Category: Films by women

Berlin Syndrome (Australia-Germany 2017)

Teresa Palmer as Clare exploring Berlin for the first time

The title Berlin Syndrome is very suggestive in this feature about a young female tourist who finds herself trapped after a casual sexual encounter in Berlin. How will the reference to the ‘Stockholm syndrome’, that idea that a captive becomes literally captivated by their gaoler, become manifest in the narrative? Not perhaps as you might expect. This is a film adapted from a critically-praised novel by Melanie Joosten and directed by Cate Shortland, who made the wonderful Lore in 2012, a film about a not totally dissimilar young woman in Germany in 1945. I was a little surprised that the script was by a man – Shaun Grant. This does feel like a female-centred narrative and Ms Shortland has several female collaborators on her team. In his dismissal of the film, our old enemy Peter Bradshaw suggests that this is a ‘lite’ version of Room (2015) or the Austrian film Michael (2011) (which I haven’t seen). These are not really sensible comparisons since both of these films feature children as prisoners and even though Room does feature a woman prisoner as well, it isn’t a film about the relationship between a gaoler and his captive(s) since we learn little about him.

Clare (Teresa Palmer) is a young woman from Brisbane who has come to Berlin on a whim to photograph the architecture of the GDR and hoping for a life-changing experience – but not the kind of experience she walks into. Soon after she arrives she meets Andi (Max Riemelt) an English teacher in a local Gymnasium. They spend a day together and she decides not to go on to Dresden but to spend the night in his apartment. Bad move. The sex is good but when Andi goes to work, she finds that she can’t leave his apartment in an old abandoned apartment block. At first she wasn’t worried to be in this old building, but now she realises that there is no one else about. Even when Andi returns she still thinks it might be a mistake, surely he didn’t mean to lock her in?

Peter Bradshaw’s other condemnation is that this is just a familiar genre narrative with nothing new to say and that Clare is obviously the ‘final girl’ in the horror film right from the beginning of the narrative. It’s true that it does increasingly become a ‘psycho-sexual thriller’, especially in its resolution but also at various moments along the way. The idea of a man holding a woman captive is by no means unfamiliar and as other reviewers have pointed out there are some parallels here with William Wyler’s film of the John Fowles book The Collector (1969). However, the important difference here is Clare’s sexual desire and her vulnerability as a tourist in a strange city. I think it’s quite legitimate to read the film in terms of Clare’s self-discovery – of her resourcefulness and strength as well as her sexuality. It’s also interesting that on the two occasions when she sees a glimmer of hope for an escape, it’s when another woman appears – but I won’t spoil the narrative. Andi is the other central character and we get to see him at school, in his classroom and in the staffroom. We also see him in the company of his father. There is just enough of a hint about his extreme obsession with control peeping out from behind his ‘normality’ as a schoolteacher.

At first Clare and Andi (Max Riemelt) appear to be simply enjoying each other’s company.

I was impressed by both lead actors. I didn’t think I’d seen them before but researching the film later I discovered that both are very experienced and Teresa Palmer has a mainstream Hollywood career that I’ve missed entirely, though I did see The Grudge 2 (2006), where she played alongside Sarah Michelle Gellar. She looks and acts younger than her age in Berlin Syndrome and I did think about how she reminded me of Kristen Stewart (again, something I later discovered is a common reaction). Max Riemelt was in The Wave (Germany 2008), a film I’ve watched several times and I’m surprised that I didn’t recognise him. I’m not sure I ‘enjoyed’ this film and I found Clare’s predicament distressing. I was surprised to find myself thinking about it so much afterwards. The script is carefully written and there are some nice touches that again I didn’t really think about until afterwards – such as Clare’s interest in a book of Klimmt reproductions that makes a re-appearance and Andi’s choice of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room as a text for his English class. I also hadn’t thought too much about Clare’s journey from Brisbane to Berlin – an example of that ‘cultural cringe’ that seems still to be relevant in Australian narratives about travelling to Europe to gain experiences beyond Australian suburbia. The thoughts of the women working on the film about travelling alone in Europe are worth reading in the Production Notes. The interesting aspect of the production itself is that it was shot on location in Berlin and then Andi’s apartment was recreated on a soundstage in Melbourne. It’s a seamless fit and this is an impressive production. The film has not been that well reviewed in the UK. I think in some cases it has been dismissed without due attention and I’m glad I saw it. I’ll keep looking for Cate Shortland’s films. If you missed this in cinemas in the UK it’s on Curzon online.

Letters from Baghdad (UK/US/France 2017)

The ‘great and the good’ at the Cairo Conference in 1921. Gertrude Bell is between Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence towards the left of the line. Unlike most of the others who are struggling to keep control of their camels, Bell keeps hers perfectly still as an experienced camel-rider. (Photo © Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University)

Letters from Baghdad is a remarkable ‘biodoc’ – enjoyable and informative to watch and important for three reasons. First, it presents the story of Gertrude Lowthian Bell, a British woman born in 1868 who would become a prominent figure in the history of British imperial policy in the Levant, Palestine and Mesopotamia during the final days of the Ottoman Empire and the British mandate in the 1920s. Second, that history reveals several issues that have recurred and remain relevant to the contemporary politics of the region. Third, the formal features of the film are distinctive and make imaginative use of photographs taken by Bell herself, her extensive writings, and hundreds of contemporary film clips sourced from a variety of archives. An extraordinary amount of detail is packed into 95 minutes.

