I watched this film in a cinema preview screening a couple of months ago. The reaction of the audience was mixed ranging from the enthusiastic to the vitriolic. I feared for the film on release and it has indeed been damned by most UK reviewers after its opening last week. I actually enjoyed it but I can see that for many audiences it might not work. However, if you forgive a couple of problems there is plenty to admire.
The first consideration is that this is a literary adaptation of a much-loved and celebrated novel by Penelope Fitzgerald. I haven’t read the novel but I could feel the sense of a literary narrative in the very distinctive characters and the ways in which they are represented. The second consideration is that this is an adaptation by the Catalan Isabel Coixet who both wrote and directed the film. Coixet has made several English language ‘international’ films, none of which I’d seen before this one. In Spain the film was a big success and it won many awards and nominations at Spanish festivals. Unfortunately, this particular narrative needs some careful handling of the nuances of the English class system and details of English culture in the 1950s. Coixet’s production decisions are not always helpful.
As the title suggests, the story concerns a bookshop newly established in a small coastal town in the late 1950s by Florence Green, a youngish widow with a love of books and just enough money to get a business going. Florence discovers that she has an implacable enemy in the town in the shape of the woman in the ‘big house’, Mrs Gamart. She wants the bookshop building for an arts centre and she doesn’t think much of Florence’s ideas or her values. Fortunately, Florence will discover a possible ally in the reclusive Mr Brundish. These three characters and their conflicts provide most of the plot incidents. The trio are played by Emily Mortimer as Florence, Patricia Clarkson as Mrs Gamart and Bill Nighy as Mr Brundish. These fine actors are arguably the main attractions for a UK audience – and possibly also one of the sources of confusion for the audience.
The Bookshop is a Spanish film made in Barcelona studios and interiors and on location in Northern Ireland on Strangford Lough. The creative HoDs and the crew were all Spanish apart from some Irish personnel. I spent most of the film wondering where on earth the narrative was set and by the end had decided on Ireland (but I haven’t been to the Lough, so I wasn’t precise). None of this matters except that I knew the fictional town was meant to be in Suffolk according to the publicity material (and the novel). The film certainly doesn’t look or feel like it is set in coastal Suffolk – typically flat landscapes and shingle beaches. Instead we get hills, cliffs, rocks and sand and forests. Several user comments suggest that the accents are all over the place. They didn’t bother me but I can see the criticism. The other complaints are about the minutiae of book covers and anachronistic books etc. All of these small points get in the way of engagement with the story but overall I think the problems are as much to do with audience expectations as with the film itself.
Seeing the poster, recognising the three stars and then noticing the blurb, I think many UK and possibly US audiences will have expected a kind of BBC or ‘Masterpiece Theatre’ kind of literary adaptation. These are sometimes rather cosy with a veneer of authentic detail (a ‘surface’ realism) and a strong narrative drive. The Bookshop is perhaps more ‘quirky’ with a more elusive narrative. It lacks the veneer of correct period detail but for me it sets up intriguing questions that kept me guessing. The narrative resolution is a surprise but for me worked very well. Emily Mortimer is an actor I admire and I think she is very good in the role. Bill Nighy and Patricia Clarkson are more of a problem – both are asked to play strong distinctive characters who are actually not seen that often – they each have a handful of set piece scenes. Nighy in particular has a well-known persona as a comedic actor which doesn’t fit this particular role so some audiences might be disappointed.
The story is about Florence and I think that the film works when we focus on her and her struggles. The book covers in the shop may be ‘inauthentic’ but I liked the costume design and those 1950s outfits , so stifling and conservative are made slightly more daring for Florence, matching her decisions to shake up the locals by stocking Nabokov’s Lolita (and making a visual reference to the novel’s first publication from the Olympia Press in Paris – very shocking in the 1950s). Florence’s only real relationship is with her very young schoolgirl assistant played by Honor Kneafsey and very good she is too. I don’t want to spoil the narrative but I will point out that this is not a conventional narrative about good triumphing over evil or adversity. Instead it is an intense character study of Florence Green. The film is photographed by the veteran French cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu, a long-term collaborator with Isabel Coixet. I enjoyed his work very much and a trip to County Down is very much on my horizon.
Here are the American and Spanish trailers, slightly different I think. My advice is to dispense with any assumptions about what it will be like and simply go with it.
