Category: Spanish Cinema

LFF2016 #4: The Reunion (La Reconquista, Spain 2016)

Olmo and Manuela 'window shopping'

Olmo and Manuela ‘window shopping’ (and eating a slice of pizza)

lff-2016.jpgThe Reunion was presented in the comfortable surroundings of the Ciné Lumière in South Kensington – an excellent cinema and one I wish I could attend more frequently. I enjoyed the film but it was only later that I began to wonder about the Spanish title which has all kinds of possible interpretations. The writer-director Jonás Trueba is known for three previous features, all seen as ‘festival films’ centring on relationships but geared towards character studies rather than plot. The characters are often roughly the same age as the director so here a couple in their early 30s meet for the first time in 15 years. Then, they were still at school and experiencing first love, now Manuela (Itsaso Arana) lives in Buenos Aires and has returned as a visitor to Madrid at Christmas. She has contacted Olmo (Francesco Carril) and when they meet she hands him a letter. We don’t find out until later exactly what the letter contains but we follow the couple to a restaurant and then to a gig in a bar where Manuela’s father (played by singer-songwriter Rafael Berrio) is performing. After switching to another bar, they are invited to a private dancing club. In the early hours of the morning Olmo heads for home – the flat he shares with his partner Clara, an academic psychiatrist. He wakes Clara by accident and she quizzes him before he falls asleep. The last section of the film features his dream about the time when he and Manuela first met and we learn how the letter he was given at the beginning of the evening was first written.

I don’t think I’ve spoilt any narrative pleasure in revealing the structure of the film. Most audiences will be more interested in the interactions between the characters than the sequence of events. The Hollywood Reporter‘s reviewer is not particularly sympathetic to the film, suggesting it is too slow, but he does reference Eric Rohmer as a possible model. Rohmer seems a good shout and the Spanish press reports on the film include comments about the director’s seeming interest in la nouvelle vague. We slowly learn about each character – the flirtatious Manuela and the more reserved Olmo. He is a translator and would-be writer, she is an actress who tells him that since she’s been in Madrid she’s had a different partner each night. There must be something that keeps Olmo interested (besides the fact that Manuela is so attractive).

To return to the title, ‘La Reconquista’ generally refers to Iberian history and the long struggle by Christians to recover the lands occupied by Moorish invaders between the 8th and 15th centuries. Why then choose this title? I haven’t worked that out yet but it suggests something different to ‘Reunion’ in English. Trueba himself emphasises that it is not just the meeting but the ‘recovery’ of the time they had together? I’m also slightly baffled by a reference to a Patricia Highsmith novel, The Suspension of Mercy (known in Spanish as Crímenes imaginarios) made by the 15 year-old Olmo. It’s only a couple of weeks since I saw the last of several European film adaptations of Highsmith novels and they are all ‘disturbing’ in one way or another and the reference here seems to contradict the tone of the narrative – or at least to suggest a whole new facet of the relationship. I need to see La Reconquista again to get my head round these references. I should also add that the music performances are presented in such a way that they are directed to Olmo and Manuela – one is a song Manuela’s father had written around the time the couple first met.

In the Q&A after the film, the director told us that the film has struggled to find an audience on its Spanish release despite good reviews – so I might find re-watching it difficult in the UK. I think there will always be an audience for this kind of intelligent cinema, but it may be too small to sustain a cinema release. But do try to catch it if it turns up. I’ll be looking for Jonás Trueba at future festivals.

Spanish trailer (no EST):

Julieta (Spain 2016)

TheSpanish poster for Julieta featuring the two stars playing the same lead role.

A Spanish poster for Julieta featuring the two stars playing the same lead role.

A new film by Pedro Almodóvar is an occasion for joy in my book and I found Julieta to be utterly absorbing and thrilling. ‘Un film de Almodóvar’ is like a gourmet meal – every ingredient is rich in meaning and exquisitely presented. Gourmet meals are sometimes more about style than nourishment, but not with Almodóvar. I find his films as sustaining as the best peasant food. Unfortunately not everyone agrees. Julieta has received some lukewarm reviews alongside the majority of favourable ones, mainly I think from writers who don’t know the range of his work – or possibly from younger reviewers who don’t fully appreciate what it means to look back? I was going to write a full-blown defence of the film, but I discovered that Mark Kermode, in one of his most perceptive and informed reviews, has already done it. So I’m not going to repeat all his points – you can find Kermode’s review here. Instead I’ll expand on some of the aspects that interest me most.