Gertrude Bell was born into a wealthy family in the North East of England. Her grandfather was an ironmaster and Liberal MP and her family home eventually became the manor house of the model village he built in Rounton in the North Riding of Yorkshire. One of the few women studying at Oxford in the late 1880s, she gained a first in history and over the next few years she travelled widely making use of her family’s diplomatic contacts. Her first passion for ‘the Orient’ was kindled in Tehran and soon she could speak Persian as well as French and German. Later she would add Arabic and begin extensive journeys across the wilds of ‘Arabia’, most of which was still under the nominal control of the Ottoman Empire. Her travels were accompanied by archaeology and a serious interest in antiquities. She quickly became a confirmed ‘Arabist’ and an authority on the leading families in the Arab world. Her knowledge and understanding of the region equalled and arguably out distanced that of T.E. Lawrence. She was only marginally held back by her gender. Her eventual importance to the imperial ‘project’, however, did depend to a certain extent on which of men were selected for which posts. She got on very well with some but others detested her. Her major influence came in the second half of the Great War and during the aftermath when the British and French carved up the old Ottoman Empire. She had a role in the creation of Iraq as an identity carved out of the three Turkish provinces of Mesopotamia and also became the founder of the Museum of Iraq. Her most high-profile role was in helping to place the Hashemite King Faisal on the throne of Iraq. Her knowledge of the leading Arab families was crucial.

The complicated story of Gertrude Bell’s work, initially off her own bat and later as a British appointee is told in the film alongside the personal life of a woman who significant relationships with a select group of men, but who never married. The film’s creators led by the two producer-directors Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum developed an interesting strategy for a biodoc which certainly works in maintaining a narrative flow. They collected some 1,200 archive film clips and several thosand still photographs, many taken by Bell herself. Much of the material came from the Gertrude Bell archive at Newcastle University. They collected together Bell’s letters and diary entries and also the statements made by many of the distinguished figures who knew her. In an interview with Anne-Katrin Titze, Sabine Krayenbühl says that the aim was to imagine that these statements were made for a documentary just two or three years after Bell’s death in 1926. The ‘witnesses’ are played by actors in appropriate period costumes who read out the statements as if they were appearing in a modern-style documentary. This is a technique which is similar to that used by Peter Watkins in a film like Culloden (1964), although in this case the actors appear against a plain studio backdrop instead of on the battlefield. The film material is quite varied with some colour footage as well as what seems to be hand-tinted footage. They also seem to have added sound effects to the footage – and sometimes what seem to be lines of dialogue. The diaries and letters of the adult Gertrude are read (off screen) by Tilda Swinton, who is also an executive producer. The editing by Sabine Krayenbühl is very good and the production’s profile is boosted by an executive producer role for Thelma Schoonmaker. (The film also has a UK co-producer and associate producers in France.) All of this worked for me and they were fortunate that Gertrude Bell had access to good quality photographic equipment and was skilled in using it. It’s also worth pointing out that the nineteenth century had been an important period for both French and British ‘Orientalism’ and ‘Arabism’ and there was a wide interest in filming in Mesopotamia.

Gertrude Bell on an expedition in Duris, Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley at an Arab funerary monument, Qubbat Duris, in June 1900. (Photo © Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University)

What emerges from the film is a woman with considerable achievements who certainly deserves to be more widely known by contemporary audiences. There has also recently been a feature film based on her exploits in Mesopotamia directed by Werner Herzog and starring Nicole Kidman as Gertrude. The Queen of the Desert was shown at the Berlin Film Festival in 2015 but as far as I can see never released in the UK. It opened online in the US in April but seems to have been received very poorly by critics. It’s troubling to think what a mainstream international film might have done with Gertrude Bell’s life. But focusing on her two affairs is understandable and some of the ‘user views’ on the Herzog film inadvertently comment on aspects of this biodoc. Gertrude Bell was not an easy person to get on with and Letters from Baghdad doesn’t avoid this issue. There are revealing comments by the wife of an American missionary(?) who notes that she found favour with Gertrude Bell because she was a middle-class woman with a degree. At other points we learn about Bell’s extravagance in buying the best clothes and shoes available. These aren’t major crimes but the film might have been a little bit more aware of the issues about social class and imperial privilege. Bell was undoubtedly a pioneer for women in terms of her academic success, her archaeology and travel writing and her intelligence reports in wartime. She was also a very privileged member of the British upper class with an imperial arrogance. Gertrude Bell probably thought she was doing the best she could for the people of Iraq but she did draw boundaries which made the artificial state of Iraq more difficult to govern and she did acquiesce in the imperial policies of the Mandate which laid the seeds for the problems of Iraq today.