The exuberant director of this film introduced it by telling us that it dealt with two of his most treasured things, friendship and music. Gabriel Nesci told us of his excitement at being in Manchester (he’d been present for the first showing in the UK of his film earlier during ¡Viva!). His previous film had opened the festival in 2014 and in addition his love of music was based on his appreciation of the Manchester music scene in the 1980s. Gabriel seems a nice guy but I always take what directors say with a pinch of salt. His new film is stuffed with music, much of it written by Gabriel himself, but the only ‘Madchester’ references I noted were a Stone Roses poster and a Joy Division ‘Unknown Pleasures’ tee-shirt. But then I’m no expert on Manchester music and I enjoyed the film very much.
I saw recently somewhere a definitive statement that “feelgood films are not a genre”. Maybe not, but they comprise a category of films used by audiences round the world. “A great Friday night movie” is a similar concept and in the unlikely event that a movie offering as much fun as this were to get distribution in the UK, I’d recommend it highly. In a more mundane way, IMDb calls this a comedy-drama-music film. It involves three middle-aged guys who were once a youthful rock trio in Buenos Aires with the band name of ‘Auto-Reverse’. Just at the moment they were to release their first album and take the local scene by storm in 1992, their creative musical talent suddenly upped and went back to Spain with no explanation. The other two gave up music and the tapes of their songs were seemingly lost. Twenty-five years later, Axel (Santiago Segura), now an IT systems maintenance man in Madrid, spots that a Buenos Aires radio station is planning a ’25 years ago’ concert and he decides to fly back to Argentina. The other two band members are Javier (Diego Peretti) who is now a biology teacher and Lucas (Diego Torres), a lawyer. When Axel arrives he discovers both his ex-colleagues are having major problems but he worms his way back into Javier’s life and urges them to get back together as a band. When they discover that their one superfan from 1992, Sol (Florencia Bertotti) still has the original cassettes of their songs, everything seems possible – until it goes wrong.
The plot rolls out down some well-travelled lines but it’s all well done. The narrative drive is shared between Axel and Javier. Axel is presented as somewhere on the autistic spectrum and his behaviour is mined for many of the laughs. I suspect that Santiago Segura’s star persona is also being used in some ways. He’s an actor known outside Hispanic culture for his work with Guillermo del Toro in cameo parts in most of del Toro’s English language films. But in Spain he is known for his work with Álex de la Iglesia and also as the eponymous central character in the Torrente franchise of five comedy crime films in which he writes, directs and stars. These are some of the most commercially successful films in Spanish cinema. Segura’s Axel has a stuttering walk and a complete lack of social intelligence, going for unwanted hugs and saying all the wrong things to everybody but also having the autistic ‘savant’ capacity to write music and deal with all kinds of music technologies. He’s the ‘computer nerd’ with real talent and the opposite of Lucas the smooth lawyer. Axel’s behaviour is highlighted by his attempts to communicate with the woman he fell for but couldn’t speak to in 1992. Abril (Claudia Fontán) is now in a wheelchair after an accident and the exchanges between these two might raise a few eyebrows given the current concerns about typing characters. However, I don’t think the film is offensive in any way, in fact it’s quite sensitive. Javier’s problems are with his teenage son and his bored students, cue the amazement of digital natives when their teacher is revealed to have been a bass player (who writes and sings the lyrics for Axel’s songs) and appears performing on YouTube. Javier is the main focus for drama – he hasn’t recovered from his wife’s death and he fears he’s losing his son. Axel also carries the potential for drama and the mystery of his disappearance all those years ago waits to be explained. Lucas has just been found out as a suspected fraudster. He plays the drums – ’nuff said.
I won’t spoil all the other elements of the narrative. Overall, I think this is an engaging comedy and the kind of Hispanic film that ¡Viva! has often screened, allowing us to enjoy comedies from another language culture. Gabriel Nesci’s songs are pretty good too.
Here’s the Spanish language trailer (no English subs):
This year’s ¡Viva! Festival opens at HOME on Thursday. Don’t get confused, but the brochure looks almost identical to last year’s, at least in design terms. This year’s festival has the banner title ‘La revolución’ and the mix of Spanish and Latin American theatre, film, music and exhibitions is this time skewed more towards Latin America in the film section. Having said that there is the usual range of co-productions which involve both Spanish and Latin American funds/producers and filmmaking talent.
The opening weekend focuses on Cuban cinema with premières and the classic Cuban film Memories of Underdevelopment (1968) from Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. Later comes Wim Wenders’ documentary The Buena Vista Social Club (1999). For cinephiles and serious politicos there is a rare opportunity to see The Hour of the Furnaces (dirs. Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanos, Argentina 1968) (16mm) on Sunday 22nd April. There are 19 films in all with some well-known directors such as Álex de la Iglesia from Spain and Fernando Pérez from Cuba with recent films. Fans of Guillermo del Toro will be intrigued to note that one of his favourite actors, Ron Perlman, turns up in a Cuban political satire, Sergio and Sergei (2017). Many films will be introduced and there are six Q&As with visiting filmmakers and events with presentations on ‘Cuban Cinema’, ‘Álex de la Iglesia’ and ‘Latin American Revolutions and Cinema’. ¡Viva! is the only place to get such a concentrated dose of Spanish and Latin American cinema in one go. Click on the image above to get the brochure.