Julieta is Almodóvar’s third ‘literary adaptation’, following Live Flesh (1997, based on a Ruth Rendell novel of the same title) and The Skin I Live In (2011, based on Tarantula, a novel by Thierry Jonquet). This time Almodóvar has turned to Runaway (2004), a collection of short stories by the celebrated Canadian short story specialist Alice Munro. Three stories, ‘Chance’, ‘Soon’ and ‘Silence’, are about the same character at different stages of her life. I read these after seeing Julieta and then found Almodóvar’s explanation of what he did. There are useful pieces in both the Guardian/Observer (interview by Jonathan Romney) and Sight and Sound (September 2016 – article by Maria Delgado, review by Jonathan Romney). In the UK Julieta is distributed by Pathé which offers little documentation in support of the film but in Canada the distributor Mongrel Media offers a Press Pack in which Almodóvar provides a delightful set of notes which are almost as entertaining as the film and I recommend them to you.

Adriana Ugarte as Julieta with her daughter Antía (Priscilla Delgado) in their Madrid flat.

Adriana Ugarte as Julieta with her daughter Antía (Priscilla Delgado) in their Madrid flat.

Julieta is a story about a young woman from Madrid who falls passionately in love with Xoan, a married man in Galicia, and who later marries him in difficult circumstances that to some extent mirror what has happened to her own parents back in Andalucía. She is then dismayed to find her relationship with her daughter from the marriage breaking down and bringing the past back to her as she tries to live a new life in Madrid.

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Adriana Ugarte with Pedro Almodóvar and Daniel Grao (Xoan) in the confines of a 1980s dining car

Emma Suárez as the older Julieta in front of a poster for a Lucien Fred exhibition

Emma Suárez as the older Julieta in front of a Lucian Freud portrait

Pedro tells us that he’d acquired the rights and started adapting the stories before making his earlier film The Skin I Live In and that Munro’s book actually appears as a prop in that film. He’d already switched the location from British Columbia and Ontario to New York before deciding that he wasn’t confident enough in English and transposed the action again to Madrid, Galicia and Andalucía. He suggests that in North America, the physical separation of parents and grown-up children is common but in Spain it is exceptional – “the umbilical cord joining us to our parents and grandparents survives the passing of time”. He says that the original stories are still Munro’s but that he’s had to change them for cinema and he hopes that Julieta will be seen by Munro’s admirers as “a tribute to the Canadian writer”. In fact, he hasn’t changed that much. The main thing he has done is to find a way to ‘stitch’ the three separate episodes together so that one coherent narrative can be manipulated on the cinema screen with flashbacks and the use of two actors to play Julieta at different times of her life. The transformation shot when the younger Adriana Ugarte becomes the older Emma Suárez is quite remarkable. (Both actors are very good, Agarte is well known from Spanish TV and it’s a welcome return for UK audiences to see Suárez who starred in the early films of Julio Medem in the 1990s.) Almodóvar is not the first director to adapt Munro and one of my favourite films is Away From Her (Canada 2006) directed by Sarah Polley. As a young and inexperienced director she didn’t have the weight of Almodóvar’s experience in 2006 but she does have a woman’s perspective – and an affinity with Canadian life. When I first remembered the connection I thought that the two films were very different but on reflection they are both recognisably Munro’s narratives, so Almodóvar has been ‘faithful’ to the author in one sense.

In the Press Notes Pedro makes several claims and assertions that I take with a pinch of salt:

“I’ve contained myself very much in the visual composition, in the austerity of the supporting characters. No one sings songs. Nor do I introduce scenes from other films to explain the characters. There isn’t the slightest trace of humour, or any mixing of genres, or so I believe. From the outset I had in mind that Julieta is a drama, not a melodrama, a genre to which I’m partial. A tough drama with a hint of mystery: someone who’s looking for someone without knowing why she left. Someone with whom you’ve lived for a lifetime disappears from your life without a word. You can’t understand it. It happens, it’s in our nature, but it’s incomprehensible and unacceptable. Not to mention the pain it causes.”

