Writer-director Julio Medem can be guaranteed to get you thinking with a narrative graced with ravishing imagery and likely much nudity, particularly female. Chaotic Ana (newcomer Manuela Vellés) suddenly finds she has visions linking her to (possible) past selves, women who died young and violently at the hands of men. Her life as a naive artist in Ibiza, where she lives with her dad in a cave on the coast, is disrupted by Charlotte Rampling’s Justine (presumably named after de Sade’s character but the reason for this I can’t fathom) who runs an artists’ colony in Madrid. Here Ana meets video artist Linda (Bebe Rebolledo) and Said (Nicolas Cazalé), with whom she enters into an intimate relationship. She discovers she can dream for the first time and, under hypnosis, filmed by Linda, she investigates what might be her past. The paintings that had so enraptured Justine were doors on the cave dwelling walls: doors and dreaming = Jungian psychoanalysis. For many this will be a problem: Jung as hokum or as insight? It’s the former for me, however I’m willing to suspend disbelief in return for interesting narratives and Medem certainly succeeds on that level. There are moments (like when Ana appears on Linda’s dad’s boat) where credulity is over-stretched (I assumed it was a dream for a few minutes) but there are enough ideas whirling around to engage to the end.
At the end Medem has flung in American aggression in the Iraq war (UK was culpable too) in a very strange scene with an American politician. We also end up in Arizona (Ford’s mesas and buttes are on show) at an Native American Reservation that, as aquarello concludes is:
an awkward juxtaposition [for the film] that proves especially flawed during a pivotal encounter at a Navajo bar, where Medem’s trenchant parallel illustration of dispossession and institutional segregation between the Native American reservations in the US and the refugee camps of displaced Saharans in the Middle East – and by extension, the Iraqi occupation that has also resulted in geographic factionalism along ethnic and tribal lines – is undermined by the facile sight gag of a patron’s inebriated uncoordination.
The refugee camps in Africa are drawn into the narrative via the mysterious Said and there is a degree of Orientalism in his representation. The film was dedicated to Medem’s sister Ana, an artist who was killed in a car crash in 2001. Clearly the film is a form of therapy for the director, which explains the narrative lacunas. Her beautiful paintings are used as her namesake’s in the film and knowledge of her death adds to the melancholy that infuses the movie.
This year’s ¡Viva! Festival of Spanish and Latin American Cinema at HOME in Manchester has been interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic and HOME has closed. We’ve been privileged to have reported on many previous ¡Viva! festivals and we were all set to visit the second week of the festival. Fortunately, thanks to the festival organisers, we are able to bring you at least a few reports on the films screened.
A Thief’s Daughter was the opening film of the festival. It’s the début feature of Catalan writer-director Belén Funes and the festival brochure namechecks both Ken Loach and the Dardenne Brothers as reference points. Certainly this is a social realist narrative and its central character is Sara a young woman in her early twenties in a working-class district of Barcelona. It has that mixture of family melodrama and an exploration of ‘precarity’ that is familiar from the two recent Ken Loach-Paul Laverty films, but I think other aspects of the film are different. Funes appears to belong to the ‘show, don’t tell’ school of storytellers. It therefore takes some time to work out all the relationships in the film and the problems that Sara faces.
We first meet Sara working as a cleaner, but we see that she is attempting to find other work. She has an infant son Joel who seems to be left each day with either Sara’ room-mate with or with Flora, an older woman who runs a bar (where Sara sometimes works). Dani is the young man who we assume may be Joel’s father but though he does look after Joel on occasions he doesn’t appear to want to be with Sara – something she regrets. But as the film’s title implies, the narrative conflict is generated by the return of Sara’s father from prison. Father and daughter have been apart for some time and Sara is in two minds as to whether she misses him, needs his support or wants him out of her life completely. The current cause of the rift is Sara’s young brother, Martín, a 7 year-old with an injured foot who appears to be living in some form of children’s home. (The family details are actually quite complicated with hints dropped here and there but not fully spelt out.)