One of the most surprising facts that comes out of the film is that Bell claimed that the Jewish population of Baghdad was as much as 80,000 in 1920 – a very large proportion of the city’s population. Certainly there were 150,000 in Iraq as a whole. These Arab Jews were not necessarily interested in the Zionism, then becoming active in Mandate Palestine, and Bell herself seems to have been anti-Zionist. I hope I’ve got this right – there were so many statements in the film. I hope I’ve demonstrated that there is much to learn from the film. There are many ironies. The British treated the Iraqis very badly in the 1920s (when the country became a de facto military state run by the RAF with its bombers). The British and the Americans fought over the oil rights which Britain managed to retain by maintaining rights over Mosul. Gertrude Bell fought to build up the collection of antiquities in the Museum of Iraq – some of these were lost when the American invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003 led to looting.

Letters from Baghdad is well worth seeing. I watched it in an almost full Cinema 3 at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse on a Friday afternoon. It has a limited release in a handful of US cinemas this week (see this website for listings) and is online in the UK with a DVD release soon. I’d happily watch the film again to check my understanding of this woman’s extraordinary adventures.

Their Finest (UK 2016)

Catrin (Gemma Arterton) and Tom (Sam Claflin)

Their Finest is a most enjoyable film that had us sobbing as well as laughing. Mostly light, it also has very dark moments and I thought that this was a well-crafted script by Gaby Chiappe that manages to mix references to contemporary 1940s Home Front films, documentary and propaganda work and more modern perspectives on viewing the wartime period. Based on the 2009 novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans, this is a story about what it might have been like for a bright young woman to find herself thrust into the British film industry in 1940 as a dialogue writer at a time when films were part of the war effort and it was important to find the ‘authentic voice’ of people across the UK. Up till then, the industry was best known for putting West End plays on screen or casting working-class comedians in films for Northern audiences. Think Anna Neagle vs. Gracie Fields. There was a female writer at Ealing in the period who might have been a model for the film’s protagonist. Diana Morgan did in fact work alongside some of Ealing’s major screenwriters and directors. Her wartime work includes  a co-scripting credit for Ships With Wings (1941), a ‘romance melodrama’ about a Fleet Air Arm pilot flying in the defence of Greece against the Germans. Better known now is the Cavalcanti film from Ealing Went the Day Well (1942), the very effective warning against German invasion and the dangers of ‘fifth columnists’. Morgan worked on this screenplay as well. She too was Welsh, like Catrin in Their Finest and roughly the same age, but she had experience writing successful West End revues with her husband

Lissa Evans tells us that she researched the wartime industry and watched many of the films – and it shows. Our heroine is Catrin/Katherine, a girl from Ebbw Vale living in London with her husband, a Spanish Civil War veteran prevented from joining up because of a war wound and now a struggling artist. Catrin works is working as a secretary when a chance meeting lands her a job at the Ministry of Information writing the ‘slop’ – women’s dialogue in short propaganda films. I don’t think I’ve heard that term before but the general sexism – and the responses to it from women ‘liberated’ by the accidents of war – are all too familiar. I’ve heard some comments and read some reviews which refer to the ‘silliness’ of the plotting in Their Finest, but I suggest that the writers ought to spend a little time looking at the work of The Archers (Powell & Pressburger), the documentarists drafted into propaganda work, Ealing Studios, Launder & Gilliat with Millions Like Us and many more. I think I could find a wartime film reference for most of the incidents in Lissa Evans’ story.

Gemma Arterton’s costumes work very well for me. The hats especially seem to suit her.

Catrin is played, wonderfully, by Gemma Arterton. I’m certainly a fan of Ms Arterton and she looks terrific in those 40s outfits. I’m pleased that she seems to have given up Hollywood blockbusters for smaller independents and stage work. Perhaps she will benefit from the Lone Scherfig touch. There is some similarity, I think, between Catrin in this film and Carey Mulligan’s Jenny in An Education (UK 2009). An Education made Mulligan a star and kick-started Scherfig’s anglophone film career. Lone Scherfig is also served by a host of female collaborators: the writers, producers, casting agent, film editor, production designers and production managers – and composer Rachel Portman with a nicely judged score and choice of non-original material. One inconsequential scene stood out for me. Gemma Arterton is not a waif-like leading lady. She’s quite tall and shapely. At one point, when she is moved into a new writing office, she finds herself squeezing uncomfortably between desks and cabinets to get to her desk. The position of her desk is deliberately awkward to emphasise her place in the pecking order. When the two men leave her working one night, she is told she should ‘tidy up’ the office. When they return, she has indeed tidied up and now her desk is free of clutter, and if I remember rightly, now higher up than the mens’ and easy to access. She doesn’t make a fuss but simply smiles sweetly. This is an aspect of the film for which Scherfig and Chiappe have been praised highly. Instead of putting down or confronting the sexism (which might appear anachronistic), these extremely capable women simply demonstrate that they are right without fuss.

