This is one of the best documentaries I have seen for a long time. It tells a fascinating story about an art form and cultural practice I didn’t know about before, it features interesting and engaging individuals, it’s carefully structured and well directed – and it looks wonderful. Add in the photogenic possibilities of the Basque country and this is a winner in every regard. I saw this as second out of four films at ¡Viva! and at the start of the next screening I noticed that the montage of clips that makes up the festival’s promo reel contains a disproportionate number of clips taken from Bertsolari – I quite understand why the editor of the promo felt compelled to include so many.
A bertso is a sung poem improvised around a given topic. The singers are bertsolari and the art form itself is bertsolaritza. These are all Basque words in the Basque language Euskara. As part of an oral performance art tradition, bertsolaritza was first established in rural areas where the population might have been illiterate and oral traditions were very important. From the 19th century onwards the form began to be more formally organised and moved into urban areas. With the suppression of Basque culture from the late 19th century up until the end of the Franco period in the 1970s, bertsolaritza began to be seen as virtually the only channel for the expression of Basque ideas and values – as a form based entirely on ‘performing’ in the Basque language it was more difficult for the Spanish metropolitan forces to control.
National competitions for bertsolari began as early as the 1930s but really took off in a major way in 1980 with audiences of 10,000 and more for the championships. Bertsolari the documentary focuses on the 2009 championship final held at the Bilbao Exhibition Centre in front of 15,000 people. It uses the winner of the previous four contests, Andoni Egaña Makazaga, as a guide. He takes us through the art of bertsolaritza, illustrating how he manages to compartmentalise his brain and to store rhymes so that whatever the subject he is given he can methodically go through the possible bertsos he could construct. The film’s director, Asier Altuna foregrounds the professional relationship between Andoni and the leading female bertsolari Maialen Lujanbio as they prepare for the championship. This is a competition without clashing egos. The competitors know each other well and they respect and support each other. I don’t think that the outcome of the contest will surprise anybody – but it’s still a moving occasion.
Altuna has several other strands alongside the build-up to the championship. His camera ranges across the region and finds several arresting images including one of a group of people sitting in chairs on the beach as the tide sweeps in amongst them. In another a young woman strides, seemingly unconcerned along the edge of a precipice. These seem to be symbols for the unnerving tasks facing the bertsolari when they are given some very demanding topics around which to improvise a poem/song. Did I mention how beautifully they sing as well? Another strand running through the film tells us about the history of bertsolitza and about how it is still developing with the addition of musical accompaniment for some performers. An American academic, John Miles Folley offers us an anthropologist’s view of bertsolitza as an oral performance tradition and relates it to other similar traditions and to modern forms like hip-hop/rap. But he points out that nothing compares to bertsolitza in terms of attracting such large knowledgeable and diverse audiences – of all ages, men and women.
I do hope that some enterprising distributor picks up this film for UK cinemas or TV. I’m so glad to have got the opportunity to see it at ¡Viva!
Long clip on Vimeo:
Here’s a short (83 mins) and entertaining comedy with some intelligence. It’s written by Ionathan Klajman and directed by the writer with Sebastian Dietsch – both on their feature debuts. You do wonder if the two men have a relationship like the two characters in the film, Joaquin (Pablo G. Pérez) and David (Gabriel Zayat) – two teenagers who grow up to be thirty-somethings with marriage problems. In several ways this is rather like a New York Jewish comedy. Joaquin is revealed to be from what was once a Jewish immigrant family but I didn’t notice if we learned about David’s family. Wikipedia tells me that Argentina has the biggest Jewish population in Latin America so perhaps the possible cultural identity of the comedy isn’t so surprising.
Joaquin has been divorced by his wife after only a couple of years and his parents offer him a ‘mini-break’ won by his father in the lottery. For various reasons he ends up on holiday with David who he hasn’t seen for some time. David is still married but clearly having a difficult time. He and Joaquin bicker and get into silly schoolboy squabbles but everything changes when the pair bump into one of Joaquin’s ex-girlfriends at the beach resort of Mar del Plata. Elena is now married to a successful novelist who immediately sets off David’s critical response mechanisms. (David is presented as a ‘failed writer’ and the rather pompous Lautaro is like a red rag to a bull.) This is the twist moment in the narrative and I found the latter section of the film more amusing than the embarrassing pranks David and Joaquin played on each other earlier.
Overall this film proved to be a pleasant way to spend time and, as a ‘bromance’, generally more fun than contemporary Hollywood comedies. But I suspect that it is not ‘different’ enough to attract a UK distributor.
Vimeo Trailer posted by the DoP (the film uses quite a lot of music tracks):
The broad genre category of horror/science fiction/fantasy has long been popular in Spain and this latest example is a CGI-heavy CinemaScope dystopian narrative set in Barcelona after a mysterious virus associated with agoraphobia has killed most of the population caught outside their homes. This basic premise is perhaps the major weakness in what is otherwise a well-mounted and entertaining narrative. Simply being outside a building seems to bring on all kinds of physical afflictions (bleeding from the ears, frothing at the mouth, heart attacks etc.). The ‘virus’ is never really explained, except that a volcanic eruption is said to be a trigger. Otherwise people seem to be dying from mass hysteria. In one sense it doesn’t really matter – this is a classic survival/rescue story. A computer coder, Marc, is desperate to find his partner Julia who he thinks was at home in their apartment when the crisis began. Circumstances mean that he must share his quest with Enrique, the HR executive who has been sent into the company to ‘reduce staffing levels’.
The prohibition about ‘going outside’ means that the characters are forced to travel along subways and sewers, attempting to navigate precisely to ‘come up’ inside buildings. A working satnav becomes a highly-prized tool and Marc and Enrique meet the usual gangs of thugs who control food stores and who maraud along the subways. Most of the action is familiar from other films using the same repertoire. Several scenes reminded me of Havana as seen in Juan of the Dead (Cuba-Spain 2011) and aerial shots of Barcelona’s boulevards reminded me of the empty Madrid streets in Alejandro Amenábar’s Abre los ojos (Spain 1997). Underground we could be anywhere and my favourite scene (thought to be the silliest by one reviewer) is set in a church where the pair have a confrontation with an unlikely opponent. I always find church scenes in Spanish films to be intriguing. When I came out of the screening I heard one audience member explaining that Enrique was a Christ figure in the narrative. He had a point.
IMDB gives a budget estimate of 5€ million. If that is correct it is an efficient job by the two directors Àlex and David Pastor. The film doesn’t just attempt to offer constant eye-catching action but spends time on character development. They offer us an entertaining genre film with an ending that made me think of manga/anime stories. It isn’t very original but it works well in this film. The two central performances by Quim Gutiérrez as Marc and José Coronado as Enrique carry the film. I’m not sure if it is significant that one of the pair of actors is from Barcelona and one from Madrid but the film is in Castilian Spanish with only the occasional word of Catalan (some of it not subtitled I think, but some dialogue given as “spoken in Catalan). The film does appear to have got a UK DVD release from Metrodome so if you like this kind of film do look out for it.
One of the treats of the ¡Viva! festival is the chance to see classic archive films from Spain or Latin America. This year the classic (shown again on a Wednesday matinee on 19 March) is the first film by Carlos Saura and a key title in Spanish film history. As the title implies, the story is about a group of young men from what appears like a shanty town on the outskirts of Madrid. The group survives manly through forms of petty theft. One young man is ‘legitimate’ and works at a fruit and veg market. He also has hopes of becoming a bullfighter at Madrid’s central bullring. The plot of the film traces his attempts to get to compete in the ring with the rest of the group trying to raise the money for his entry fees and costumes etc. through various scams and robberies.
Presented in black and white and Academy ratio on a battered but serviceable film print from Contemporary Films (it’s a very long time since I’ve seen that logo) the film seems pitched between Italian neo-realism of the late 1940s/early 50s and the French New Wave of the late 1950s/early 60s. One scene almost matched one I watched last year in Rossellini’s Europa 51, set in a similar community on the outskirts of Rome. But as Rob Stone notes in his Spanish Cinema book, the film “avoids the manipulative search for poignancy that characterises many of the Italian films” (Stone 2002:63). Made with few resources and using non-professional actors in several roles, Saura created a film from open-ended sequences with improvised action. Stone links the film to Spanish literary traditions of “low-life realism”. Núria Triana-Toribio (2003) places the film as a significant entry in the NCE (new cinema of Spain – Nuevo Cine Español) of the period.
The young men (and their mothers and girlfriends – older men are less in evidence in these families) are marginalised and excluded. Their fate is clear in this representation of Spain as a country some 10 years behind Italy and France in terms of economic and social development. Filmmakers in Spain in 159-60 still faced the full force of censorship and restrictions under Franco. Saura was forced to remove footage and dialogue that specifically pointed to the failures of his policies. Even so, the film’s release in Spain was held up. However it somehow reached Cannes where its merits were appreciated and where Saura met Luis Buñuel who he would help to return to Spain for the latter’s Viridiana and another row about bans and censorship. Saura himself went on to make a more carefully disguised critique of Franco’s Spain with La caza (The Hunt) in 1965 which we discussed after a previous ¡Viva! festival screening. What would be good now is to have a complete retrospective of Saura’s work – but we seem to have lost those opportunities for repertory screenings in proper seasons. I hope that ¡Viva! can bring us more examples in future festivals.
Stone, Rob (2002) Spanish Cinema, Harlow: Longman Pearson
Triana-Toribio, Núria (2003) Spanish National Cinema, London: Routledge