My final post from ¡Viva! 28 is another début feature, another film made by a creative team led by women in key roles – and it’s a cracker, one of the best films I’ve seen this year. Writer-director Nathalie Álvarez Mesén was born in Sweden. Her mother is from Costa Rica and her father from Uruguay. Nathalie went to Costa Rica as a child and returned to Sweden to go to university. (See this interview on Cineuropa) She has benefited from various film festival projects because her short films attracted critical attention. Clara Sola screened in the Director’s Fortnight programme at Cannes in 2021. I’m not sure I have seen a Costa Rican film before. I know little about the country, only that it has a reputation as a stable democracy, with good education and healthcare and has become known for eco-tourism.
Clara Sola is a narrative in which a woman has been recognised in a small, tight-knit community as having powers which bring her close to the Virgin Mary. It is believed that she can heal the sick and she becomes an important figure in religious festivals and community events. In such cases the woman is usually young and in danger of being exploited. In this case, however, Clara is older at around 40 and appears to have some form of social difficulty, perhaps she is somewhere on the autistic spectrum? She is under the control of her mother, Fresia, who she lives with alongside her niece in a house in the wooded mountains. The three women also have relatives in the nearest village. The narrative disruption which allows the development of a dramatic situation is linked to Clara’s niece Maria who is approaching her fifteenth birthday or quinceañera, a festival occasion which marks the transition from girlhood to womanhood. Maria’s excitement is heightened by the presence of Santiago a young man who comes on most days to hire the white mare Yuca, needed as part of tourist activities in the mountains. Clara has a close attachment to Yuca and to the local flora and fauna in general. She is therefore unhappy that Yuca is taken away, but she too is interested in Santiago, an attractive young man who befriends her and teaches her new things.
Maria’s emergence into a sexual being and her growing friendship with Santiago are followed by Clara who is slowly awakened to her own sexuality – something her controlling mother has always been anxious to curtail. Fresia goes as far as denying Clara an operation to correct a spinal deformity that affects Clara’s posture and her gait. She wants Clara kept ‘pure’, just as she was delivered by God. There is one scene involving chilli juice which will cause a wince or two for anyone familiar with preparing and cooking chillies, ouch! This is a film with not much in the way of ‘back stories’ so the audience is required to take the situation as it stands instead of wondering why this is happening to Clara now rather than twenty or more years earlier. But perhaps Clara’s late ‘awakening’ signifies her mother’s fierce control developed by a conservative religious belief?
Natalie Álvarez Mesén and her co-writer María Camila Arias (who is Colombian and co-wrote Birds of Passage, Colombia 2018) screened in ¡Viva! 25) mix several approaches to create a distinctive style. In several ways the narrative might appear to be heading for melodrama territory and the ‘return of the repressed’ as Clara begins to discover her sexuality. Instead, however, the narrative conclusion is reached almost as a calm revelation, involving magic realism. I found the ending was appropriate and somehow very satisfying.
The ideas in the script work because of the performances by the principals, all of whom are non-professionals as far as I am aware. Wendy Chinchilla Araya who plays Clara is a dancer. She must have used her knowledge of her body and control over her movements to create the awkward walk of the character. Daniel Castañeda Rincón as Santiago conveys the remarkably patient and sensitive young man very well and both Ana Julia Porras Espinoza as Maria and Flor María Vargas Chavez as Fresia are impressive. Performances by non-professionals require careful direction and this feels like a very assured début film. It is enhanced by the camerawork of Sophie Winqvist who is able to use big close-ups and beautiful long shot compositions in a CinemaScope ratio to place Clara in her environment and close to the flora and fauna she feels part of – she knows the secret names of animals. I think that the credits suggest that much of the footage was shot in the Monteverde region of Costa Rica, a region that includes the ‘Cloud Rainforest’. Beware, you’ll probably want to visit Costa Rica after watching the film.
The good news is that Clara Sola is coming to the UK, having been acquired by Peccadillo Pictures with a possible release date of September 2022. I heartily recommend it. Do try to see it on a big screen if you can.