Lone Scherfig on set in Pinewood with Sam Claflin and Gemma Arterton

Their Finest is primarily a “let’s make a film about ‘x” narrative which involves a rather warm and nostalgic view of wartime filmmaking, but also accurately represents the problems facing the industry. The close collaboration of the writers also sets up the possibility of a romance between Catrin (whose husband doesn’t appreciate her abilities) and her chief tormenter, the writer Tom Baker played by Sam Claflin. Claflin is best-known for franchises such as The Hunger Games and The Huntsman and I confess that I didn’t take too much notice of him, but here with a thin ‘tache and round glasses, he presents an interesting character and his dialogues with Catrin are often witty and rapid-fire. Some reviewers describe the film as a romcom. I’m not sure I agree. It certainly has both romance and comedy but not the typical romcom structure. It draws on a wide range of repertoires and interesting sub-plots and secondary characters that don’t necessarily bear on the romance directly. I should also add that there are some surprising plot twists which confound romcom assumptions.

Bill Nighy as Ambrose Hilliard and Helen McRory as his agent Sophie at the premiere of the film ‘The Nancy Starling’

The film being made is ‘based on a true story’ and involves two young women in the evacuation of troops from the beaches of Dunkirk. As far as I’m aware, there were no wartime films directly about Dunkirk. Ealing’s film with John Mills was made in the late 1950s. The only ‘real’ major conflicts that were celebrated in wartime films were victories – and then often it was documentary realism that came to the fore, e.g. in Desert Victory (1943). ‘The Nancy Starling’ (the name of the young women’s ship, named after their mother) seems to me an amalgam of several ideas for films early in the war. The most likely source for the ideas about the film-in-film production here is The Foreman Went to France (Ealing 1942) in which a Welsh engineer is sent to France in 1940 to try to bring vital machinery back to the UK before it is captured by the invading German forces. He is helped by the film’s star, comedian Tommy Trinder and Gordan Jackson as British Army soldiers. I was also reminded of One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942) made by Powell & Pressburger for the Ministry of Information and featuring Googie Withers and Pamela Brown as Dutch women helping an RAF crew who had to abandon their plane over Holland get back to England. That film highlighted the Dutch resistance and the importance of the British war effort for Occupied Europe. Their Finest deals with a production which halfway through the scripting is required to appeal to American audiences. This did indeed happen with documentary films such as Humprey Jennings’ Listen to Britain (1942) with its tagged on appeal to American audiences (by a Canadian). There are some nice jokes about a documentary filmmaker directing ‘The Nancy Starling’. The idea of featuring a ‘real’ American airman in ‘The Nancy Starling’, a volunteer from one of the Eagle Squadrons formed for the RAF, is also based on fact. Powell & Pressburger cast Sgt John Sweet of the US Army in their 1944 film Canterbury Tale (arguably their strangest ‘propaganda film’). Most of Powell & Pressburger’s wartime films were part-funded/supported by the Ministry of Information or other government agencies. This enabled them to use expensive Technicolor filmstock, but also created major problems when their films didn’t conform to official propaganda lines – see the strife over the Life and Times of Colonel Blimp (1943). Both Technicolor and War Office interference are evident on the production of ‘The Nancy Starling’.

Most of the reviews of Their Finest, single out Bill Nighy’s performance as the ageing actor Ambrose Hilliard. Nighy does what he does best and it is indeed entertaining – and certainly provides plenty of audience pleasure. But for me, his part is perhaps a little too big. Helen McRory plays his agent and represents another capable woman, doing her job well, but the character I would like to have seen with an expanded role is Phyl, the 1940s lesbian (played by Rachael Stirling) whose job I didn’t fully understand, but she seems to be the Ministry of Information’s manager on set. I’d have liked to have seen more of her adviser/mentor role for Catrin. She also represents the character who most brings to mind the retrospective view of women in wartime which has appeared in several plays, novels, TV and films since the war and particularly since the 1970s. The one that I remembered was Sarah Waters’ novel (and later a TV adaptation) The Night Watch 2006. I was interested in reading North American reviews of Their Finest by a remark about the ‘British sub-genre’ of the Home Front drama. I think Hollywood sees the ‘Home Front’ as a relatively small part of the range of narratives surrounding the Second World War, but in the UK, the ‘total war’ meant that women were involved as much as men.

Pembrokeshire stands in for Dunkirk on set for ‘The Nancy Starling’

Their Finest is an important British film with a wonderful cast of British character actors including Eddie Marsan, Richard E. Grant, Jeremy Irons and Henry Goodman. It was shot on location in West Wales and in Pinewood – standing in for the host of 1940s London Studios. I hope it goes on to a long life on DVD and TV and perhaps encourages audiences to seek out the films of the 1940s that informed it. After I finished writing this post, I came across the detailed piece on ‘Women and WWII British film’ by Stephen Woolley, one of the producers of the film, in Sight and Sound (May 2017) . He gives a great deal of information about the research for the film and mentions many more film titles and writing about film production in the wartime period. There is also an interview with Lone Scherfig.