The housekeeper Marian (Rossy de Palma) with the young Julieta when she first appears in Galicia

The housekeeper Marian (Rossy de Palma) with the young Julieta when she first appears in Galicia

I would argue that it is a melodrama, that the visual compositions are, as usual, extraordinary and that the film refers back to various periods of Almodóvar’s filmmaking, as well as clear references. It is this which makes the film ‘un film de Almodóvar’ as well as a wonderful adaptation of a great writer’s work. Elsewhere, Pedro remarks that Ava, the woman Julieta meets in Galicia and who may be her husband’s on/off mistress is perhaps named after Ava Gardner. At the house in Galicia which will become Julieta’s home she must grapple with the housekeeper Marian, played by Rossy de Palma, one of Almodóvar’s ‘go to’ character actors, here playing Mrs Danvers to Julieta’s Rebecca from Hitchcock’s 1940 film. Later on a character will tell us that he feels like a character from a Patricia Highsmith story. The earliest part of the story is set in 1985 and Pedro tells us that he had to explain to Adrianna Ugarte how a young woman from Madrid on a train (Hitchcock/Highsmith again – but also in the Munro story) might behave in the sexually liberated ‘Movida‘ period when the first outrageous Almodóvar films appeared. The Press Notes finish with these lines:

“Almost all my films gain the second time they’re seen. Julieta will certainly be enjoyed more when you’ve already seen it and know the story. I’d like to persuade my brother (the producer) to offer a free second viewing to people who have already seen the film.”

 Julieta is a work of genius in which the adaptation becomes a personal exploration of grief, loss, passion and memory. I know some audiences drifted away from Almodóvar, disappointed by I’m So Excited (Spain 2013) (but not me). Julieta should bring them back – after 10 days, it had made over £820,00 in UK cinemas – on the way to perhaps making £1 million and emphasising Almodóvar’s status as the most consistent foreign language director distributed in the UK.

¡Viva! 22 #7: Truman (Spain-Argentina 2015)

TRUMANposter

Truman didn’t turn out to be quite the film I was expecting. I usually choose ¡Viva! screenings because of which day and what time they are playing. I might briefly skim the blurb in the brochure but then quickly forget it and I usually like the surprise I get when I’m in the screening. This was certainly the case with Truman – an entertaining and enjoyable film with high-quality contributions all round. However, there isn’t as much use of Truman, the dog played by ‘Troilo’, as I expected – and this might disappoint those who go to the film expecting a canine-centred story.

I’ll outline the simple plot since there isn’t much chance of ‘spoiling’ the narrative. Tomás (Javier Cámara) flies into Madrid from Canada to visit his old friend Julián (Ricardo Darin), a theatre actor. Julián is terminally ill and focused on finding a home for his dog Truman. This involves auditioning possible ‘adoptive parents’ for Truman and visiting the vet etc. to find out about Truman’s health and psychological well-being. But Tomás has come a long way to spend four days with Julian and there are many other things to do in order to get Julián’s affairs into some kind of order. We quickly realise that Tomás is there as the calm, reasonable character who will allow himself to be hoodwinked, up to a point, and relieved of quite a lot of money to satisfy all of Julián’s demands. The other major character is Paula (Dolores Fonzi), Julián’s cousin, who is much more visibly angry about Julián’s approach to his impending demise. What follows is a form of comedy drama that delicately and adeptly treads a fine line between acerbic wit and sentimentality. As the director says in the Press Notes:

Truman is an attempt at overcoming the panic we all feel in life when faced with illness and impending death: our own or that of a loved one. It is an exploration of how we react to the unexpected, to the unknown, to grief.

I found myself with a wry smile one moment and then immediately afterwards realising the import of what was going on the next. Julián is an actor and a rogue and the centre of the narrative features three encounters with colleagues in the business, each involving Julián in a kind of guessing game – what do they know about his position, what should he tell them? What is the right thing to do? All of this is watched by the calm Tomás who has to decide how to respond to his friend – to console him or get him to face reality. I don’t think there is anything new or surprising about the narrative but I agree with some reviewers who think that Tomás is involved in a sequence towards the end which is unnecessary and detracts a little from the narrative’s resolution (though I suspect I could change my mind).

Paula (Dolores Fonzi) and Tomas enjoy Julian's performance at a Madrid theatre.

Paula (Dolores Fonzi) and Tomás enjoy Julián’s performance at a Madrid theatre.

