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.
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.
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.
One of the highlights of ¡Viva! this year, El Mundo sigue is a film made in the early 1960s and then suppressed, only re-emerging in a restoration in 2015. As such, it serves as a form of commentary on the censorship under Franco and therefore as a useful indicator of what La transición had to achieve in the liberation of Spanish cinema. The screening was introduced by Stuart Green from the University of Leeds who also led a post-screening discussion.
Stuart explained that the film suffered from attention by the censors and was re-edited after completion in 1963 in the hope of getting a higher classification (i.e. a licence for wider distribution) but even so its release in 1965 was restricted to a handful of screenings outside Madrid. This was particularly damaging since the narrative focuses on the working class district in Madrid that became the centre for ‘La Movida’ fifteen years later. We watched the restoration screened from a DVD which unfortunately degraded the image in the long shots but medium shots and close-ups were fine. The restoration in 2015 was marked by a short documentary, El mundo sigue: La resurreción de una obra maestra del cine español which I think must be included on the Spanish DVD/Blu-ray.
El Mundo sigue is an adaptation of a 1960 novel by Juan Antonio de Zunzunegui, a distinguished Spanish writer known for ‘social criticism’. It offers a melodrama about a working-class family in which the two grown up daughters are at each other’s throats. Eloísa, the older sister, is a former beauty queen of the neighbourhood who has made an unfortunate marriage to a wastrel, a waiter at a local bar-café. Over the course of the narrative she has to find enough money to feed three young children since her husband wastes his tips and meagre wages on the weekly football ‘pools’. By contrast, her younger sister Luisita ‘progresses’ from a job in an up-market fashion shop into a glamorous life with a string of ‘sugar daddies’ – rich businessmen who buy her expensive gifts. Whenever Elo and Luisita meet at their parents apartment there are fireworks. Their father is a local police officer, their brother a pious young man who left a seminary and their mother struggles each day to feed the family.
The film was directed by Fernando Fernán Gómez (1921-2007), one of the towering figures of Spanish theatre and film as both actor and director. Here he also takes on the key role of Faustino the waiter and husband of Elo. His role is both similar and very different to his lead in That Happy Couple (Spain 1951), another attempt to get round the censors and critique Franco’s Spanish society that was made by Juan Antonio Bardem and Luis García Berlanga. Gómez approaches his film using neo-realism and developing its melodrama possibilities. The opening of the film involves a close-up of the driver’s seat and dashboard of an expensive car – this will also be the last shot of a film which is all one long flashback. The opening shot of that flashback is an observational, documentary long shot of a fruit and vegetable market. When the shot cuts to a location seemingly round the corner, we know immediately that although we are still ‘on the street’, we are now following the worn-down mother of a family, struggling back to her apartment with something for lunch. The apartment on the second floor of a tenement building is relatively spacious and at the rear there is an open terrace. There is space, but not much money to enjoy and exploit the space available. A similar terrace re-appears later in Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1987).
Neo-realism was popular as an aesthetic for several Spanish directors during the Franco era. The censors monitored the import of films, sometimes cutting scenes from those they allowed in. Italy as a Catholic country offered narratives about recognisable communities though they must have been cut because of the sexual content. Neo-realism also offered the ‘look’ of the prestige art films that Spanish authorities would have liked to have seen emulated by Spanish filmmakers at festivals like Cannes and Venice (though such films, like Bunuel’s Viridiana (1961), were sometimes not then released in Spain). Italian neo-realism was often open to melodrama and there are several scenes in which the performances are ‘excessive’ – Luisita and Elo fight and have to be kept apart. In other parts of the film, Gómez uses various expressionistic devices such as noir lighting and a montage of nighttime images. Running at just over two hours, the film is always engaging and watchable. The real question is what offended the fascist censors? What kind of social critique is being made?