I’m going to make some of the dates but not as many as usual, I’m afraid. Whatever I can get to, I’m looking forward to it!
Spanish cinema has a high reputation for genres such as horror, fantasy and science fiction – whether the films are aimed at cinéphile audiences, mainstream Spanish audiences or more cultish followers. The Night of the Virgin, as the title perhaps indicates, is skewed towards the third option, though it perhaps has some pretensions to attract the first. This is a horror film trading in disgust, but also trying to make some political points – though whether these are accessible to audiences outside Spanish culture is debatable.
It’s New Years Eve and the film’s first trick is to invite us to a live Spanish TV programme preparing for the New Year’s Eve celebrations in Bilbao – the extract is presented as a small 4:3 image within a CinemaScope frame. (IMDb suggests the film’s ratio is 2.70:1 ‘Ultra CinemaScope’.) Eventually the TV image expands to at least fill the frame vertically and then the image switches to the full ‘Scope frame to show a bar/night club where the titular character is attempting to find a woman to take away his virginity on the last night of the year. It looks like he will have no luck but at the last an attractive older woman invites him back to her apartment.
The virgin, Nico (Javier Bódalo) has borrowed a dress shirt and jacket to go out but he seems bewildered by the club. He’s also being goaded on by his mates and we see their text messages to him. Soon his hormones take over and a familiar scenario from teen horror emerges – he will seek a sexual adventure and something will go wrong. When he and the woman, Medea (Miriam Martín) reach her dingy apartment block, she warns him not to step on a cockroach as it will bring him bad luck – but, of course, he immediately does. We assume that he doesn’t know the story of Medea the sorceress. This Medea seems to have embraced sorcery from a different culture but she is certainly not to be messed with. What follows is a horror narrative with some comic elements which involves every kind of bodily fluids. It explores the desire for and fear of sexual acts and their place in rituals. Will Nico survive the night? What else goes on in this old apartment block? The narrative has a twist and the film ends with another TV broadcast which this time reports from outside the apartment block.
Would I recommend the film? I’m afraid that I don’t feel competent. I’ve seen enough Spanish horror and read enough Spanish history to know that there are some possible satirical/political points here but I can’t work out what they mean (apart from the attack on those idiotic New Year’s Eve TV programmes). This form of ‘body horror of disgust’ is not for the squeamish and unfortunately that includes me. The film has an 18 certificate for its UK release (strong violence, gore, sexual violence, sexual activity). Writer Guillermo Guerrero and director Roberto San Sebastián have produced a film that seems to have attracted extensive interest by specialist film festivals around the world. The film’s promotion cites many prizes and many glowing reviews from horror fans – “Disgustingly Unforgettable”, “Extreme, Grotesque and Gloriously Insane” are just a couple of them. The film is arguably too long but the music is entertaining.
It’s available from Matchbox Films, release date April 2 and can be pre-ordered from Amazon UK.
El diputado was one of the two films from the ‘Transition to Democracy’ phase of Spanish cinema in the 1970s that featured in HOME’s ¡Viva! Festival earlier this year and then re-appeared as part of the States of Danger and Deceit programme. I watched it at the Hyde Park Picture House as part of the Leeds Film Festival. Films like this are interesting for several reasons – not least because they are rarely discussed in English.
The film is directed by Eloy de la Iglesia from a screenplay by the director and Gonzalo Goicoechea. De la Iglesia is perhaps best known for films “about young urban marginality and delinquency in what was commonly called cine quinqui” (see comment from ‘La Cinètika’ below). I haven’t seen any of these other films, but here he was taking advantage of the lifting of film censorship in Spain to explore his own key identities as a socialist gay man. In one sense the film is linked to Pedro Almodóvar’s early films in the transition period, but the difference is that where Almodóvar was just beginning to learn his trade, de la Iglesia was already an experienced filmmaker whose credits as actor, writer and director went back to the 1960s.