The Olive Tree (El olivo, Spain-Germany-France-Canada 2016)

Alma (Anna Castillo) in the olive plantation

I was going to start this post with another moan about Peter Bradshaw, but in this case his review wasn’t that bad, just not enthusiastic enough for me. Instead it was Wendy Ide, now reviewing for the Observer, who was the real culprit. In a paragraph of clichés she sneers at the film for its worthiness and even manages to imply a plot development that doesn’t happen. I know this isn’t an unusual occurrence, but in this case its impact is compounded by the treatment this film got from some UK exhibitors. I mean you, Picturehouses. The Olive Tree was chosen by Picturehouses for its ‘Discover Tuesday’ slot in which a relatively obscure film is placed in selected Picturehouse cinemas for a single showing at 18.00 on a Tuesday. The argument presumably is that this gives an outlet the film might not usually get and it can be promoted as part of a ‘strand’ in the local cinema’s programming. I guess that for some titles this might actually be beneficial – but in several cases the slot has been used to screen a film that could reach a much larger audience who might not be able to get to that single screening.

The Olive Tree is written by Paul Laverty, arguably one of the UK’s most consistent screenwriters whose scripts have graced two Cannes Palme d’Or winners for director Ken Loach. He is also the partner of the director Icíar Bollaín, the most high-profile female director in Spain. The Olive Tree is their second production together after the critically acclaimed Even the Rain (Spain-France-Mexico, 2010). They met on Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom (1995). The Olive Tree is a ‘comedy drama’ that for me was both very funny and deeply moving. It is, as might be expected from Laverty and Bollaín, rooted in observation and social commentary. So, although on the surface this may indeed be a simple story, you don’t have to look far beneath the surface to find the commentary about the ongoing economic crisis in Spain, the anger about aspects of corporate practice and the pain of contemporary social and personal problems. Despite the subtitles, everybody can access the humanity of this film and in any sane film culture they wouldn’t have to look carefully for its single showing in their local cinema.

Alma as a child, learning from her grandfather how to graft an olive tree.

Many of us love trees. We especially love old trees and this olive tree is perhaps 1,000 years or old or more. (The grandfather in the film claims it is 2,000 years old.) Anything this old and especially a tree which has supplied fruit for the livelihood of succeeding generations of farmers is not just a tree, it is a symbol of a way of life. Consider the destruction of Palestinian olive trees by Israeli settlers in the West Bank – a deliberate act of vandalism in trying to destroy a culture. The situation in the Valencia region of Eastern Spain is not so critical but unbearably painful nonetheless for the farmers and their families. In The Olive Tree, Alma (Anna Castillo) is a young woman working in the chicken shed on the family farm and acting as a carer for her grandfather who has dementia. He now barely touches his food and doesn’t speak but instead wanders into the ancient olive plantation staring at a mound of stones. When Alma realises that he is thinking about the olive tree that was sold several years earlier when she was still a child, she resolves to somehow get the tree back. Unfortunately the tree was sold for €30,000 to an energy company in Düsseldorf – where it has pride of place in the atrium of the company’s HQ. Alma is a resourceful young woman, but the only way she can proceed is by subterfuge, persuading her uncle and a younger driver to ‘borrow’ a truck with a crane and head for the Rhine by telling them a made-up story about an offer to return the tree. It’s a crazy prospect and we seem to be in the fictional world of madcap adventures and ‘feelgood’ films. Laverty and Bollain have the task of making the journey – and its outcome – credible while at the same time entertaining us and making serious social comments. I think they do this splendidly.

At one point I wondered if Laverty’s starting point was his own script for The Angel’s Share (UK 2012) and indeed there are similarities, but The Olive Tree has a different tone and perhaps a broader perspective. One of its strongest themes is about the pain and misery of the Spanish boom before 2008 and the subsequent crash. The family lost its money through investment in a seaside restaurant and the anger about the moneyed classes who survived the bust is neatly encapsulated in a visual joke. The economic and social plight of Spain is also represented by the tree’s sale to Germany – which is the strong Eurozone centre oppressing the weak Spanish Euro partner. On the other hand, the film also acts as a rebuke to Brexiteers as the truck sails along, passing signs welcoming the trio to France and Germany – signs in blue with the circle of yellow stars of the EU. There are no borders, no customs posts, no currency exchanges.

Alma with her uncle, Alcachofa

Lying behind or underneath the feelgood road trip and the economic and social commentary is a family melodrama – a tale of repressed emotions. Through the tree Alma is linked to her childhood relationship with her grandfather. She doesn’t speak to her father who has a different set of feelings about the old man. She does tease her uncle but she has failed in her relationships with men nearer her own age. Perhaps the journey is also about addressing these issues. Alma’s difficulties with family and work colleagues are contrasted with her relationships with her female friends and with the women who drive the social media campaign which develops during the truck’s journey. The campaign exposes the energy company’s ecological crimes and focuses on the ‘tree rescue’ as a news story about popular resistance.

So, this isn’t just a ‘simple story’, it’s many-layered. All the performances are good but I especially enjoyed that of Javier Gutiérrez as Alma’s uncle Alcachofa and that of Pep Ambròs as Rafa, his driving mate. The film looks wonderful in Sergi Gallardo’s ‘Scope compositions and sounds great with Pascal Gaigne’s score. It was nominated for four Goyas with a win for Anna Castillo.