During the screening, I thought of two other films from roughly the same time period, which although quite different in some ways did share some of the same themes and plot points. The first is Visconti’s Rocco and his Brothers (Italy-France 1960) which sees a similar family group in Milan and the contrasting fortunes of five sons, one of whom prompts moral concerns about his behaviour which causes pain for his mother. The second is John Schlesinger’s Darling (1965) in which Julie Christie had her breakout role as the middle-class girl who is destroyed by celebrity. I wondered what was ‘absent’ in the Spanish film compared to the other two. In Rocco, the working-class family is in a community (of migrants from the South) in which community and church are important and in which skilled factory employment and eventually unions and politics will become two further structures. In Franco’s Madrid of 1963/5 the Church seems surprisingly absent and, worse still, the pious and ineffectual son in the family is a weak character whose religiosity is mocked. There are no real jobs for women, only as servants or cleaners or shopgirls. Faustino’s job has little structure and father is a state employee in a lowly position. Eloísa is a sad figure, fulfilling a role in the Francoist state of having babies. Luisita is the only one with aspirations but these have been diverted into a form of prostitution and an engagement with the new world of consumerism which is only available to the rich and which is evident in clothes and American cars. I suspect if cuts were made they removed something that explains Luisita’s sudden move into this world. She leaves home after one of her fights with Elo and is suddenly in a modern apartment with a Dansette and a pile of pop records. Stuart Green suggested that scenes were also cut depicting Faustino and Elo in bed together. This despite the fact that they are husband and wife. The ‘freedom’ and consumerism of the young and especially young women in 1965, just prior to Swingin’ London is at the heart of Darling. But Diana Scott (Julie Christie), although she is ‘punished’ for her immoral behaviour has, in modern parlance, ‘agency’. She becomes a celebrity as herself. The clothes she wears and the image she projects are for her pleasure, not as markers of her kept status.
In El Mundo sigue, the absence of those supportive, collective structures for the working-class family is to some extent countered by the presence of the playwright turned theatre critic. Here is a family friend, a writer whose play has only been seen a few times in the neighbourhood and was then barred from opening in ‘town’. Now he writes theatre reviews and at one point is warned not to be too critical of the plays he reviews. He comes to visit the apartment a few times and tries to give advice to the daughters. He is trusted by the mother because he is from the community – whereas the men Luisita takes up with have made their money through conforming to the Francoist regime’s policies.
The film’s narrative changes in its second half. Initially it would appear that the drivers of the narrative are Luisita and Elo. Gradually, however, it is Faustino who takes over Elo’s story as his gambling and womanising eventually leads to his downfall and Elo’s degradation. My memory is of Spain as a country besotted by lottery tickets but Faustino cons himself by thinking he is an expert on predicting football scores. The ‘pools’ is a relatively harmless pastime but Faustino is obsessed (we even get a glimpse of Real Madrid playing in the early 1960s when they were even more dominant than they are now). Low level gambling keeps the working-class happy and uninvolved in political struggle (see the rise of the lottery competitions in the UK since the 1990s) and seems a good way of satirising Francoism.
In the discussion that followed, it was clear that people had enjoyed the film. I think it would be very interesting to compare El Mundo sigue with other similar films from across Europe during the same period. I’m sure the differences would be interesting and show up what living under Franco was like for the urban population in the 1960s. Unfortunately the Spanish DVD is listed as only having French subs. The trailer here doesn’t hve subs but gives an idea of the film.
In the clip below from the early part of the film, we see Lusita working in an up-market shop, then Elo arriving at the family apartment seeking money to buy her children food. The pious brother and father are also there and eventually Luisita arrives and the sisters are immediately at odds.
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)’.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(Images from the Spanish language blog at http://bachilleratocinefilo.blogspot.nl/2015/03/7-dias-de-enero-1979-alejandro-berna.html)
This screening was part of this year’s ¡Viva! Festival’s focus on La transición – the period in which Spain struggled to move from fascism to multi-party democracy in the second half of the 1970s. Advertised as 170 minutes long, I did fear that the film itself might be a struggle, but the archive 35mm print seemed to be intact and ran for around 130 always watchable minutes. The title refers to the seven days in January 1977 when violence enacted against students, workers and Communist Party supporters in Madrid by the police and fascist ‘guerillas’ threatened to lead to an all-out confrontation. The opening scenes of the film offer newsreel footage and titles hammered out like telex messages detailing the ‘real events’. What follows is a form of dramatic ‘reconstruction’ of some of the events with, as the titles inform us, some ‘narrative invention’. They suggest that the film’s job is to represent the events, not to act as the judicial system.