Sara herself is also in some form of public housing facility and it is time limited, presumably on the basis that she needs support until she has settled employment and Joel’s care is sorted out. This lack of detail about welfare services is one of the main differences between this film and Loachian social realism. Funes does not generate a critique of Spanish welfare services, or of employers. Sara is generally treated with efficiency and courtesy. She has several different jobs that we either see or hear about and eventually finds a good job in a school/college catering team. At this point a couple of clues emerge that suggest that her education was interrupted. During a formal interview she struggles to articulate answers to standard questions even though her work displays her intelligence and diligence. Sara has a hearing aid and again there is no explanation for this. Does she have a congenital condition or was her hearing damaged in an accident? There are some suggestions that perhaps her father was violent towards her some years earlier. All of these questions come together in the final scenes when Sara attends a family court hearing in which she applies to become her brother’s guardian and therefore to recreate a family in which her father loses control over Martín. There is no easy resolution to the narrative and I found the final scenes very moving and quite shocking. Again the court officials and the two advocates are not presented as uncaring, but we do get to appreciate how ill-prepared poor Sara is.
A Thief’s Daughter is a form of anti-melodrama. This is certainly a drama of family relationships but it is presented without any obvious forms of ‘excess’. Although there are moments of diegetic music, there is no music score as such (or perhaps I didn’t notice a score?). Mainly the drama is played out with only direct sound. The mise en scène is primarily functional, showing the action and again I didn’t notice much in the way of expressionist camerawork or editing. This is not to say that the film is dull to watch and Neus Ollé as cinematographer and Bernat Aragonés as editor are experienced filmmakers who serve the narrative well. The performances are very good. Sara and her father are played by the real life father-daughter pairing of Greta and Eduard Fernández. They have played together before and Eduard is a very experienced actor. I have seen him before in previous ¡Viva! films including Marsella (2014) and Truman (2015). On this occasion, Greta has taken centre stage and she shared the acting prize at San Sebastian with Nina Hoss. Overall, there is no heightened dramatic drive to the narrative. Instead we are invited to get to know Sara and to care for her, following her on various journeys and worrying about all the tasks she has to complete. Somehow the lack of any narrative devices to increase the tension and despair of the character (something the Loach-Laverty Sorry We Missed You tends to over-use?) means that the final scenes are more powerful.
The film is in Spanish with some Catalan. The film was co-written with producer Marçal Cebrian and she and Belén Funes had already made a short film with the same characters in 2014. Reading other festival reviews, I get the impression that the established Catalan filmmaker Isobel Coixet helped A Thief’s Daughter get into production. If so, I’m glad she did. This was a strong opening to the festival. Here’s a Spanish trailer, the English subbed one appears to have no sound.
This film was confusingly re-titled The Candidate for its limited UK release in August 2019. LIFF director Chris Fell introduced the screening, explaining that the film was screened as one of the three nominations for the LUX European Film Award. We received some LUX information and Chris reminded us that one of the other two nominees, God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya (North Macedonia 2019) had already been screened twice in the festival – and had been recommended to me.
The Realm begins with what seems to be a Goodfellas steal. A man in a suit walks off a beach into the kitchen of a restaurant, picks up a plate of ‘red shrimp’ and carries it through to a table in a private room in the restaurant. The camera races along behind this swiftly moving character and when he sits down to eat it swings around the other diners and then rapidly cuts between them. They are all talking nineteen to the dozen and at one point mocking a politician on the large TV screen on the wall, all the while stuffing themselves with expensive food and drink. The combination of camerawork, dialogue and performance makes watching this opening scene a dizzying experience as the subtitles fly past. As a Spanish-speaking friend observed, even he found it hard to follow.
It took me perhaps the first half an hour of a 2 hour plus film to fully realise what was happening. The restaurant group includes politicians and various investors/developers who have all been part of a scheme to profit from European Union monies which has been illegally used in rezoning land to sell to developers. Corruption in local/regional government has made these people very rich. The central character is Manuel (‘Manu’), a self-made man who after 15 years has risen to a position where he expects to be nominated as a ‘Regional Vice-President’ of his party on the way to a national profile. As played by Antonio de la Torre, Manu is a short man with an energetic and aggressive attitude, There is an element of what in the UK would be a ‘chip on his shoulder’, a feeling that because he didn’t complete his degree, some of his colleagues might look down on him. He has also ‘married up’ as his wife reminds him. Inés (Mónica López) is taller than her husband. He reminded me of a kind of caricature Football League manager or certain kinds of Tory politician – the Spanish political party is not named and neither is the region though Andalucia seems a good bet. Valencia is also listed as a location.