The success of the film depends firstly on the two male leads and their performances. The rest of the cast is good as well (with the dog effortlessly stealing his scenes) and the script is excellent. The director and co-writer is Cesc Gay whose previous work I don’t know, but who seems to have been successful since writing and directing his first feature in 1998. IMDB reports a budget of €3.8 million which I would argue has been spent sensibly. Apart from a trip to Amsterdam, the story stays in Madrid (though some scenes were shot in Barcelona – presumably for funding purposes) and the locations are all effective. The trip to the funeral services company was a standout for me, lending an air of surrealism.

Truman is interesting in bringing two Argentinian stars to Spain. Ricardo Darin is arguably Argentina’s leading male star and Dolores Fonzi is a very well-known figure in Argentina, a model before becoming an actor and for several years part of a celebrity couple with Gael García Bernal. She was the lead in Paulina, the festival prizewinner of 2015. I presume that Spanish audiences will detect Argentinian accents so both Julián and Paula are written as Argentinians in Madrid. I’m not sure if it was spelt out in the film but I assume that Julián would have come to Madrid as a student and met Tomás at that point. Javier Cámara is seen as a Madrid actor (and he has featured in Almodóvar’s films, most notably I’m So Excited (Spain 2013)). Truman opened in Spain and parts of South America in Autumn 2015 (generating around €6.5 million at the box office) and is rolling out across Europe at the moment. StudioCanal have the film for the UK and it should open later this year. I think it could do well, especially since Wild Tales, the Argentinian film in which Ricardo Darin features, was the biggest non-Hindi subtitled film in the UK in 2015 (though it was the worst year for subtitled films for some time). It should appeal to older audiences for whom the dilemmas will be more meaningful. It might work in a different way for younger audiences. In Manchester, the film attracted a healthy audience and proved a fitting climax before the Saturday night party began.

¡Viva! 22 #6: Marsella (Spain 2014)

Sara (Maria Leon) and Claire (Noa Fontanals)

Sara (María León) and Claire (Noa Fontanals)

I’m reluctant to be too judgemental about this film because I missed the first 25 minutes. Reading Jonathan Holland’s review in The Hollywood Reporter, to try to discover what I missed, I have to agree with everything he says. Marsella (Marseille) appears to be a film which explores the relationships between three female characters who are affected by what is an important social issue. Sara (María León) is a 28 year-old from Andalusia who has been allowed by a judge to resume her legal position as mother to Claire (Noa Fontanals), the 10 year-old who was taken from her when Sara had alcohol and behavioural problems as a teenager. Claire has been fostered by a middle-class couple, Virginia (Goya Toledo) and Alberto, who are reluctant to let her go because they still believe Sara is not a ‘fit mother’. The narrative is constructed as a road trip taken by Sara and Claire with the aim of finding Claire’s father. All Sara knows about Jerome, who she has not seen since she became pregnant, is that he worked in a soap factory in Marseille. This genre structure should work well but the real problem with the film seems to be a sub-plot in which Sara has agreed to smuggle a package of cocaine into France. The sub-plot is necessary to the extent that Sara’s pre-occupation with this criminal task means she neglects Claire one night and the child phones Virginia because she is scared. Virginia rushes to her aid and eventually it is agreed that she will join them in the quest to find Jerome. But the scripting of the sub-plot doesn’t really work and it takes time away from the road movie which ends in a more low-key manner than we might expect.

Sara and Claire are joined by Virginia (Goya Toledo).

Sara and Claire are joined by Virginia (Goya Toledo).

The film is co-written and directed by Belén Macías and this is her second feature film (most of her earlier work being for television). She is one of two female directors in ¡Viva! this year dealing with middle-class couples who are/have been engaged in adopting/fostering children from working-class families (see the earlier post on L’adopció). Here, the male characters are less important and there is a real opportunity to focus on the relationships between them. I thought that when this happened it worked very well but there isn’t enough of it. The child actor is good and this was the second appearance of María León in this ¡Viva! festival (see the post on Carmina y amén) . She is a commanding presence and the social class difference between Sara and Virginia is represented through the performances of León and Goya Toledo as well as in the dialogue.

Part of that class difference refers to learning foreign languages so that Virginia (and Claire to a certain extent) have an advantage over Maria when they cross the border. The plot also includes an encounter with a truck driver (played by the engaging Eduard Fernández) and his son, an older teenager. I enjoyed this encounter which again could have been expanded but instead it is dragged into the smuggling sub-plot. Overall this film felt like a missed opportunity in which good ingredients were not allowed to come together to make a satisfying film – but perhaps that’s unkind and if I’d seen the opening I would think differently?