The film was directed by Juan Antonio Bardem, himself a Communist Party member who had been imprisoned at various times by Franco’s regime but who nevertheless had survived as a practising filmmaker, often disguising the messages of the films he had written and directed himself and with Luis García Berlanga. I was already familiar with aspects of Bardem’s work from a Leeds International Film Festival screening of Death of a Cyclist (1955).
The focus of the narrative is on two sets of mainly young people (i.e. in their twenties and thirties). One group are labour lawyers, mainly Communist Party members or supporters, who are helping independent trades unions in their struggles with both employers and the ‘official’ unions set up by Franco’s regime. These lawyers have rented an office on Atocha Street in the centre of Madrid and close to the streets where left-wing street protests have been met with over-zealous policing. The second group comprises a trio of young men who are part of a right-wing organisation attempting to prevent the return to democracy, primarily by adopting a strategy of ‘creating tension’ (a strategy imported from Italy). Their hope is that the confusion and anger they will create will ‘justify’ a coup d’état by the military and the overthrow of the provisional government established since Franco’s death in 1975. It occurred to me later that Bardem had adopted a similar approach to that adopted recently by Gurinder Chadha in Viceroy’s House (2017) – and which has generated criticism. The approach involves focusing on a romance between two characters as a means of drawing the audience into the personal, ‘human’ stories of individual characters in the hope that this will help us understand the political struggles.
The character who is given most screen time is Luis María Hernando de Cabral, an upper middle-class young man, the son of a decorated soldier killed by the ‘Reds’. His mother Adelaïda (French actress Madeleine Robinson) is the personal assistant to Don Tomás (French actor Jacques François), a powerful man who is secretly the leader of the right-wing forces planning insurrection. Luis María is courting Pilar, the younger daughter of Don Tomás, and also training with two other men for ‘guerrilla activity’. The courtship provides us with evidence of the rigid moral stance of the fascist hierarchy such that Pilar and Luis María cannot even spend a night together. The relationship seems to disappear in the later stages of the film (Andy Willis, who selected the film for the festival, joked that this might account for the ‘missing’ 40 mins – or at least be part of it). The focus on the fascists and this family seems odd. Why not choose one of the young communists – or at least choose both? The clue, I think is in Bardem’s earlier work, such as Death of a Cyclist. That film focused on a university teacher with a wealthy girlfriend who is ashamed of the way he (and by extension his social class) behaved after a cyclist was knocked down. In 7 dias de enero Bardem offers us a weak central character, a young man trapped by devotion to his father’s legacy, who is in practice an ineffective fascist – he doesn’t train well on a shooting range and is unreliable in a crisis. One reading would be that Luis María is the ‘human’ face of the fascists – the others being more ‘typical’ in their thuggish behaviour. These thugs could survive in the new Spain and as we learned in the ‘One Hour Introduction to The Politics of La transición’, one such character could be found in Marshland (La isla mínima, Spain 2014). Gradually the thugs will be replaced. But it’s the characters like Luis María who must change during the transition period.
The other more practical reason for a filmmaker to focus on the right-wing upper class families is the sheer number of characters in the script and the necessity to include non-professional actors (Manuel Ángel Egea as Luis María does not seem to have any previous credits). I suspect that several of the trade unionists and lawyers are played by non-professionals. Their narrative is much more collectivist and only a handful of them are picked out for dialogue scenes. The most charismatic is the trade union leader Joaquín Navarro (I can’t discern if he is played by a professional actor) and from the lawyers, the young woman (see the image above) who was one of the survivors and who is required to pick out the perpetrators from a line-up. The film is accurate in terms of broad details of the events and I won’t spoil the narrative too much, but simply record that the main thrust of the events is a plan to assassinate the Atocha lawyers. If you want to know the details they are available online. The blog from which I’ve taken screengrabs actually explains who many of the characters in the film are and how they refer to the historical figures involved in the real events (see the first image).
