Category: Spanish Cinema

¡Viva! 27, Spanish and Latin American Festival 2021

The locals of Cartagena in El Año del descubrimiento

Great news! ¡Viva!, Manchester’s Spanish and Latin American Festival returns for its 27th edition, running from Friday August 6th until Sunday 22nd August. Usually held in the Spring but with 2020’s festival being delivered across two programmes in 2020 because of Covid restrictions, ¡Viva! returns in the height of Summer 2021. It’s a cracking programme with 18 films, 11 of which are UK premieres. There will be the usual ‘added value’ features of introductions by the curators and recorded contributions by filmmaker guests. Café Cervantes, a free but ticketed event on Saturday 21 August, offers you an opportunity to share your thoughts about the films you’ve seen while practising your Spanish with native speakers and other festivalgoers. The programme includes eight Spanish features but also has space for some of the smaller Latin American producers such as Paraguay, Bolivia, Columbia and Dominican Republic plus a trio of Chilean titles. I’ve seen just one of the films so far and I can fully recommend the terrific Identifying Features (Sin señas particulares, Mexico-Spain 2020).

The festival opens on August 6th with the UK premiere of El Robo del siglo (Argentina 2020), the entertaining true story of a 2006 bank robbery, one of the most famous and complex heists in Argentinian history. There is a strong contribution by Spanish films this year including El Año del descubrimiento (The Year of Discovery, Spain-Chile 2019) an epic (200 minutes) documentary by Luis López Carrassco offering a fascinating insight into contemporary Spain, through the lens of recent history told by the locals of Cartagena, a naval city in southeast Spain. The year in focus is 1992. The festival notes suggest that this is “a rallying cry to the left and centre left to mobilise against unchecked capitalism and the far right”. On a lighter note La boda de Rosa (Rosa’s Wedding, Spain-France 2020) is a romantic comedy by Icíar Bollaín and Nora (Spain 2020) by Lara Izagirre offers a road-trip through Northern Spain in a Citroen Dyane 6.

The two women sharing a flat in El Inconviente

El Inconviente (One Careful Owner, Spain 2020) by Bernabé Rico is a comedy drama in which a young woman moves into a flat only to discover that the former owner, an older woman, is still legally there. The two must find a way of living together. La Última primavera (Last Days of Spring, Spain 2020) by Isabel Lamberti is a début feature, a drama set in Europe’s largest shanty town on the outskirts of Madrid. Las Niñas (Schoolgirls, Spain 2020) by Pilar Palomero is another film set in 1992 about a young woman finding her own identity in a convent school setting. It won several Goyas for the creative women behind the production including script, camerawork and direction as well as Best Film.

Los Fuertes

Los Fuertes (The Strong Ones, Chile 2020) is an acclaimed gay love story by Omar Zúñiga, set in a Chilean fishing community and described by The Hollywood Reporter as a “queer festival darling”. Salvador (Colombia 2020) by César Heredia is a romance drama set in the 1980s in Colombia and Apenas el sol (Nothing But the Sun, Paraguay 2020) by Arami Ullón is a documentary exploring the diversity of indigenous peoples in Paraguay and focusing on the under-represented Ayoreo people. Diablada (Chile-Venezuela 2020) tells the true story of a serial killer who operated between 1998 and 2001 and Pseudo (Bolivia 2020) by Gory Patiño, Luis Reneo is a ‘social thriller’ set in La Paz. Mosh (Dominican Republic 2019) by Juan Antonio Bisonó tells the story of a 16 year-old dancer who lives with her mother and her cousin, Gerónimo, an aspiring rapper. The festival brochure tells us it offers  a dazzling riot of colour, music and movement that is by turns poignant, funny and tense”. Jason Wood, HOME’s Creative Director: Film and Culture and author of the Faber Book of Mexican Cinema will introduce Nuevo orden (Mexico-France 2020) by Michel Franco.

I hope this is enough to whet your appetite – you’ll find the other equally exciting titles in the full listings. ¡Viva! is always a favourite festival for me. I won’t be able to get there this year but thanks to the curators I’ve got the chance to preview some of the films and reviews will appear here. If you can get to Manchester do give it a whirl and enjoy the chance to see the best of recent Spanish and Latin American cinema. Festival Bookings are now open and further details of all the films can be found on the ¡Viva! pages of the HOME website.

Thanks to the curators: Rachel Hayward, Head of Film, Jessie Gibbs, ¡Viva! Festival Coordinator, and Andy Willis, Professor of Film Studies at the University of Salford and HOME’s Senior Visiting Curator: Film.