One of the pleasures of ¡Viva! over the years has been the inclusion of archive prints which give UK festival audiences the chance to see significant Spanish titles and learn something of the history of Spanish cinema. This year’s offering was two films by Luis García Berlanga (1921-2010) whose career as a writer and director began in the late 1940s and ended with a short film in 2002. Berlanga was known for a series of comedies, at first together with Juan Antonio Bardem and later with the writer Rafael Azcona. Two of his films, Esa pareja feliz (The Happy Couple, 1953) and El verdugo (The Executioner, 1963) are discussed on this blog. The comedies take various approaches from satire through to comedy dramas. Patrimonio nacional is the second film in a trilogy of farces that Berlanga directed, starting with La escopeta nacional in 1978 and finishing with a sequel to Patrimonio nacional, titled Nacional III in 1982. Franco died in 1975 and Berlanga was one of the first directors to to create a commentary on the post-Franco period. Previously, his films had been constructed to appear as comedies about ‘ordinary people’ that might evade Francoist censorship. Now he focused on the aristocracy and how they might fare in newly democratic Spain.
The three films focus on the family of the ‘Marqués de Leguineche’ (Luis Escobar). The marqués has spent the Franco years in exile from the court on his farm 50 miles outside Madrid. Now he wishes to return with the re-establishment of the monarchy in the form of Juan Carlos during the ‘Period of Transition’. The marqués is faced with several problems. His wife Eugenia (Mary Santpere) has remained in the Madrid mansion throughout the Franco period with her faithful manservant Goyo (José Ruiz Lifante). She has allowed most of the great house to deteriorate and is not happy to see her returning husband. He is saddled with a useless son Segundo and his warring wife Chus. The fate of the Spanish aristocracy in the late 1970s was not dissimilar to that of the British aristos ten or twenty years earlier – there is no money to refurbish the house and no interest, or sympathy, from the general population which is attracted by the possibilities of capitalist expansion and consumerism as Spain opens up to the world.
Besides the money needed to restore the great house, it transpires that neither the marqués or his wife have paid any taxes since 1931, when the Republic was first declared – obviously they wouldn’t pay to support the republic and they attempt excuses for the Francoists as well. The marqués is an old rogue and a wily operator who sets out to ‘incapacitate’ his wife – i.e. to have her declared insane. With her out of the way he can perhaps restore the house, while placating the Inland Revenue. He wants to be re-instated at court, but perhaps isn’t quite as obsessed with his status as his son. In everything he tries, however, the marqués is dragged back by his useless son who is a sex pest, mainly interested in trying to acquire his own aristocratic title which might improve his chances with young women. This is something of a scatter-gun approach to satire so we also get a comic priest and a succession of lawyers all with the same family name. Servants are also a target, typified by Goyo. The marqués also has a nephew, a rather glamorous playboy with a beautiful young wife. This nephew appears to be helpful but is also conniving to get the best outcome for himself from whatever the marqués salvages from the potential sale of the house and its treasures. Finally there are the bankers and politicians, who the marqués is informed have replaced the aristocracy in democratic Spain.
Berlanga stages the antics of the marqués and his entourage in long takes on a series of sets with multiple characters. The great house is actually Palacio de Linares in Madrid (according to IMDb). The cinematography by Carlos Suárez who was a regular collaborator with Berlanga at this time is impressive, as is the art design by Roman Arango and Pin Miralos.
I confess that for me this style of comedy has not aged well, especially in comparison with the work of Luis Buñuel, admittedly from the 1970s and mainly before Franco’s death. But it also looks laboured and lacking an edge compared to the early work of Pedro Almodóvar during 1980-1983. Perhaps the comedy just doesn’t travel or is it simply that I can’t identify with aristocratic families in any way? The film seems to have been popular in Spain. The second Berlanga film in the festival was La vaquilla (The heifer, Spain 1985), another comedy, this time set during the Civil War (a first) and focusing on hungry Republican troops who decide to steal a prize heifer from a village under Nationalist control during an annual religious festival. This also seems to have been a very popular film at the time, but I decided to give it a miss and focus on a contemporary film for my last screening. I didn’t really enjoy Patrimonio nacional but I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to see it and to broaden my knowledge of Spanish cinema. The two archive prints were screened with thanks to the Instituto Cervantes.
An unusual and fascinating documentary, Neuve Sevillas offers an avalanche of ideas, memories, observations, opinions and facts that is quite difficult to digest for non-Spanish speakers simply because of the rapid speech and subtitles with often two sets on screen at the same time. However, the gist of the argument is clear and much of what we want to learn is conveyed by songs and dances and newsreel footage. The idea behind the documentary is derived from what I now understand to be a ‘social performance’ approach as a means of ‘decolonising’ a field of knowledge. This is a film about finding the ‘identity’ of interconnected groups of people in Sevilla. But instead of presenting a formal history based on traditional academic writings, the search is conducted by the ‘folks on the ground’ – in this case singers, musicians, dancers, bullfighters, promoters and the fans who enjoy watching, listening and joining in.