Overall, I found this to be a fascinating film and I was taken back to the late 1970s when so much else was happening that I don’t think I paid as much attention to these events as I should. I first visited Madrid in 1981, a few weeks after the attempted coup d’état when army officers attempted to take over the Congress of Deputies. It seemed peaceful enough but obviously I didn’t realise what was happening behind the scenes. In retrospect, the political transición was possibly less violent that many had feared and Spain eventually achieved a return to the European mainstream in not much more than ten years – and certainly by 1992. Bardem’s film (in cinemas in France just over two years after the events depicted) is a valuable resource in understanding many of the emotions and beliefs of the period.
La Madre was a challenging start to my ¡Viva! viewing, both in terms of its uncompromising aesthetic and barebones story. The title is slightly misleading in that the protagonist is 14 year-old Miguel. His mother is largely absent and when she is present she doesn’t contribute a great deal. This explains why Miguel has attracted the attention of social services in his small town in the Valencia region. They want to take him into care and he is hoping that his mother will get a job and be able to provide a home for him.
We first meet Miguel on the street, attempting to sell packets of tissues to motorists at traffic junctions. The camera follows him closely, often focusing on the back of his neck. He’s learned how to be resilient in pursuing the necessities of daily life – shoplifting, accepting food from his friends at school who don’t always eat their packed lunches, selling his (stolen) tissues. We don’t know why his mother is in the state she is in – lacking energy, sleeping during the day and seemingly suffering from depression. We don’t learn about Miguel’s absent father. Quite early on I was reminded of Moonlight, not only because of the mother-son set-up, but also because of the roaming hand-held camera and the use of shallow focus.
As in Moonlight, the narrative provides the young teenager with a surrogate father figure. In this case, at his mother’s prompting, Miguel seeks out her ex-lover Bogdan, who lives in a neighbouring district with his son Andrei. Andrei is a few years older than Miguel and not necessarily pleased to see the younger boy. But it is during his time with Bogdan that Miguel will meet María (the impressive Nieve de Medina) a woman who runs a local bar-café and who offers Miguel the kind of adult support he hasn’t very often experienced. How will he respond and how will it affect his feelings about his mother?
There is nothing sentimental about La Madre and little in the way of generic trappings or obvious narrative delights. The setting is important. This is the south of Spain in a landscape of dusty roads, humdrum residential areas and industrial estates. There is no escape for Miguel into places of natural beauty or contact with animals. It’s traffic junctions, bus stops, small shops etc. It’s also a ‘sterile’, almost abstract environment with relatively few people on the streets or in the shops and bars. Presented in CinemaScope framings, the images seem to contradict or challenge our assumptions about what kind of film this might be.
After the screening I read about the film on Cineuropa’s website which carries a review and an interview with the director and co-writer Alberto Morais. He tells us that he wanted to make a film about the new economic ‘war’ on the poor and that his starting point was observing children in Russia after the fall of communism. The orphanages and children’s homes closed and children were sleeping in the metro stations. He argues that he is making a ‘film of the moment’, but not offering a moral point of view. He had the idea of focusing on attitudes towards the marginalisation of migrants by having a Spanish boy be taken in by Romanian migrants. He also gives us ideas about his own influences – Bergman and Pasolini are mentioned but he seems to make a judgement against the Dardenne Brothers and generally what he sees as the ‘Catholic guilt’ of many liberal ‘social’ films. I’m still trying to understand this approach. I like the Dardennes and I’m wary of Bergman (I don’t know Pasolini well enough to make a judgement). I think perhaps I like my realism combined with melodrama and enough sociology to place the characters and the story in the world I recognise. Morais and his co-writers have a different strategy. I think I would have found the narrative even more difficult to engage with if it hadn’t been for the extraordinary performance by the young debutant actor Javier Mendo as Miguel. My attention was certainly held by Miguel/Mendo who is on screen almost all the time. He has one of those faces that can switch from vulnerability to resilience and an almost adult sense of introspection. I couldn’t say that I ‘enjoyed’ La Madre, but I was impressed by the filmmaking and the performances. I don’t think a little more emotion would have undermined the film’s purpose.
The trailer below shows some of the visual style and conveys the tension of Miguel’s experiences.