The Human Voice (La voz humana, Spain 2020)

Pedro Almodóvar’s short film (30 minutes) made during the 2020 lockdown in Madrid is currently streaming on MUBI. I was not sure what to expect from one of my favourite filmmakers working in English for the first time and featuring only Tilda Swinton and a collie dog – apart from a brief appearance by Agustín Almodóvar. I read afterwards that Pedro was relieved that working with Ms Swinton turned out to be straightforward. He’d been very worried about working in English. The Human Voice is loosely based on the short theatrical performance piece written by Jean Cocteau in 1928 and staged for the first time in 1930. It has since been performed by a host of female stars, including Anna Magnani for Roberto Rossellini’s L’amore (1948) in which it is paired with another short piece, Il miracolo. Almodóvar had first referenced the piece in Law of Desire (1987) and it then provided inspiration for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988).

‘The woman’ (Tilda Swinton) and the set of the apartment. Many of the books, paintings and DVDs are from Pedro Almodóvar’s own apartment.

This version of The Human Voice has received much more attention than most short films, partly because of the the unusual circumstances of its production and release during the pandemic but also because of the combination of Almodóvar and Swinton. In formal terms and in its production values, the film is a familiar production from El Deseo. The mode is melodrama and the glories that an experienced team can produce are evident in the lush score by Alberto Iglesias, the cinematography of José Luis Alcaine and the production design by Antxon Gómez. Editor Teresa Font, art director María Clara Notari and others all have at least one earlier Almodóvar production under their belts. From the stunning opening titles through the design of the two studio sets, the presentation of sound, colour and mise en scène delivers everything that we might hope for. I won’t spoil the ending which is slightly different, but the main setting which takes up the bulk of the 30 minutes is an apartment built within a sound stage and presented to us as precisely that, a construction emphasising its own artificialty as it references familiar scenes from Almodóvar’s films, especially the balcony with flowers that features in slightly different versions in both Women on the Verge and Tie Me Up!, Tie Me Down!. But this is very much up market Madrid as evidenced by the costumes and the paintings and the ‘designerware’. Almodóvar emphasises the references with the books and DVDs that his character has lying about the apartment, copies of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Written on the Wind (1956) amongst others, the only jarring note being a copy of Kill Bill Vol.1 (2003) – but maybe that’s just me. The books include works by Alice Munro, Truman Capote and Edna O’Brien but many of these references are only visible if you freeze-frame the image. As in most of Almodóvar’s choices, these ‘significant objects’ are carefully chosen. There is a print of a watercolour by Alberto Vargas, whose 1940s paintings of Hollywood female stars became iconic as a form of Hollywood sexuality, and a 17th century study of ‘Venus and Cupid’ (Sleeping Venus) by Artemisia Gentileschi.

Tilda in red with ear-buds in front of ‘Venus and Cupid’ in her bedroom.

The role of ‘the woman’ is seemingly constructed to offer a star actress the opportunity to demonstrate all she can do. Almodóvar makes the role even more challenging by adopting modern technology, thus depriving the actor of a key prop. In the original stage production and presumably in the later Anna Magnani and Ingrid Bergman (on TV) performances ‘the woman’ is featured for much of the time in a telephone conversation with the lover who is leaving her. The woman has a physical telephone and a cord linking the telephone to the receiver. She can manipulate the ‘phone and the cord. Swinton however has ear-buds/ear pods and a smartphone in another room. She is effectively delivering a monologue as she moves around the apartment. I found her performance riveting but also slightly unreal. I think her voice, as the title suggests, is the key to the narrative – and, of course, Almodóvar is possibly not able to judge how it sounds to British audiences. I’m not sure if he is a better judge of American voices? This sense of the artificial ‘performance’ voice matches the presentation of the set which straddles a form of realism but also the excess of melodrama and consciously presents its artificialty.

I’m not sure whether the whole thing works for me. As someone who doesn’t use a smartphone and has never tried ear-buds, I generally don’t like to see people wandering about, speaking to themselves. I’m also not really a Tilda Swinton fan, though I admire her acting skills and some of her key performances. In this film the camera is often very close to her face, offering us every detail of her skin and bone structure. She is brave in her wholehearted performance but I guess I just don’t feel the emotion. There are complicated questions about how emotions work in melodramas. In one interview, with Almodóvar we discover:

an otherworldly Tilda Swinton – a cross between David Bowie and Deborah Kerr, according to Almodóvar himself – as an emotionally trapped woman who retains her anonymity, just as in Cocteau’s play.