The transition period sees the left in Spain trying to mobilise and to gain elected representatives in the Cortes. It sees alliances between Communists and more centrist parties (PSOE – Partido Socialista Obrero Español) which began to detach from Marxism in order to gain power). The narrative of El diputado sees a crisis developing for a youngish man who moves from being a ‘deputy’ in an underground Marxist party to becoming one of four party members elected to the Cortes and in the process the promise of becoming a future leader. He has a major weakness (in political terms) of being unable to put to one side his love for a young under-age man.
One aspect of the film is undoubtedly to explore and celebrate the gay scene in Madrid in the years immediately following Franco’s death. The central character Roberto Orbea (José Sacristán) – who I note has over 100 acting credits on IMDb – is a man of independent means (via a family inheritance) who is forced out of his academic position as a law professor and imprisoned. In prison he meets Nes (Ángel Pardo) who introduces him to gay sex and later sets him up with young boys. Roberto is bisexual and married to the beautiful Carmen (María Luisa San José) but he can’t put aside his attraction to young men. All this is presented as a flashback as Roberto agonises on how to act in a crisis. In the early years of the ‘transición‘, the communists begin to organise more openly and to hold public rallies. The fascists attempt to stop the left organising and when they discover Roberto’s ‘weakness’ they decide to exploit it through Juanito (José Luis Alonso), the minor who Roberto falls for in a big way.
I don’t want to spoil the narrative any further. Instead, I want to explore what de la Iglesia does with the story. The film was actually projected on 35mm, so Keith was there (and the very experienced HPPH projectionist had problems getting the aspect ratio correct, probably because the instructions on the cans wasn’t clear – we thought that perhaps it was meant to be 1.66:1 not 1.85:1). Keith thought that Roberto was surprisingly naïve for a Marxist lawyer in not realising what was likely to happen. I can see what he means, but I was struck by one of the (few) comments on IMDb which linked the film to Basil Dearden’s Victim (1961), a classic of British cinema in which Dirk Bogarde, a British matinee idol of the 1940s and 1950s, who risked all to play a married lawyer who is being blackmailed because of his affair with a young man. It’s an interesting reference, especially with the involvement of a loving wife. I think we have to accept that Roberto genuinely loves Juanito and can’t let him go – just as Carmen loves Roberto and can’t let him go. I think that de la Iglesia is quite clever in offering us the explict gay (and straight) sex which Roberto and Juanito enjoy, but also the demonstrations and campaign rallies that Juanito comes to enjoy and believe in. He also becomes something like a family member for Roberto and Carmen. de la Iglesia’s real coup though is to explore the class basis of the relationship. Roberto is a middle-class bourgeois Marxist (with the wealth to rent a flat as a secret HQ for the party and then as his love nest) who learns something about working-class families through his relationship with Juanito. Juanito is alienated from his own working-class community but discovers it again through his involvement with the young comrades from his neighbourhood during the demonstrations and political campaigns. Socialist/Marxist activists are often represented in films as socially conservative and this view of Roberto makes an interesting change.
The best scholarship on this film, and de la Inglesia’s work generally, that I’ve found is in Barry Jordan & Rikki Morgan-Tamosunas, Contemporary Spanish Cinema, Manchester University Press 1998. They emphasise Roberto’s struggle in which he “first denies and then conceals his own sexuality, believing it to be a deviant manifestation of bourgeois indulgence” (p. 149). They then recognise that the increased openness of socialist political campaigning is contrasted with the still clandestine gay world in which Roberto is active. He is “forced by the strength of his sexuality to recognise both its inevitability and the political right to live consistently with his identity”. I think that this is a perceptive reading but it doesn’t deal with two of the other major concerns of the narrative – when will Roberto tell his party about something which could be damaging if used by their enemies. And what will happen to Juanito (who is still a minor)?
I won’t spoil the narrative of this melodrama, except to say that it has both a dramatic climax and an ‘open’ ending, but I think that it is a film that manages to be ‘realistic’ and progressive in its representations while providing the dubious (but genuine) ‘pleasures’ of exploitation cinema. Thanks to Andy, Rachel and Jessie at HOME for making it possible to see the film in the UK.
I missed this in cinemas but caught it through my HDD Recorder on (very) late night TV. Blackthorn is an excellent Western with an interesting background. Shot entirely in Bolivia with Spanish, French and UK inputs, the film was directed by Mateo Gil, best known perhaps as the writer of four films for Alejandro Amenábar (including Mar Adentro and Agora discussed on this blog). It was written by Miguel Barros and photographed by Juan Ruiz-Anchía (born in Bilbao, but long in the US). The cast includes leads who are American, Spanish, Irish, Danish and Peruvian. This is certainly a ‘global film’ as well as a Latin-American Western from a region between Mexico and Argentina, the more usual locations for the genre.