Manu’s insecurity is important because as soon as somebody ‘talks’ to the police about the corruption, his world begins to collapse and he soon realises that there are very few people he can trust. The film’s strength is the way in which director Rodrigo Sorogyen (who also co-wrote the film with regular writing partner Isabel Peña) gradually forces us to identify with this repulsive man and to become complicit in the corruption as he fights back against both his colleagues and potentially the even bigger beasts in Madrid. This is clearly the point of the film which ends with a speech by a TV journalist. The speech (and the whole TV studio scenario) reminded me in some ways of the famous tirade by Peter Finch at the end of Network (US 1976), not so much because of the content of that speech but more the sense that broadcast media is part of the same capitalist conspiracy. I can’t really discuss what is actually said without spoiling the thriller element of the film and the last half an hour is certainly thrilling.
In an interview for Cineuropa, Sorgyen and Peña suggest that rather than provocatively suggesting corruption might happen, they were instead responding to what Spanish citizens were already discussing: “we took the risk of talking about this issue because society is more and more ready for it”.
I should watch the film again and try to decipher the opening. The performances, the use of locations and the camerawork are fabulous. The techno score which many people seem to love nearly drove me insane. Perhaps I’m just past it music-wise but it seemed unnecessary – the film was exciting enough without the overkill. The UK distributor for the film, Signature Entertainment, put it into a single cinema on August 2nd and took £1,065 over the weekend. The DVD and Digital download were released on the same day. I don’t think Signature have much experience of foreign language titles, most of the films on their website look like genre fare with occasional American indies and several English-language European films. Most releases follow this cross platform release pattern. Why wasn’t this film picked up by a specialist arthouse distributor?
After the screening somebody suggested that it was like watching “Borgen on speed”. I can see that and in fact this kind of political/business thriller fuelled a couple of series of the Danish serial Follow the Money and the structure and mix of elements does feel a bit like a Scandinavian drama. It seems it should be on digital download so I suggest you search on streaming services checking all three versions of the title to find it. A strong cup of coffee to make sure you are caffeinated for the opening 30 minutes is advised.
Pain and Glory strikes me as an ironic title for what I loved as the most tender Pedro Almodóvar film I’ve seen. It sometimes seems that Almodóvar oscillates between films about men (some of which are directly autobiographical) and films about women (and therefore about characters that remind him of the female stars that he adored as a child). But it’s also the case that many of the films are about Pedro’s mother and the other ‘real’ women of his childhood and adolescence. Pain and Glory is in some ways reminiscent of Bad Education (2004) in that it focuses on the childhood experiences of a man who grows up to be a film director and his relationships with other men. But whereas in that earlier film, there is much anger and even violence, in this new film there seems to be acceptance, friendship and love as the filmmaker ages. I think anyone ‘of an age’ like Almodóvar – approaching 70 – will have an understanding of some of the emotions of the central character played by Antonio Banderas.
The outline plot of the film is relatively straightforward (no spoilers here). Salvador Mallo, the Banderas character is a 60 something man with various physical ailments who has lost his creative energy but who lives well in a beautiful apartment (beautifully designed with paintings, fabrics and bold colours) with a maid (an indigenous woman from Latin America?) and his former production assistant/manager Mercedes (Nora Navas) both regularly visiting him. One day he learns from an actor (played by Almodóvar regular Cecilia Roth) that one of his early films has been restored and that several cinemas want to screen it. Salvador is invited to join in a Q&A following a screening. The only drawback is that the cinema would like to invite both Salvador and the star of the film, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia) – and the two men have not spoken since the film was completed more than thirty years ago. Salvador decides he must meet Alberto privately before any public meeting. Having decided to resurrect something from the past, Salvador also finds a way to re-visit his own memories so that we can experience moments of his childhood in which his mother Jacinta is played by Penélope Cruz. In the present, Jacinta is played by another stalwart from Almodóvar’s earlier films, Julieta Serrano.
Almodovar’s handling of the narrative drive is so accomplished that even though the pacing is sometimes quite slow, I was always completely engaged by the ‘action’ and never worrying or wondering what might happen next. I suspect that if it was possible to tear myself away from the screen all the events of the narrative would become predictable and many would turn out to have appeared in his films before. So there are priests (bad, as in Bad Education), a village scene with the women working (as in Volver), a beautiful young man to lust after, doctor’s waiting rooms, a cinema audience, films on TV etc. But none of this matters because the mise en scène is glorious, the performances are sublime, the music (by Alberto Iglesias) is great and the cinematography is by José Luis Alcaine. And most of all, I believe in what Salvador feels and what he does.