¡Viva! 23 #7: María (y los demás) (Spain 2016)

María (Bárbara Lennie)

This was perhaps the most enjoyable film I saw at ¡Viva!. A comedy drama with a terrific central character, strong supporting cast and a solid story with plenty of laughs – what’s not to like? Having the opportunity to hear the director Nely Reguera talk about the film in the Q&A after the screening was an added bonus.

María is a thirty-something living in Galicia. When we first meet her she has been caring for her widowed father who has been receiving treatment for cancer. Her day job is with a small local publisher and bookseller. She has encounters with men she knows, but doesn’t have a committed partner. When Dad is fully recovered it is time for his birthday and his two sons and their partners return home for the party. Dad invites his nurse from the health centre to the party where he makes a sudden announcement that surprises everybody and has all kinds of repercussions, including questions about the future of the family restaurant which has been closed for a couple of years. María has done all the cooking for the party, but the eldest son Jorge is a chef currently working in London. I don’t want to give away any more but the plot sets up a range of issues affecting different members of the family. (The rough English translation of the title is ‘Maria (and the others)’.)

A beautiful room for the aspiring novelist

The main focus is the challenge to María’s sense of who she is and what’s she should be doing now her ‘carer’/’supporter’ role has changed. One possibility is that she might finish the novel she has been writing, another is a search for a more permanent relationship. These are both familiar ‘drivers’ for a comedy and here they are melded into the general family drama. Director Nely Reguera (who co-wrote the script with four others) had spoken about her film in the panel discussion about ‘Contemporary Female Filmmakers in Spanish Cinema’. This was her first feature after two short films and plenty of production experience as an Assistant Director. She said that María took her several years to get into production. Her comments raised expectation that this would not be a straight genre picture despite familiar tropes such as María’s relationships with her girlfriends and the different ways in which plot developments thwart her attempts to achieve her goals. I was particularly interested in the two other young women in her family  – her sister-in-law and Anne, the English partner of her eldest brother, the chef. I asked Nely about this in the Q&A and she said the English connection was partly simply realism – many Galicians travel to work abroad and that there are many Spanish workers in the UK. But she also said that Anne was one of her favourite characters in the film. It struck me that though Anne and María don’t have a great deal of interaction, Anne does have both a positive and a negative impact on how the rest of the family view María. María’s cooking is local and home-cooked, whereas Anne speaks about how she and Jorge often get take-aways, especially Thai food. In defending traditional Galician attitudes towards food, Maria is parochial in the face of Anne’s ‘globalised modernity’. Equally, however, Anne is much more supportive of María’s need for independence when her sister-in-law and others assume that she will follow tradition. Then again, Anne is possibly a figure of fun in her jogging gear.

Maria looks for more than casual relationships

María (y los demás) was released in Spain in December 2016 and doesn’t seem to have been released in other markets yet. It has been very well received in Spain with several nominations and a couple of wins at festivals and awards events. Nely Reguera has received attention as a promising new director and Bárbara Lennie in the lead role has received similar attention. Nely told us that she was lucky to get Lennie for the lead role before the big success of her recent films such as Magical Girl (2014) for which she won a Goya. She is perfect as María and the supporting cast is equally good. This is a film that is well-written, skilfully directed and wonderfully performed. In any sane world it would sell widely across different territories. Fingers crossed, it will. I hope you can find it and enjoy it.

¡Viva! 23 #5: La Novia (Spain-Germany-Turkey 2015)

‘The Bride’ (Inma Cuesta) and her former lover Leonardo (Álex García)

La Novia or The Bride is an adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s Blood Wedding. It screened at ¡Viva! at the end of a day of films directed by women plus a panel on ‘Female filmmakers in Contemporary Spanish Cinema’. The screening was introduced by Dr Abigail Loxham of the University of Manchester who was also on the earlier panel. She explained her interest in this adaptation directed by Paula Ortiz by reference to the change in emphasis brought about by the alteration of the play’s title so that instead of the institution of marriage, the focus is on the single agent of ‘The Bride’. Here is a film with a female protagonist who has ‘agency’, rather than being presented as ‘victim’ or simply as the object of the male gaze.

I’m not really in a position to comment on how much this change of emphasis actually changes readings of Lorca’s original text since I haven’t seen theatrical versions of the play nor the best known film adaptation – as a dance drama directed by Carlos Saura (Blood Wedding, 1981). I have read a synopsis of the play and various commentaries and the main difference would seem to be that The Bride dispenses with what might be called the ‘chorus’ figures and some lesser roles, replacing them to some extent with crowd scenes and visual effects. In addition, Ortiz begins her film with the final sequence of the narrative and then flashes back. She also includes a sequence about the three central characters as teenagers/young adults. Lorca’s text names the main characters by role – i.e. ‘The Groom’, ‘The Groom’s Mother’ etc. and Ortiz follows suit. (The adaptation was written by Paula Ortiz and Javier García Arredondo.)