The ¡Viva! Festival of film, art and theatre returns to HOME in Manchester for its 23rd outing starting on Friday 31st March and running for 18 days through to Monday 17th April. This year’s programme has a focus on the fortieth anniversary of the lifting of censorship in post-Franco Spain during La Transición. This will include films from the period, a visual art exhibition engaging with La Movida madrileña and a new theatre show Republica. In addition there will be the familiar round of UK premières and previews of new films from Spain and Latin America (and with attention to contemporary Basque cinema). Some of these will be accompanied by Q&As and panel discussions with filmmakers and other events, talks and discussions. There’s a lot of music and partying as well with each of the three weekends designated Fiesta! time. So, if you live around Manchester you have no excuse for missing the fun and if you don’t, why not make a weekend of it or midweek for a day or two? We are strong supporters of ¡Viva! My set of programme notes goes back to the 5th Festival and we’ve kept returning. You can see blog posts from more recent festivals via this tag: https://itpworld.wordpress.com/tag/viva/
I’m particularly looking forward to a couple of archive films. Fernando Fernán Gómez directed El Mundo sigue (Life Goes on) in 1965, but this melodrama about life in Madrid in Francoist times was not acceptable to the authorities and was banned after a single screening. Siete dias de enero (Seven Days in January, Spain 1979) is a 170 minutes political drama that follows the events during La Transición surrounding an attack by right-wing extremists on employment lawyers linked to the Spanish Communist Party, leaving five dead and others injured. With a 1 hour intro by Andy Willis and Carmen Herrero this promises to be quite a night on Wednesday 5th April. I’m also hoping to see new films from Cuba, Peru and Chile as well as Spain and to catch the panel discussion with “contemporary women cineastes”.
Here’s a good example of an ‘international film’. Siobhan Ward, an Irish writer of children’s books, has an idea for a story while she is dangerously ill. She agrees to write it as a novel but doesn’t live long enough and her British publisher commissions Patrick Ness, an American living in the UK, to write the novel. Ness then adapts the story for a film by a Spanish production company. The Spanish director and mainly Spanish crew make the film in Spain, the UK and the US/Canada with a cast that is mainly British and with all the exteriors shot in Lancashire. This English language film then becomes the biggest box office success in Spain in 2016 (possibly dubbed?). This is the background to A Monster Calls.
This is a fantasy film, not the kind of film I see very often – unless it is a foreign language film. I wanted to see A Monster Calls because it is directed by J. A. Bayona, whose first film was the wonderful El orfanato (The Orphanage, Spain 2007). There are some obvious connections between the two films, including an appearance by Geraldine Chaplin who links Bayona’s films to the history of child protagonists in films made under Franco’s censorship (Chaplin appears in Cria cuervos, made by her then partner Carlos Saura in 1976). Franco’s censorship allowed only certain kinds of films to be made and those with child stars were assumed (falsely) to be the least subversive. Ana Torrent was the child star in Cria cuervos as she was in The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). Along with the two Guillermo del Toro films The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), these are all films in which children engage with different forms of horror/fantasy – and always for an understanding of the adult world in which their stories explore metaphorical meanings. (Guillermo del Toro ‘presented’ El orfanato, but he is not involved in A Monster Calls.) A Monster Calls draws on a similar British/Irish tradition of children’s fantasy going back to Louis Carroll’s Alice and now found in numerous recent novels and stories (I haven’t seen any of them, but I’m sure you can make your own list). Conor (the brilliant Lewis MacDougall) is a 13 year-old boy whose mother (Felicity Jones) is seriously ill. Conor’s father (Toby Kebbell) has remarried and gone to live in Los Angeles, so Conor is effectively his mother’s carer. Sigourney Weaver plays his rather stern grandmother who takes over whenever things get too difficult, but Conor struggles to respond to her. For fairly obvious reasons, Conor is lonely and isolated at school and is bullied. Every night he has a nightmare which wakes him at a specific time. It is in one of these sleeping/waking moments that he first meets the ‘monster’, a fearsome ‘tree-man’ who steps forth from the yew tree across the valley. In the deep rumbling voice of Liam Neeson, the monster follows fairy tale traditions by announcing that he will tell Conor three tales on different nights and that Conor will then be required to respond with his own tale. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative if you don’t already know the story.
