should keep because with time we were not only going to make one, but two films out of them.” Curubeto laughed and said, “Interesting.” That’s all. A few days later he called to tell me he had found a producer for a film.
Our documentary, Flesh on Flesh, focuses on the censorship and persecution our films were subjected to. We were harassed by the Triple A (Argentine Anticommunist Alliance). In the film, for instance, you can see the letter they sent threatening to kill me. They had left it at the Actors’ Association and it was brought to me by my make-up artist. It was scary. My mother and I couldn’t stop crying, we didn’t know what to do. “Let’s get a truck and escape to Paraguay with all of our pets!” we used to say. We were desperate. Armando went to see Isabel Perón looking for an answer, and then the Chief of Police sent us three soldiers. I have a big house, so I had three soldiers with weapons: one at the door, one in the garden, one in the dining room. A few weeks after that letter, we went to Venezuela for the premier of a film, but we came back. Armando and I didn’t want to go into exile. I’ve lived here since 1961. There are beautiful places, but none like my house and my land.
What does the future hold for Isabel Sarli?
I’ve just finished the title role in a new film, My Days With Gloria [Mis días con Gloria, 10] directed by Juan José Jusid. The film was shot in San Luis, and my daughter, Isabelita, makes her onscreen debut as a young lady in a very sexy scene. My Days with Gloria will premiere once the World Cup is over, and after that the documentary, Flesh On Flesh, will be in the theaters.
How has the treatment of your work by film critics changed over the years?
Critics made Armando and I suffer a lot at that time. Everything changed after he died. Today, film critics understand and value his work. They regard him as a man who was ahead of his time. Sometimes they compare him to Almódovar—although Almódovar is a contemporary filmmaker, and Armando did those crazy things so long ago! How long has it been since he directed those films? He has been dead for almost 30 years. At that time he was “the crazy man.” Now we have received several lifetime achievement awards and homages at festivals in France, Spain, and Guadalajara, Mexico.
Filmmaking has given you the chance to travel the world, your films with Armando were often shot on location.
Certainly! Armando directed films in Venezuela, Panama, Paraguay, Paris… In New York we shot on the terrace of the Hilton Hotel and on Broadway. We also shot in Merida, Mexico, which is a beautiful place. One of my first films was The Impure Goddess [La diosa impure, 63]. The scene where I die in that film was shot on a desolate beach in what is now Cancun. And as I mentioned, we also shot in South Africa, where I did The Virgin Goddess… 10 years after being “impure.”
Thanks to Livia Bloom