Gone are the days when Spanish cinema was recognised outside Spain by Luis Buñuel but since at least the end of the last century, Spanish directors such as Fernando Trueba, David Trueba, Icíar Bollaín, Isabel Croixet, Alex de las Iglesias, Carlos Menem and Julio Medem are known and respected internationally – not to mention the ubiquitous Pedro Almodóvar. And not just directors: actors such as Penelope Cruz, Antonio Banderas, and Javier Bardem have an international appeal. But still there are excellent Spanish films which are largely overlooked outside Spain beyond the festival circuit and Cerca de tu casa is one such film.
The film reflects the social climate of Spain in the 2000s. Spain suffered enormously from the economic crisis which began in the early years of this century and which led to massive opposition, especially among the youth (the ‘indignados‘), and led, indirectly, to a new political party, Podemos, which is now the junior partner in the current Spanish government. As well as large-scale unemployment, one of the effects of the crisis was large-scale eviction of people who could not pay their mortgages. Unemployment is bad enough but eviction can be one step from living on the street. The starting point of the film is an eviction which establishes the tone for the film as a whole. It is in a sense a militant film but not a crudely propagandistic one.
The film is set in Barcelona but it could be any large urban centre in the Spanish state. It tells the story of Sonia (Silvia Perez Cruz), a woman of around 30 who loses her job, as does her husband Dani (Ivan Massagué). Unable to pay the mortgage and with a 10-year-old daughter, Andrea, to care for, they decide to live with Sonia’s parents, Mercedes (Adriana Ozores) and Martín (Miguel Morón). It’s not an ideal situation, especially as Dani doesn’t get along with his mother-in-law who never misses the opportunity to humiliate him about his situation. Dani has had enough and leaves to live in the van from which he sells smoke alarms, his only source of income. Sonia feels obliged to stay for the sake of their daughter. Like her husband she also joins the ‘precariat’, people without steady employment, scraping a living by doing small jobs where they can find them. Sonia has a job as a cleaner with a German couple who have a flat in Barcelona so her job is limited to once a week after the couple have to go back to Germany.
However, Sonia and Dani’s situation worsens catastrophically. The bank is determined to force the couple to pay their debt and even threatens to seize Sonia’s parents’ house; they had given their flat as collateral for Sonia and Dani’s flat. Pablo (Oriol Vila), is an employee of the bank, a schoolfriend of Sonia, and a typical ‘caught in the middle’ character, torn by his feelings for the victims of the crisis and the relentless demands of the bank, represented by the stern branch manager (Victoria Pages). Another such ‘caught in the middle’ character is Jaime, (Ivan Benet) the policeman who feels guilt at the actions he is having to carry out. As for the situation regarding Sonia’s parents’ flat as collateral, Martin admits to Sonia that Mercedes is completely unaware of this arrangement.
As is often the case when people think their situation can’t get any worse, someone arrives to take advantage of their situation, a ‘lawyer’ who offers to help out with the legalities of the situation but needs a sum of money to ensure the services of a barrister to plead her case in court. In order to get the money for his daughter’s legal expenses,(which, of course she never sees again), Martin attempts to steal it from the till in the garage/petrol station where he works for Tomás, (Lluis Tomar) but Tomás catches him in the act. Fortunately, he is a compassionate man and rather than sack him, he hears Martin’s story and persuades him to admit everything to Mercedes. The situation is pushing Sonia to the brink, while Mercedes is cocooned in her own self-righteousness and disappointment and Martin in his feelings of failure and despair.
In terms of genre, Cerca de tu casa is a hybrid of social drama and musical, a sort of cross between Ken Loach and Jacques Demy. I come across people who can’t accept that serious social issues can be dealt with in a musical. Perhaps it was in deference to this sentiment that director, Eduard Cortés, stated: “I want to underscore that this is not a musical, it’s a song-punctuated drama”. Which I think is a pretty accurate definition of the musical. One of the problems that have to be solved in a (non-backstage) musical is to avoid over-jarring transitions from dialogue to song and back again, and the film deals with it admirably. The pre-title sequence takes care of itself as there is nothing to transition with. The camera wanders throughout the city, introducing us to the main characters and locations, ending with the police enforcing an eviction. It is accompanied by melancholic song (‘Dermete’/’Sleep’) sung by a homeless man who occasionally plays the role of chorus, and is accompanied in counterpoint by Perez Cruz’s voice in and the plaintive chords of a cello.
A later song, ‘Reina de la morería/Queen of the Moorish Lands‘ uses the same technique described by Rick Altman in his 1987 seminal study, The American Film Musical. He refers to a scene in an Elvis Presley film, Blue Hawaii (1961) which transcends the diegetic/non-diegetic dichotomy. Elvis opens a music box and sings ‘I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You’. The music box and Elvis are joined by full orchestra which drowns out the music box, and a large chorus is added. The process moves into reverse as the song comes to an end, with the music box again on its own. We have gone from the diegetic sound of the music box and the human voice to a non-diegetic place ”beyond language, beyond space, beyond time.” (p. 66) In Cerca de tu casa, the song starts with Andrea playing a tune on a cheap hurdy-gurdy. Sonia starts to sing and her daughter joins in. Then it is picked up and extended into that ‘neither diegetic nor non-diegetic’ space. We cut to Mercedes and her friends from the laundry where she works leaving the bar after a night out, their laughter merging with the musical soundtrack and Mercedes, now alone, joins the song which becomes a melancholic soliloquy as she reflects on her feelings about the current dilemma she finds herself in.
Another use of music and song is worth mentioning. Perez Cruz has done most of the vocal heavy lifting in the film up to this point but there is a sequence when her voice is absent and the song is relayed like a baton, from character to character. Tomás has persuaded Martín to tell Mercedes the predicament they are in. He drives him to the laundry where Mercedes’ works and observes from distance the painful scene between the couple. His song expresses values of solidarity and compassion, how people can become side-lined before they find their way. The baton is passed Tomás and the homeless man, then to Pablo, to Dani, and to Jaime. The sequence ends with the disconsolate couple going back home in the rain, giving Martín the last few lines. Unless it is over-used, the use of actors who are not singers but can hold a tune can be very effective.
The penultimate number was a song and dance (choreographed by Sol Picó). Sonia is at her lowest ebb and has a complete emotional breakdown. She goes into the Metro station and onto the platform, a location often associated with suicidal despair. Random strangers, anxious about her state, approach her, pick her up, metaphorically and literally, as it segues into a ballet. A modernist dance sequence might face more resistance from members of the audience already sceptical about the music but for me, it conveyed very well the emotional state of the character at this point in the film.
The film had a very modest initial budget of €1.5 million (for five weeks shooting), supplemented by the usual sources – municipal and arts body grants and some TV money -but also crowdfunding. The director and production team had already been involved with anti-eviction activists and the crowdfunding came largely from this. The payment of cast and crew was a mixture of part-paid and part deferred, and some ‘sweat equity’, that is, instead of taking a fee it becomes an investment in the film. Budgetary issues were no doubt responsible for the fact that a potentially important narrative strand involving the policeman, Jaime, was not fully developed. He takes part in the eviction at the beginning of the film and feels guilty at his role in the misery inflicted on people by his actions. Significantly he is absent at the next eviction.
Understandably there are no stars in the film and I only recognised two of the actors. The first is Iván Massagué (Dani) who played an anti-fascist guerrilla tortured to death in El laberinto del fauno/Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006). The other is Lluis Homar, who played the protagonist of Almodóvar’s 2009 film, Los abrazos rotos/ Broken Embraces, and was awarded Best Supporting Actor at the Goyas. The fact that he played a secondary role in a low-budget film suggests that he was expressing his support for a worthy project, social as well as cinematic. I was aware of Silvia Perez Cruz, who plays Sonia, as a singer/composer and she was awarded the Goya for Best Original Song (and incidentally, wrote the music for the animated film, Josep, reviewed on this blog recently by Roy Stafford). It was as singer/composer that she was hired initially but director Eduard Cortés was convinced, by the way she interpreted her songs, that she could act, and the gamble paid off handsomely. Another outstanding performance is by Adriana Ozores in the role of Mercedes, not a particularly easy part to play. She is shown as a strong woman, for example, putting the foreman in the laundry where she works in his place, but she can be harsh and unforgiving. Her main concern is that the neighbours, other people, could become aware of the family’s problems. Her attitude comes close to causing a permanent breach with her daughter.
Here’s a trailer – sorry no subtitles:
Information about the film from Gregorio Balinchón, El País, 16 FEB 2015: “Los desahucios, un drama de cine” and the Making Of video.
Available in the UK on DVD.