The genealogy of the narrative is however pure Hollywood as it offers a third episode to the story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969). There had already been a ‘prequel’ to the 1969 story in 1979 and since they were historical characters, the Butch and Sundance appear in other Western films and TV series. Blackthorn argues that Butch, Sundance and Etta Place survived a battle with Bolivian police in 1908 but Etta and Sundance then returned to the US while Butch Cassidy changed his name to James Blackthorn and retired to a small house in the hills to rear horses. The film begins in 1928 (when Butch/Blackthorn is 62 and played by a grizzled Sam Shepard). Etta has died and Blackthorn decides to return to the US to find Etta’s son (Blackthorn may be his father but he writes to him as ‘nephew’). Blackthorn sells his horses to pay for the trip but the money is then lost and Blackthorn finds himself on the run again, but this time with a Spanish mining engineer (played by Eduardo Noriega, another Amenábar film alumni). Much of the film is a chase narrative which will eventually lead to Blackthorn being discovered by his old foe Mackinley (Stephen Rea), once a Pinkerton detective, now an ‘honorary consul’ and town drunk. Intercut with this chase are short flashback sequences which show Butch (the younger version played by Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Sundance (Pádraic Delaney) and Etta back in 1908. From these plot elements and castings it is clear that this is a ‘twilight Western’ with other inflections.
In the film’s press notes Gil:
One of the things that I like most about the Western is that it’s a truly moral genre. The characters face life and death, and other very important matters (freedom, commitment and loyalty, courage, treachery, ownership and money, justice, friendship and even love) in very pure and simple terms. The decisions they make are not only very dramatic, but set examples. What more can you ask from a film? From any dramatic work? It’s a genre that helps us look at our own life and find a way to face it.
But Gil disrupts this purity:
By facing these matters from a modern point of view (conscious of the fact that the legendary American outlaw will end up as just another extra in Hollywood Westerns).
His innovation is to introduce the Noriega character as an unreliable character. This has another dimension as well. The engineer is a Spanish adventurer, a representative of the ex-colonial power and as one IMDb user commented “a Madrileño in a film produced by Catalans” – so, clearly a bad guy.
The other intriguing statement by Gil refers to the ‘look’ of the film and its tone:
Blackthorn would not be a film made up by grandiose images and ‘traditional aesthetic’, of slow camera movements and tall crane shots; but of closer images, near to the characters, that allow us to see the landscape through their eyes as they reveal the most intimate side of their dramatic voyage. The deep-seated feelings our main character feels for the land that has sheltered him; his feelings about the past and how they are reawakened by the appearance of his new comrade; his feelings towards the woman with whom he spends his afternoons, although the passion of love is absent, affection, respect and carnality are all present; his feelings toward a young man he has never met but who could very well be his son, to whom he writes and directs every last effort; how he feels about the small things that surround him, his clean but simple home, his horses, what he chooses to take with him on this last trek, where he chooses to sleep each night as they advance . . .
This is a thoughtful film, under-appreciated by critics but appealing to fans of Westerns, I think. Gil’s ideas about the camerawork are put into practice by Ruiz-Anchía and I wish I’d seen this on a giant screen. We see the two hunted men traversing the high salt flat plateaux and then we see their PoV as across the staggeringly beautiful landscapes the tiny figures of their hunters race towards them. By contrast, the camera loves the craggy, weatherbeaten face of Sam Shepard. It’s an iconic image and Shepard seems to become the image of all ageing cowboys (he even sings four popular folk songs on the soundtrack, including ‘Wayfaring Stranger’).
Gil’s comments ring true in the simplicity and realism of his vision. This is one of the most beautiful, but also the harshest Westerns I’ve seen. It’s slow and pensive despite various shoot-outs. It has little to do with most Italian Westerns that I’ve seen, though the use of Irish actors – Etta is played by Dominique McElligott in the flashback sequences – did remind me of Leone’s Fistful of Dynamite and Louis Malle’s Viva Maria with their Irish characters. In the classic twilight Western, the two central characters are usually two men of the same age with different views on how to deal with the death of the West. Here, Blackthorn tries to reconcile his past with a still possible future whereas the Noriega character is a younger man and a pragmatist. The other difference here is the role of the indigenous people of Bolivia who are not typed in the same way as Mexicans or Native Americans. They make up the group of hunters but they are ‘personalised’ in the character of Blackthorn’s lover played Yana played by the Peruvian actor with a growing presence in international cinema, Magaly Solier (see Magallanes, Peru 2015).
Blackthorn has some Spanish dialogue but is mainly in English. It’s well worth seeing.
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.