Lorca’s play was written in 1932 and first performed in 1933. Lorca himself was young, gay and radical. He didn’t survive the Civil War and was killed in 1936, presumed assassinated by right-wing militia. His body was never found. Blood Wedding was one of three Lorca plays set in rural Spain (Andalusia in this case) which attempted to bring modern theatre and its critique of bourgeois Spain to small villages with conservative values. Productions of the plays ever since have been open to different interpretations depending on their location and timing. The Bride was filmed partly in Zaragoza and Huesca, but mainly in Turkey in the Cappadocia region made familiar to international viewers by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, especially in his Chekhovian film Winter Sleep (2014). The setting in terms of historical period is much more difficult to determine. The only indicators are motor vehicles which range from 1930s models to as late as the 1960s/70s. In rural Spain under Franco life didn’t change much so the indeterminate time period perhaps doesn’t matter.

The obvious symbolism of the fire between the lovers – Leonardo and The Bride

Questions are usually asked about stage adaptations for film in terms of ‘opening out’ and making ‘filmic’. The Bride is both in one sense ‘enclosed’ by its interior locations and its arid setting amongst mountains and plains and in another sense, visually ‘epic’ in its cinematography and use of effects. Cinema 1 at HOME was quite full and I found myself in the first couple of rows with the screen looming above me. Though I usually sit close to the screen, it’s unusual to be so close to a very big screen and with big close-ups of faces in CinemaScope, I found the beginning of the film overwhelming. It was impossible to see the whole screen at once and read the subtitles. The ‘filmic’ elements include the use of slow motion and close-ups and symbolic imagery. One significant addition is an ‘optical toy’ seen in the glass-blowing workshop – a carousel of glass plates depicting a horse and rider which as it turns catches a device that makes a metallic sound. This toy appears in the Bride’s dreams/nightmares. It sits in her father’s workshop where glass objects are blown and The Bride will receive a crystal dagger from the old woman representing Death who warns her not to marry if she doesn’t love the man who would be her husband.

The optical toy in the glass-blowing workshop which seems to trigger The Bride’s fears

La Novia looks wonderful in Migue Amoedo’s presentation and it has interesting music with a score by Shigeru Umebayashi and a song performed by The Bride as well as a Spanish language rendition of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Take This Waltz’ (which is based on Lorca’s words).However, as to what it all means I’m not sure. I didn’t really buy the argument that The Bride is a woman with agency. She seems a traditional female figure to me, who seems compelled to go with her teenage crush Leonardo rather than The Groom. In doing this she hurts Leonardo’s wife and causes suffering for the Groom’s Mother. It’s a choice between the ‘wild’ and ‘natural’ Leonardo on his rearing horse and the ‘modern’ Groom on his motorcycle. Underpinning the struggles of the two suitors are ancient family feuds by which the whole community seems bewitched. My other problem is that the three actors seem too old for the roles. They are all in their mid-thirties. It wouldn’t matter on stage but it struck me in the close-ups on the screen.

La Novia was nominated for, and won, several awards in Spain but my impression was that the film doesn’t really work for audiences. I was told that the subtitles did not properly represent Lorca’s dialogue and that as an adaptation it wasn’t likely to appeal to admirer’s of Lorca’s work. I found it pleasurable to watch and to listen to, but its meanings were rather lost on me.

¡Viva! 23 #4: Rara (Chile-Argentina 2016)

The family (from the bottom, clockwise) Catalina, Paula, Lia and Sara.

Another first feature by a female filmmaker from South America, Rara followed Alba and offered ¡Viva! audiences a third young teenager’s struggles in a family group. In this case the family group is intact, but following a divorce, lawyer Paula (Mariana Loyola) is living with Lia (Agustina Muñoz), a vet. The central character is Sara (Julia Lübbert), who with her younger sister Catalina (Emilia Ossandon) is getting used to the new family arrangements – which involve visits to her father’s new household. Like Alba this is a first feature. Director Pepa San Martín had also previously made two short films and her first feature was co-written with the experienced Alicia Scherson. I think the best way to describe the film is as a family drama with comedic elements. Watching it I did feel that many scenes would have worked in situation comedies and television comedy drama series. This is not in any way a criticism. In the UK these types of narrative forms have often been where women writers have had most success and established themselves. I thoroughly enjoyed Rara and found many aspects of it impressive. My only concern was that the narrative as a whole didn’t seem to be completely coherent. I wondered if I was misreading some scenes.

Rara doesn’t announce where it is set until the first mention of ‘the capital’, Santiago and the implication that we are outside the capital (and actually in Viña del Mar, north of Valparaiso). When I checked after the screening I discovered that civil partnerships between same sex partners were made legal in Chile in 2015 and that moves to legalise same sex marriage are current under the presidency of Michelle Bachelet. Rara is clearly a topical film and this perhaps explains the background to what is ostensibly a youth picture about Sara and her approaching 13th birthday – her first since having braces removed with the promise of kissing to enjoy. Much of the narrative is taken up by Sara’s vacillation over how to celebrate her birthday. Should she have a small party in her mother’s house or a bigger party (planned by her close schoolfriend), possibly in her father’s new house? She has other relationships to worry about as well – her first possible boyfriend at school and her sometimes difficult times with her younger sister. Catalina is always likely to steal the narrative limelight – especially when a stray ginger kitten appears. But these questions about the party (and at one point the cat) also have implications for the two families. Whether Sara understands what her actions might provoke is unclear, but they give her father and his new wife some possible opportunities to develop a case for custody of the two girls. The new status of same sex partnerships has not been universally welcomed and some of the staff and students at school aren’t totally supportive. It’s all too easy to say the wrong thing or to react without thinking. According to the review on the Queer Guru website, the story is:

actually based on the true story in 2004 when a Chilean Judge lost custody of her own children purely on the basis of her sexuality. Rara (which means ‘sad’) stops before the trial begins . . .

