This was another LFF film that I admired more than enjoyed. Writer-director Syllas Tzoumerkas was in attendance and he is as dynamic and aggressive as his film. (There is also a co-writer Youla Boudali working on her second film with Tzoumerkas.) Given the terrible state of his country’s economy and the effects of the crash on all Greeks he has every right to be so and to deliver a film that lives up to its title.
The focus of the film is what the director described as a ‘lower middle-class’ family living somewhere on the coast. They own and run a grocery store and possibly own some land and another small property as well as living over the shop. The central character is Maria (Angeliki Papoulia) the dynamic member of the family. We see her as a young woman eager to go to university and then later as a mother of three small children and married to a handsome ship’s captain, Yannis. The narrative constantly shifts between flashbacks and the present until the last section which becomes a form of chase/escape. This structure is deliberate in trying to convey the social turmoil of the country. Maria and Yannis have a tempestuous relationship which is matched by the problems in her family. Mother runs the shop from her wheelchair and father seems ineffective. Maria’s sister Gogo has learning difficulties and her parents are relieved to marry her to Costas who works in the local waste disposal depot. This marriage also has problems as Costas is an abusive husband.
I think the film is distinctive in a number of ways. Maria is certainly a compelling character. Here is an intelligent attractive woman who has a passionate relationship with her husband and for whom separation is difficult. There is a great deal of overt sexual activity of all kinds in the film but arguably the most arresting sequence is when Maria, at a very low ebb and with Yannis at sea, goes into a computer room in some form of community centre and begins to search porn sites. I didn’t quite understand the scene but she seems to be searching for a specific category of hard porn – something she did with Yannis? The men at the other terminals all turn to stare at her as she watches the screen intently. Maria can also be extremely violent, both verbally and physically. As a representation of an intelligent woman put under enormous pressure this could be a very interesting case study for film and media students. Yannis is beautiful and seemingly calm. The press notes and interviews suggest that Yannis is rather an exotic creature for Maria’s family – more middle class perhaps? He has surprising liaisons during his trips away but still seems to be in love with Maria.
Apart from Maria as a character, the film is also distinctive in its layering of the complexity of the consequences of the economic crash. Businesses go under, families break up, criminal activity expands, government agencies can’t cope, ecological damage and destruction increases – the plot includes elements of all of these and presents them in a broken narrative in which the incoherence eventually leads to the final chase. Maria is determined to throw away whatever she has as a scream of anguish about the state of her life and the situation she finds herself in. The visual style of the film matches the urgency of the narrative with hand-held camerawork, swift tracking shots and a suitably raucous soundtrack (see the trailer below).
The film reminded me a little of other recent Greek films such as Dogtooth (2009), not so much in style or content but in its ‘edginess’ and confrontation. I haven’t seen any evidence of distribution deals for the UK/US but I think the film needs to be widely seen. (Although I suggest a tweak of the title. I take ‘a blast’ to be a description of a great experience – “We had a blast” – I don’t think that is the intended meaning here.) One review makes the point that this ‘blast’ is refreshingly different from the social realist drama the subject matter suggests.
Google translates the Italian title of this film as ‘Our Boys’ – which is confusing because it appears to refer to the original novel by the Dutch writer Herman Koch. For this Italian adaptation writer-director Ivano de Matteo and his co-writer Valentina Ferlan have changed aspects of the novel’s narrative including two of the central characters, making them a boy and girl rather than two boys. The various changes (there are more) are intended to make the moral question at the heart of the narrative even more compelling.
The ‘dinner’ is a regular event in which a wealthy lawyer and his second wife entertain the lawyer’s brother, a paediatrician, and his gallery ‘explainer’ wife. It is always the same expensive restaurant and the relationship between the brothers is testy at best. The doctor is critical of his brother who he thinks has too much money and has married a ‘bimbo’. This latter is rather unfair and the film is suffused with a sense of a critique about the haute bourgouisie in Rome. The central part of the narrative refers to a dangerous and reprehensible action involving the lawyer’s daughter and the doctor’s son who are on their way home from a party. I won’t spoil what they did. The fallout is that the two sets of parents have to decide what to do and in what follows most audiences are going to be surprised by the actions that the parents take – which is unexpected, not just in terms of what they do but also in terms of who does what. The denouement takes place at the next dinner when the two couples are together again. The actions they take are also compared to an incident which takes place at the start of the film. This sees a case of road rage in which an off-duty policeman pulls a gun when he is threatened with a jack and shoots the assailant dead, also wounding the man’s son. The lawyer brother then defends the policeman and the doctor looks after the injured child.