Sevilla is Spain’s fourth largest city and the capital of the ‘autonomous community Andalusia’. It has a proud status as a cultural centre for the three components of flamenco – singing, guitar-playing and dancing. Sevilla is also a centre for other forms of music as well, including modern rock music. However, the identity discussed in the film focuses on the gitano communities of the region. Gitano refers to Roma people of the region, but it is slightly more complicated than that since as one ‘witness’ tells us: “Flamenco and gitano are the same, gitano and Roma are the same but Roma and flamenco are two different things”. I think this means that there are other forms of Roma music as well as flamenco. Sevilla is a music melting pot. Music in the city is influenced by the Jewish and Moorish histories of the region as well as other African migrants and South Americans who have returned to Andalusia and with them ‘American’ influences – one of the dancers featured is from Chile. Italian influences are also cited and the music also has connections across Eastern Europe.
To present these ‘discourses’ or ‘conversations’, director Gonzalo García Pelayo (who is listed as a co-director with Pedro G. Romero) makes one of the ‘journeys’ through the city himself as well as popping up in the linking segments. The structure is to present nine separate individuals with their Sevilla stories and in between to offer a range of music and dance performances representing the city more broadly. I’m not going to list all nine but I’m sure you get the picture. I’ll just take the first three. The film starts with archive material presented in Academy ratio and leads into Yinka’s story. She originates in Africa and promotes the African connections in the city’s culture whereas the second story features ‘Bobote’ who comes from Triana, an old district that is the home of traditional gitano culture. Gonzalo García Pelayo includes footage of his own film set in the city, Vivir en Sevilla (1978) and then claims that the film needs more sex and passion, so we get an extract from Buñuel’s last film That Discreet Object of Desire (1977) in which a woman dances naked before Fernando Rey in a restaurant. Two women discuss bullfighting in another journey and what it means to leave the barrio and another explains how she has lived in what she terms “a shack” waiting for a promised house for many years after her arrival from Galicia.
Each of the nine characters takes us on the next part of the journey through the city, through the history and the culture. The narrative structure plays out over twenty-four hours, starting after siesta one afternoon. The nine stories are not ‘separate’ and the characters sometimes turn up in each others stories. What remains central is the tension between the gitano/Roma community and culture and the mainstream Spanish culture. This is partly a tension created by a desire to maintain tradition within the community while at the same time wanting to be recognised within the contemporary society on an equal footing. This is represented in the use of language so that there is a struggle over ‘gitano‘ as a description that means something within the community but is considered as potentially offensive when used by others. In one segment we are told that the gitano/Roma community is a ‘political category’ and that for Spain if they didn’t exist they would need to be invented. This sounds like a familiar argument expressed by strong communities in many parts of the world, keeping their identity alive through cultural activities. Not all have the history and achievements of flamenco culture.
This is a long film (160 minutes) and there is a danger that audiences who don’t already know something about Sevilla and its people will be overwhelmed. Would it be more effective as two or three separate films? I don’t think so because that would lose the 24 hour journey. Perhaps it just needs a little tightening in the edit. However, I think most audiences will sit back and let the film roll over them (the festival brochure calls it ‘immersive’). The music and dancing are very impressive and enjoyable and anyone who watches it is likely get an urge to walk through Sevilla’s streets on a summer’s evening. I’m pleased to see the political and cultural analysis that the film offers. Here is a culture that remains vibrant in an increasingly commercialised world.
Comedies represent a challenge for festivals such as ¡Viva!, since they often rely on audience knowledge of culture and especially language. Most problematic of all are ‘mockumentaries’, attempts to ‘play’ with the conventions of certain kinds of documentary practice. La estrella roja goes one step further, operating within the history and mythology of a specific Argentinian community and its involvement in major political events of the 20th century, still highly sensitive for some.