The Hollywood Reporter review suggests that ‘Rara’ means strange. Either way, the script has to present Paula’s family as ‘just like other families’ – which it clearly is – but also to subtly indicate why problems might arise and the first indication is when Catalina’s drawing of her family shows her two mothers. She has actually left off her gran, Pancha – another mother whose conservatism makes her less supportive than she might be. A UK review by Isabelle Milton makes a good point in noting that in some sequences showing Sara in school, the use of long tracking shots seems to suggest an art cinema sensibility that is not supported by more familiar generic scenes such as dancing to pop music in a bedroom. The character of the father (played by Daniel Muñoz) seemed less well-drawn than the other main characters and I couldn’t ‘read’ his behaviour in some scenes. Is he playing ‘weak’ to disguise his intentions, is he simply ‘mild-mannered’? A colleague suggested he seemed ‘feminised’. This added to my sense of a slight incoherence.

Shot in CinemaScope and running at a concise 88 minutes, Rara is nevertheless an enjoyable film to watch with many excellent performances, especially by the two young sisters. It seems to have been released in Italy, Mexico and Spain with France to come and I hope it opens in more territories. Here is a trailer (with English subs) which perhaps pushes the conservative comments about sexuality harder than in the film itself:

and here is the Chilean trailer (no subs):

and here’s a long interview (with translation) from the Berlin Film Festival screening:

¡Viva! 23 #3: Alba (Ecuador-Mexico-Greece 2016)

Alba (Macarena Arias)

Alba was the second of three films at ¡Viva!, to present young teenagers in complicated family situations. 11 year-old Alba lives with her mother who is bedridden and dangerously ill. Alba is reliant on her own company and struggles to make friends at school. When her mother is hospitalised Alba is sent to live with her father Igor who she doesn’t really know since she was a baby when her parents divorced. He too is a solitary figure and seems beaten down by life. But he makes an effort and as a new relationship between father and daughter slowly develops, Alba also finds a new friend at school and starts to ‘open up’. But, once she begins to engage with her classmates, familiar issues of peer group pressure emerge and, in Alba’s case, social class attitudes. We realise that Alba’s mother must have put her daughter into a school in a middle-class area and her father’s lifestyle and his job in a municipal office don’t fit in. The narrative then has to deal with this new predicament.

Alba is a film developed with help from various film festival schemes as a first feature by Ecuadorian director Ana Cristina Barragán. She had previously made two well-received short films and this enabled her to attract two pairs of producers from Mexico and Greece who helped to make the film a success at festivals in Rotterdam and San Sebastian as well as Chicago, Mumbai and Lima. I haven’t seen a debutant film as fine as this for a long time. Despite sometimes employing the dreaded Steadicam and shallow focus at times, the CinemaScope frame is used by cinematographer Simon Brauer for lovely compositions which tell us a great deal in a film with less dialogue than usual given the shyness of both Alba and her father. The details are very well worked into the narrative and I would enjoy watching the film again to pick up what I might have missed first time round. Macarena Arias as Alba is fantastic. Like the young actor in La Madre, she has the kind of face that can be switch from vulnerable child to serious young adult and can be revealed as just as pretty as the privileged girls when dressed up for a party. Pablo Aguirre Andrade as Igor is also very good. I thought he seemed familiar and now I realise he was in the youth picture María y el Araña which screened at ¡Viva! in 2015 (and which I also liked very much).

Alba framed in the school playground . . .

. . . and with her father when he first takes her home

The film doesn’t name the city in which Alba lives, but in the most lyrical section of the narrative Alba and Igor visit the seaside area of Santa Elena. This section sees Alba playing a cassette in Igor’s clapped-out old car. He confirms that the tape is one of her mother’s. ‘Eres tú’ was a massively popular Spanish song from the early 1970s sung by Mocedades and a big hit around the world. The scenes that follow are the most lyrical with a patient father recognising and supporting Alba’s affinity with living creatures and her appreciation of natural beauty.

Father and daughter on the beach

But the joy of these scenes can’t last and there is more drama to follow. I like the way in which Barragán manages to show how Alba can ‘blossom’ through friendship but then find herself in more difficult situations because of unfamiliar social differences. It’s rare to find such a moving mix of ‘growing pains’ youth picture, family drama and subtle social commentary in a film that is also beautiful to behold.

Making friends

Made-up for a party and seen as pretty as the rich girls

Alba is a positive and encouraging story about a young girl told with considerable skill and panache. I hope to see more films by this director and Alba deserves to be widely seen and enjoyed. So far, promotional material is only available in Spanish via the official website which carries a Press Pack and the trailer below (from which I’ve taken most of the screengrabs in this posting).