There are excellent pieces in Sight and Sound (September 2019) by Paul Julian Smith and Maria Delgado, both reliable and acute commentators on Spanish cinema. They have spotted things I couldn’t see on a single viewing and they are able to connect scenes in the film with contemporary political and social issues in Spain. I recommend them highly. For my part, I’m simply glad that Pedro Almodóvar is still making films and most of all that the films seem to get better each time. Whatever ‘blocks’ Salvador experiences as a director, they don’t seem to visit Pedro. I’ve seen friends’ enthusiasm for Almodóvar wax and wane over the years, but for me he has never failed. He is, as Paul Julian Smith, observed on the release of the film in Spain, the only filmmaker guaranteed to bring in audiences of all kinds in Spain with virtually no promotion. Penélope Cruz grows more beautiful with every film. If she and Banderas continue to be as good as this, I hope Almodóvar will be encouraged to keep going.
Pain and Glory opens in North America on October 4th. I hope it is a big hit there too:
I’ve recently published a study guide (you can buy it here). Here’s the introduction:
Pan’s Labyrinth is set in 1944, five years after the end of the Spanish civil war, when the last of the resistance to the fascist forces of General Franco were being crushed. However the inspiration for the film was the 11th September 2001 terrorist attacks on America. In his illuminating ‘Director’s commentary’ Guillermo del Toro states his perception of “brutality, innocence and war” changed after the destruction of the ‘two towers’ in New York. He saw that the response in America to the attacks was one of fear and obedience to a national authoritarian mandate. An example of this was when the American press failed to challenge President George W. Bush’s insistence that Iraq had to be invaded because Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of ‘mass destruction’. This proved to be a lie and although the military intervention deposed the dictator it resulted increased conflict in the region. More recently the authoritarian instincts of President Trump have further tarnished America’s reputation in the world.
In his commentary del Toro was emphasising that the film is not specifically about Spain in 1944, although it has much to tell us about the psychology of fascists. By using the tropes of the fairy tale the film juxtaposes the worldview of an 11-year-old girl, who is open to new experiences, and the restricted mind-set of her fascist stepfather. By mixing the ‘innocent’ world of the pre-pubescent girl with the grim realities of Franco’s repressive Spain, del Toro shows that the brutality inherent in the authoritarian mind-set has no place in civilised society.
Del Toro’s film blurs the boundaries between reality and fantasy and illustrates how close-mindedness and self-interest corrupt the human spirit. There is a feeling of doom hanging over the film because we know the resistance, who fought against the fascists, lost their battle and Spain suffered over 30 more years of Francoist rule. Because of this we may feel that Ofelia is better off dead as Princess Moana than alive in a corrupt world. Whether she is dead or actually transformed into a princess is a key question in the film. As we shall see for del Toro there’s no doubt that she survives but the film itself is more ambivalent.
Although the film isn’t about the Spanish civil war only it is helpful to understand the historical context.
The Spanish Civil War
The Second Spanish Republic was formed in 1931 and in 1936 the Popular Front, a coalition of left wing organisations, won power in an election. Later that year a coup d’etat was thwarted however this led to the start of the civil war where right wing groups, led by the military, rebelled against the democratically elected administration. In Morocco, part of which was at the time a protectorate of Spain, General Franco emerged as the rebel’s leader and, supported by Hitler and Mussolini, was victorious after nearly three years of war. The Catholic Church, highly influential in Spain, supported the fascists.
Franco ruled Spain as a dictator until his death in 1975. Afterwards, the monarchy was restored and democracy returned though only at the cost of burying the past. The ‘Pact of Forgetting’, instituted during the transition to democracy, meant that there could be no recriminations for crimes committed during the Franco years but also that memorials to Franco were no longer maintained. It wasn’t until the Law of Historical Memory was enacted in 2007 that it became possible to officially exhume the past, both actually and metaphorically. Attempts were made to identify victims buried in mass graves and to acknowledge the crimes of the Franco era. However, when a conservative government was elected in 2011 support for the law was withdrawn. When, in 2018, the socialists regained power they proposed a ‘truth commission’ to ensure, amongst other things, those with criminal records for opposing Franco would have their names cleared.