I’m not generally a fan of mockumentaries so I don’t want to pass judgement here. I’ll stick to a detached observation. In some ways this film might be seen as riffing on the recent cycle of documentary films about female figures seemingly not properly represented in histories. In such documentaries we expect newsreel footage, possibly home movies and interviews with relatives, friends and biographers who offer ‘witness statements’ about what they remember or what they have discovered through research. We may well have a ‘narrativised’ investigation by the documentarist so that we experience the thrill of finding the evidence and making the links.
The subject here is Laila Salama, a woman from the Jewish community in Argentina, who mysteriously disappeared in 1934 as a teenage girl during the Purim festival when she was expected to be crowned as the festival queen. Thereafter she became a spy, reporting on Nazi activity in Argentina and joining a British intelligence group. Active throughout the wartime period in Europe she is later said to have been involved in the capture of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960, working with Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. After that she disappears from view. But she has a place in Argentinian mythology with a tango and a song named after her – as ‘La estrella roja’.
All of the expected ingredients are here with the film’s director Gabriel Lichtmann played by the actor Héctor Díaz. Most of the other characters are also played by actors, some of whom are well-known in Argentina. There is a strong narrative drive and a climactic moment to the research/investigation. The whole film lasts not much more than 70 minutes and a great deal of care has gone into the presentation. I was surprised by the statistics about the Jewish community in Argentina. There are currently around 300,000 in the Jewish diaspora in Argentina and they must be the most likely audience for the film. Of course, the history of the Holocaust is a much more widely known and the filmmakers must hope this will encourage sales. The numbers were higher still during the 1940s (before migration to Israel) and there were also significant numbers in the wider German diaspora in Argentina who were Nazi sympathisers. The film also makes a link to Wakolda (Argentina 2013) a fiction film based on the activities of pro-Nazi Argentinians around 1960 when Eichmann was captured – its central character is a 12 year-old girl. I don’t know whether La estrella roja will prove controversial because of its take on the historical events but so far it seems to have been well-received. There is often said to be a distinctive style of Jewish humour and perhaps this film is an example of such humour? The film screenss again at HOME on Saturday 2nd April. It is accompanied by a complementary short film Los conspiradores (Spain 2021).
This début feature film for Colombian director Joan Gómez Endara is a conventional road movie in formal terms but it becomes something more because of its three leads, beautiful cinematography and the chance it offers to see more of Colombia than many other films from the region. For a début feature this is an accomplished piece of work, engaging and moving in its handling of the development of the relationship between two seemingly mismatched half-siblings.
Élicier is a forty-something (?) man living quietly alone in a village on Colombia’s western Caribbean coast. One day a man arrives at his door with a young girl, Esperanza (‘Hope’). He announces that Élicier’s father Nolasco has died and the little girl is actually his half sister. All this is news to Élicier who hasn’t seen his father for thirty years and at first doesn’t want to face the implications of Esperanza’s sudden appearance. But he is given an address for the girl’s mother in Bogota and realises his responsibility. Getting to the capital is a long and expensive journey from the coast up into the mountains and this is 1999 when the virtual civil war between FARC guerillas and government military forces is still going on even as peace talks are being pursued. The film is not about the civil war but it does mean that travel across the vast country, and especially into the mountains, is dangerous. When the journey begins, the siblings are joined by Toño, a young man who wants to try his luck as a boxer in Bogota. The inclusion of Toño is possibly the only flaw in the film as the script doesn’t really know what to do with him once he has been used as a plot device to complicate the journey. His story then gets rather lost.
The main narrative is underpinned by music and this is certainly a strength in the film. Nolasco had been a celebrated musician along the coast, playing the gaita. This is a wind instrument, something like the traditional European wooden recorder that in my day was used to introduce British schoolchildren to music. The gaita is quite a large instrument, made from dried cactus (a cardón) with a distinctive mouthpiece fashioned from beeswax, charcoal and a duck feather (now often using plastic instead). Confusingly, ‘gaita’ is also the Spanish word for a form of bagpipes. In Colombia gaita bands appear to be four or five piece outfits with one or two gaita players plus a trio of drummers. The music represents the fusion of African drumming with the indigenous playing of the gaita. In the film, the gaita which Esperanza finds in Élicier’s house (and which she insists on taking with her on the journey) becomes important in the bonding of the two central characters and also in Élicier’s rediscovery of his own identity. This is partly represented by the way in which the sound of the gaita recalls birdsong. The film’s title is also explained during the first real conversation between Élicier and Esperanza when we discover something about the gaita that she carries.
Here’s a YouTube clip of a group of gaiteros playing similar music to that used at the end of the film.
Carlos Vergara is very good as the quiet and withdrawn Élicier. He is an experienced actor and producer. Shaday Velasquez as the young girl is a beautiful child who is sometimes quite solemn and determined but who is also also capable of joy and laughter. Overall the film is a humanist story, the pair meet good and bad people on their journey. There is a satisfying conclusion to the narrative which doesn’t necessarily tie up all the loose ends. I’m sure there are more layers of meaning that may only be accessible by a local audience, one of which refers to the fate of an iguana. However, we do get a real sense of the diversity of Colombian culture and especially of one of its several important musical genres. El árbol rojo plays again at ¡Viva! on Tuesday 29th March at HOME Manchester.
The title of this film refers to the idea of a ‘contactee’ – a person who acts as the link between a local community and alien forces. The narrative is set in Peru, in the capital Lima and along the coast. This is an area subject to earthquakes and ‘big waves’ off the coast. It is also the centre of Andean culture and the mythologies of the Incas. But this is the 21st century and the central character is Aldo, a former teacher of theology, now in his fifties, who seems to be withdrawing from the world and its troubles. He makes money selling his old books and acting as a guide to the ancient Inca sites around the city. He’s also still a landlord, attempting to collect rent from his lodgers – but the neighbouring houses are being demolished and the future for the house looks grim. His mother is in a home but whatever ails her is not clear. In fact Aldo’s background is presented to us in fragmented ways. Eventually we will learn that in his younger days he acted as a spiritual leader promising his followers access to another world through rituals which open ‘portals’.
Aldo’s daily routine of taking his surfboard for a morning dip, visiting the market and his mother and acting as a guide is disturbed by the appearance of a young man who claims to recognise Aldo from his days as a preacher and wants to know more. His promptings both annoy Aldo but also stir up his vanity. Who is this young man (named ‘Gabriel’) and what does he want? This is the enigma in the narrative and hints at a genre structure, possibly a thriller of some kind? Aldo is remembered by some of his followers but not all, some still remember their devotion, others feel he let them down.
The ¡Viva! screening includes a recording of an introduction by Dr Rebecca Jarman of the University of Leeds (available via ‘HOMEscreen‘). She tells us that the filmmakers, director Marité Ugas and producer Mariana Rondón, have worked together for many years. They co-wrote this film and they have alternated producer and director roles. The two women trained at the International Film School in Cuba, an important institution in developing Latin American cinemas. They founded Sudaca Films in Venezuela in the early 1990s and have developed links with productions in Peru and other Latin American countries as well as accessing international film festival and regional funding schemes. They are perhaps best known for their 2013 film Pelo Malo (Bad Hair) which won many prizes and was widely distributed worldwide, including in the UK. Dr Jarman points out that Aldo finds himself marginalised, drifting on the edges of what appears to be a revival of local cults associated with UFO sightings. She suggests that this could be linked to the rise of populist leaders in Latin America and that there is a possible metaphor here in which the de-stabilising of Aldo’s life is linked to a more widespread sense of a destabilising of Latin American societies and indeed global peace and security. She points specifically to the ways in which leaders like Bolsonaro and Trump have worked with evangelical Christian groups. I’m not sure, however, about her comments comparing ‘characters in crisis’ in other films such as Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake (UK 2016). She suggests that unlike Daniel Blake and similar characters who are “lionised”, Aldo is an unsympathetic figure but more ‘human’ and therefore accessible for audiences. I can see the arguments she makes but the films aren’t comparable for me, having different genre elements. Loach’s film is a realist melodrama, Contactado is a more expressionistic thriller/mystery and there is no direct reference to the political situation in Peru (which has been turbulent for much of the last twenty years).
Ugas and Rondón have worked with a small crew on several films and have often used the same actors. The creative team on this film includes several women, Peruvian cinematographer Micaela Cajahuaringa also trained in Cuba and she has worked on other Sudaca productions. The film’s visual style is quite fluid, often hand-held and makes good use of the distinctive landscape in CinemaScope compositions. It is matched by the music of Pauchi Sasaki. The performances are strong with Baldomero Cáceres as Aldo and Miguel Dávalos. Overall this is an intriguing mix of a character study in set against an unsettling background of religious beliefs, traditional mythologies and the rise of cults. There are two further screenings of Contactado on Sunday 27 March and Wednesday April 6th.