The director’s second film, The Impossible (Spain-US 2012) was an English language ‘action melodrama’ set during the 2004 tsunami in Thailand and he is clearly happy directing in English. The elements that he adds to the original story are an increased emphasis on Conor’s interest and skill in drawing/painting and also various references to the ‘monsters’ of classic movies. When his mother drags out a 16mm film projector, she laces up King Kong (1933) and Conor watches the trials of the monster with real concern. Later there is a brief glimpse of a model of the Frankenstein monster from 1930 (which might be a reference to The Spirit of the Beehive). I haven’t yet discovered why the shoot was based around the South Pennines, mainly on the Lancashire side but with some scenes shot in Marsden and Huddersfield in Yorkshire. This moorland landscape has a distinctive feel and it can be evocative of religious fervour and ‘dark’ goings on. On the Northern side of the region lies the glowering mass of Pendle, famed for the arrest and trial of the ‘Lancashire witches’ in the 17th century. I’ve seen some critics refer to the children’s novel (and film) The Iron Man (1985) by the poet Ted Hughes as having something in common with A Monster Calls. Hughes was from Mytholmroyd in the Calder Valley a little further south-east of Pendle. At one point, I thought Calderdale was the location used in A Monster Calls and I was reminded of another slightly ‘magical film’, My Summer of Love (2014) shot on the moors above Hebden Bridge. In truth, there isn’t that much use of landscape in A Monster Calls and the church and the yew tree on the hillside opposite Conor’s window are actually CGI models (presumably in a studio in Barcelona). Even so, the locations are carefully chosen so both the school and the hospital (and the level crossing on the preserved East Lancs Railway) have that feeling of being slightly behind the times, adding to the fantasy. The scenes shot in Blackpool at the Pleasure Beach and on North Pier seem to be deliberately ‘unconventional’ (i.e. the Tower and other landmark buildings don’t appear), either because the cinematographer isn’t aware of Blackpool images or because the intention is to downplay the ‘realism’ of the sequence.
Bayona also decided to make use of the graphic material in the original book (illustrations by Jim Kay) and I think these are very cleverly used in relation to the stories the monster tells. The discourse of drawing/painting and use of production design again links the film to El orfanato – something I felt immediately from the opening scenes. J. A. Bayona seems to have shifted his allegiance from Guillermo del Toro to Stephen Spielberg (his next film will be an instalment of the Jurassic World franchise) but A Monster Calls still retains a Spanish feel via the creative team, including DoP Oscar Faura and composer Fernando Velázquez. I’m reminded of the earlier major success by a Spanish-language director working in English when Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (Spain-US 2001) made over $200 million worldwide. Yet Amenábar’s subsequent English language films haven’t succeeded internationally and del Toro’s English language films haven’t always perhaps been as successful as they might have been (e.g. Crimson Peak in 2015). I fear that this may also be true of A Monster Calls. In Spain the film made €27 million when it was released in October. In the UK it opened wide on over 500 screens on 6 January with very good preview numbers and a strong but not spectacular opening weekend. In North America it opened on a handful of screens on December 23rd and went wide to 1500 screens on 6 January, but barely reached the UK opening total which had a third of the screens. This opening pattern matches that (on a smaller scale) of El orfanato. North America is weakest, Spain strongest and the UK in the middle. Since the film reportedly has a $43 million production budget, these figures are quite worrying. I’m not sure why the UK and US openings were left until January 6 when the school holidays were coming to an end.
There were a minority of negative reviews and I guess the film is darker than the usual fare for younger audiences. Sigourney Weaver has been singled out in some quarters. I thought she was fine (though it is difficult to see her as Felicity Jones’ mother). Numerous UK actors would have been a better ‘fit’. Felicity Jones is now a big draw and this might have been a perfect alternative attraction to her Star Wars lead – though it isn’t a role she would have chosen in order to boost her star power. If the film has a weakness, it is perhaps in the school sequences which I think could have been explored a little more without skewing the narrative too much. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian mentions Let the Right One In (Sweden 2008). There is a link certainly, but horror fans expecting something similar would be disappointed. I think A Monster Calls stands on its own merits and I would urge you to see it for the tone and the thematic of its story, the cinematography and production design (and the sensitive use of CGI) and the terrific performance by its young lead. The trailer is quite good and illustrates many of the film’s best qualities without giving everything away: