!Viva¡ #3: El árbol (Spain/Mexico 2009)

Santiago who roams Madrid in El árbol

My third 70 mins feature during !Viva¡ turned out to be the least interesting, despite featuring a producer’s credit from Mexican auteur Carlos Reygadas and being promoted in some quarters as similar to the Dardenne Brothers or even Tsai Ming-Liang (see this quite positive review that appeared after a Leeds Film Festival screening with director Carlos Serrano Azcona in tow in 2009). This time round the film featured in the Instituto Cervantes’ ‘Cine en construcción’ strand. Santiago wanders fitfully around Madrid. He appears to be separated from his wife and is prevented by legal constraints from seeing his children (but he does try). This information is revealed to us over the course of the film and Azcona expects us to ‘work out’ what is happening. Santiago is fired from a bar job originally given to him by an old friend. He plays football with some youths, buys dope from a dealer, is propositioned by a prostitute and takes home a young woman who is being abused by a British tourist/student. At least it might be his home, but I’m not sure – twice he sleeps rough on a bench in a city street. That’s about as much plot as there is – apart from the ending which I won’t ‘spoil’. I think I might have dozed off and missed the ‘tree’ of the title. In an interview, Azcona makes some interesting comments about the Dardenne Brothers’ work, but what he says he was attempting didn’t work for me.

The strategy is to follow the character closely with the camera – showing the back of his neck as the weakest point. But although I have found this illuminating in the Dardenne Brothers’ work, it usually requires a character who is interesting in a situation with some dramatic interest, neither of which I found here. All the actors here are non-professionals, which could have worked well if they had been given a bit more to do. Santiago is played by the Mexican painter Bosco Sodi who is quite believable but doesn’t command the screen. All in all, a disappointment after El asaltante last week with a similar aesthetic, but (much) more dramatic content.

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