Unsurprisingly a number of Spanish films from these years focused on the theme of coming to terms with the past and ghosts were often used as a metaphor:
Their here-but-not-here borderline existence, between the dead and the living, blurs the binary divide that constructs our perception of reality. Ghosts remind us that we need to confront our past if we want to move ahead and construct a better future. (Colmeiro 2011)
Del Toro was responsible for two of these: his third film as a director, The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del Diablo, Spain-Mexico-France-Argentina, 2001), and The Orphanage (El orfanato, Spain, 2007), which he produced. The blurred ‘binary divide’ between reality and fantasy is important in Pan’s Labyrinth too. This film reminds us of those who fought a losing battle against fascism to ensure, hopefully, we do not allow fascists to take power again.
Although del Toro is Mexican, tens of thousands of Spaniards went into exile in his country so the war is also part of his heritage. This no doubt helped him represent a Spanish perspective on the war convincingly unlike Ken Loach whose Land and Freedom (UK-Spain-Germany-Italy-France, 1995), whilst a gripping film, is more obviously one made by an outsider.
Pan’s Labyrinth was a considerable box office success, even outside Spain. The hegemony of Hollywood in the west means that, generally, non-American films struggle to make an impact outside their home markets. Pan’s Labyrinth was successful because of the emotional engagement audiences had with Ofelia’s plight and the supreme craft of the film. It is a terrible state of affairs that his warning against the fascist mind set is even more relevant today than it was when the film was released. After the failure of ‘free market capitalism’, seen most obviously in the financial crash of 2008, right wing populism has made strides at the ballot box in many countries. Del Toro’s humanism is a potent antidote to this inward-looking politics and his film can be read as a warning, through Ofelia’s death, that we are in danger of giving in to the fear whipped up by demagogues.
This was the third film in the festival to feature a father/grandfather and young son/grandson. In Formentera Lady the focus is on the grandfather and in La teta y la luna, it’s on the son with the father only appearing at crucial moments. In En las estrellas, however, the father and the son appear together for most of the time. ¡Viva! 25‘s theme is serious fun and this film fits the bill with its credentials emphasised by the producer’s credit for the cult hero of Spanish cinema, Álex de la Iglesia.
Victor (Luis Callejo) has been devastated by his wife’s death, especially because he thinks he didn’t do enough to save her. He was a filmmaker, a creator of special effects and sets for science fiction and ‘monster movies’ – so talented that he was asked to work with ‘the Americans’. But now he has lost himself and any chance of employment. He is drinking heavily and inveigling his son ‘Ingmar’ (named after the director not the boxer) played by Jorge Andreu to help him make no budget films using a cheap video camera.
The only recreation for father and son is an old cinema which still operates even though it has no customers. But down in the basement are hundreds of reels of classic SF and monster films. Back in their rundown apartment every square inch is taken up by books, videocassettes, robot toys etc. It’s an existence that cannot continue indefinitely and there is a social worker sniffing around. The other major feature of the plot is a series of fantasy sequences in which Victor tells his son the stories that he would like to film. Inevitably these involve memories of the missing wife/mother Ángela (Macarena Gomez) and they are illustrated by quite beautiful painted sets and fuelled by an inventive imagination.
I enjoyed this film very much. It follows a Spanish tradition of child-centric films, once revered by Franco’s censors as ‘innocent’ but since the 1970s used to critique fascism (e.g. in The Spirit of the Beehive and later in Pan’s Labyrinth. More recently the Spanish director J. A. Bayona made A Monster Calls (Spain-UK-US 2016) with some similar elements. As well as the role of children, Spanish cinema is also known for its interest in SF/fantasy/horror genres. Up Among the Stars is a title that also recognises cinema history and in particular the monsters and robots who are the stars of classic movies. The obvious references are to Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (France 1902) which is arguably the basis for the father’s fantasy, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and the legacy of King Kong. I was also intrigued by a 1934 colour cartoon of Don Quixote from UB Iwerks shown on a TV set. I wonder also if writer-director Zoe Berriatúa was influenced in any way by Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (US 2011) and its portrayal of the Méliès studio?
I realise that I’ve focused mainly on the cinematic references to the monster/robot films and also on the child in the film. I’ve underplayed the element of the father’s grief and guilt about his wife’s death and I guess that there are other cinematic references to horror films/ghost stories and romances that I haven’t really thought about. There is also a gentle critique of the film industry and the way it funds/doesn’t fund creativity. I doubt the film will appear in UK cinemas which is a shame. I think it may be available on Netflix or Amazon. I’d recommend it as a diverting 86 minutes but its ‘Scope presentation would work much better on a big screen.
Here’s a trailer. There are no English subs but it does give you an idea of the wonderful mise en scène and the music: