Widely seen as a Galician version of a Ken Loach film, Os fenómenos is engaging and intriguing with its ‘open’ ending. It isn’t the first Galician nod to Ken, that would be Mondays in the Sun (2002) with Javier Bardem as an unemployed shipbuilder, but with its ensemble cast of workers in the construction sector complete with ‘lump’ workers (i.e. the ‘undeclared’ workforce of migrants), its Chrissie Rock type of character played here by Lola Duenas and plenty of humour, it has many Loachian elements.
Duenas (best known for her roles for Almodóvar and in Alejandro Amenábar’s The Sea Inside) plays Neneta, abandoned by her partner Wolf and left to look after their infant son Roi on her own in Wolf’s improvised campervan. She returns to Galicia, makes peace with her mother (and babysitter) and gets a job on a building site. Cue many predictable jokes and badinage before she gains respect. The characters in the group of workers on the site are carefully written. There is an element of class distinction (Neneta completed a degree before she opted out of a bourgeois lifestyle). One of the workers is a religious young man with a family whereas others have been attracted to the good money builders can earn in boom time. Once she is accepted, Neneta’s world gets brighter, including her love life. But all this is prior to 2008 and the collapse of the Spanish economy, caused in part by speculative building projects. All of the workers are headed for trouble.
The reaction to the crash is the political test of the film and this is where it departs from the Loachian model and the other films of French/Belgian/British ‘social realism’. There seems to be an almost calm acceptance that it is all over – a willingness to simply walk away and try something else. Resignation rather than anger? Is this what is happening in Spain?
The film’s title also points to a political issue. It translates as ‘Aces’ – the term given by the building company owner to the workers who complete the most jobs each month. This piecework payment is divisive and largely corrupt. Neneta is smart enough to work out how to play the system but alongside the distinction between ‘declared’ and ‘undeclared’ payments it perpetuates discrimination just like the ‘lump’ system (labourer’s paid cash in hand without contracts) in the UK. There didn’t seem to be any discussion of unions in the film – perhaps that’s the point about the greed of bosses and some workers?
Os fenómenos is a film with many strong points from writing and direction by Alfonso Zarauza and Jaione Camborda through to cinematography and casting/performance. It’s interesting too in its focus on a working mother and there are key aspects of the narrative that focus on her personal life and how this interconnects with her success at work. Through the other workers we also get some sense about what unemployment might mean to different people. The film has been warmly praised and audiences clearly like it. I did think though that Neneta learned her building craft skills very quickly and I feel frustrated by the lack of anger in the film. Perhaps it’s just me – there has been a similar ‘acceptance’ of unnecessary cuts and austerity policies in the UK. Perhaps Greece will show us the way? Certainly we need more politically-focused films. I enjoyed Os fenómenos and I would recommend it, but I would have liked more anger.