You probably get the impression that this is a contrived narrative and that is precisely right according to the director who answered questions in the Q & A alongside Jacopo Olmo Antinori, the young actor playing the lawyer’s son (who also played a disaffected teenager in Bertolucci’s Me and You which I saw at the Bradford Film Festival in 2013). One member of the audience said that he was profoundly shocked by the ending of the film. I’m not so sure. I certainly noticed the ending but I’d got a little irritable by then because the interplay between the brothers did indeed seem contrived – loaded one way so that it could be flipped. Ivano de Matteo was an engaging aggressive character in the Q & A and he is clearly a talented director. The film won the prize for ‘Best European Feature’ awarded by the Europa Cinemas Network after its Venice festival screening which means it will get support for distribution in Europe. It has also been acquired for North America. A Dutch adaptation has already been released and a Cate Blanchett adaptation is also expected.
I thought the film was well made and the performances were good. It is an interesting moral dilemma but I did feel I was being manipulated. That may not be a bad thing if my liberal views are being challenged, but I didn’t enjoy the film so much because of the approach the director takes. I’m grateful to the ‘Den of Geek’ review of the film which points out that What Richard Did and We Need to Talk About Kevin cover much of the same ground much more cogently and more effectively.
The highlight of BIFF 2014 for me was the retrospective of films directed by Nomura Yoshitaro. Five films, all adapted from published stories by the celebrated crime fiction writer Matsumoto Seicho, were screened ranging from Stakeout (Japan 1958) to The Demon (1978). Festival director Tom Vincent worked with Nomura’s studio Shochiku and its international representative Chiaki Omori to bring prints to the UK with the assistance of the Japan Foundation, Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation and the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation. The five prints will also be screened in London at the ICA from 18 April.
I’ve blogged on each of the five films on our sister blog: http://globalfilmstudies.com/tag/nomura-yoshitaro/
Pablo Llorca, the writer-director of A Bouquet of Cactus clearly believes in ‘independence’ as a principle of filmmaking. Unlike the majority of filmmakers who hope to gradually increase their budgets as they raise their profile, he appears to want to avoid any compromises with funders and intrusive producers. He has been making shorts and features since 1989 and this recent release surfaced at the Seville European Film Festival in 2013. It’s in Bradford as part of the European features competition. I found it an enjoyable film to watch but I think it would probably find a bigger audience with just a little extra money to smooth off the rough edges. Pablo Llorca would probably not accept the need to do this or the interference it might bring.
A Bouquet of Cactus is part family melodrama, part comedy drama and part political satire. It may be very close to Latin American telenovelas – and its rough aesthetic at times resembles TV shooting. The film opens with what appears to be Super 8 footage of a live birth before switching to bright HDTV images (?). The new arrival is ‘Miguel’ and we gradually learn that the protagonist of the film will be Miguel’s grandfather Alfonso, now estranged from his son and family and most importantly from his wealthy brother Gerardo. Alfonso has a small patch of land which he operates as a ‘market garden’ for the local town. Later we realise that Alfonso and his neighbours are being pushed off their land by a property development company in which Gerardo is involved. Alfonso is one of the last to sell and he makes a deal with Gerardo to acquire a new plot near his old family home. In addition he demands that Gerardo does not interfere with Miguel’s education. Alfonso himself has plans to show the boy the ‘real’ education that can be learned from the land. The narrative then leaps forward several years to depict Alfonso’s new life and the struggle over Miguel’s education. Although Miguel enjoys visiting his grandfather he also likes his new iPod and wants to visit Disneyland Paris.
I won’t give away the ending but I do want to point to the way that the political is intertwined with the personal. One device is to show Alfonso in a local bar on two different occasions, several years apart. The first time he rails against all politicians. The second time he seems too cynical to react to the TV news and has almost withdrawn to the ‘better past’ of a communal rural life. He is a cultured man who has decided that he needs to retreat from the material world. There are other references to the ills of Spanish society (youth unemployment etc.). I think that Llorca tries to show Alfonso as an organic horticulturalist but I’m not sure that the term means the same in Spain as in the UK (there are mentions of bags of fertiliser at one point and he tells his grandson they should burn weeds – where’s the compost bin?). Nevertheless there is an attempt to sketch out alternative economics and lifestyles.
The rough edges I referred to include the sound mix with its various levels and the occasional rough visual edits. I’m guessing that this is simply a matter of not enough time/budget. The script seems to suffer from rushed transitions towards the end of the film. Perhaps there is more to debate about the ‘realism effect’. Llorca doesn’t bother about the fact that the story jumps forwards by around 8 or 9 years but Alfonso looks no older and he still drives the same shiny car. I guess it doesn’t matter but a little make-up and borrowing a few old cars wouldn’t have meant too much outlay.
This is an affecting film and if I had a grandchild I’d probably be very like Alfonso.