The vivid primary colours and especially the red dress make me think of Michael Powell and Deborah Kerr, and also of Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes. I’m already trying to imagine the Deborah Kerr of Black Narcissus in the role of ‘the woman’. She had a similar background to Swinton and a similar voice but I have had a very different emotional involvement with her screen presence. With Kerr as Sister Clodagh I am emotionally drained, but with Swinton I’m emotionally distanced. I thought it might be an issue of social class but the two actors have a similar background. Kerr was much younger (and potentially vulnerable) when she worked with Powell, perhaps that is important?

One of the ‘painterly’ images of the woman in a Balenciaga (?) dress

I’ve picked out Tilda Swinton’s performance but there are other elements of the narrative. She does have a companion, the dog Dash also pining for the lover, and there are separate discourses of camerawork and of fashion and designer culture (the latter which I feel powerless to interpret). The film is certainly a noteworthy achievement by Almodóvar and Swinton but I’m looking forward to the next feature. Two have been discussed in trade press reports and the first, Parallel Mothers with Penélope Cruz and Rossy de Palma is said to me opening at Venice in September. It sounds more my kind of thing. The second is likely to be an adaptation of the novel A Manual for Cleaning Ladies by Lucia Berlin – a novel which is, I think, in the piles of books on the table in The Human Voice.

Here’s a short US trailer for The Human Voice:

I think that when this short was released in UK cinemas it was accompanied by a pre-recorded Q&A with Almodóvar and Swinton.

Talk to Her (Hable con ella, Spain 2002)

Benigno and Marco at the Pina Bausch show

Talk to Her is part of MUBI’s current streaming programme of Pedro Almodóvar films. I assumed I’d seen it and I remembered that several friends and colleagues rated it highly. It also won its writer-director a writing Oscar. But when I started to watch the film, I could remember nothing about the narrative. I think it must be one of those famous films that you know about without seeing properly. It may be that the casting fooled me – none of the leads are Almodóvar regulars though Darío Grandinetti as Marco later appeared in Julieta (2016) and Javier Cámara as Benigno in I’m So Excited (Spain 2013). On the other hand, several of the secondary roles are taken by familiar faces. Talk to Her is a different kind of Almodóvar melodrama. In some ways a quieter and more restrained narrative it also has a striking score by Alberto Iglesias, an extraordinary fantasy sequence and the usual exquisite art design of the more familiar melodramas by Almodóvar’s team. The subject matter is potentially ‘disturbing’ and perhaps the impact of the film comes from its delicate treatment, almost like an anti-melodrama. For many film scholars and critics the film represents a peak of creativity.

Rosario Flores as Lydia

The film is written as a series of scenes over several years that are introduced by on-screen titles. Some of the set-ups are recognisable from earlier and later films by Almodóvar. Two men, Marco and Benigno, sit next to each other at a dance theatre performance of Café Müller by Pina Bausch, though they don’t yet know each other. Benigno lives in an apartment that offers a view down into a dance studio where he sees a young woman, Alicia (Leonor Watling) being coached by an older woman, Katerina (Geraldine Chaplin). Marco is a writer who one day finds himself watching a female bullfighter, Lydia (Rosario Flores). He decides to write a profile of her for a magazine and she will eventually become his girlfriend. Some time later the two men meet in an unusual situation in which the two women they have been watching are both in a coma after separate serious accidents (Lydia is gored by a bull). The men begin to get to know each other. Benigno is an unusual young man who has trained as both a nurse and as a beautician. He has managed to become the main carer for Alicia in a small hospital facility known as ‘El Bosque’. There are other (female) members of Alicia’s care team but Benigno spends most days and nights with her, maintaining her body in excellent condition and, of course, talking to her. Marco is also unusual as a highly sensitive man who Benigno remembers from the theatre performance because Marco cried in response to the emotion on stage. The two men form a strong bond that becomes important for each of them. Benigno allows rumours about his sexuality to circulate but he tells the other workers that he isn’t gay. 

Benigno meets Alicia

I won’t spoil any more of the plot if you haven’t yet seen the film. It is a highly complex and sometimes surprising narrative with an emotional climax. As an Almodóvar film it is consistent with his adoration of beautiful women and his interest in male relationships. The script is indeed remarkable. When the film was released in the UK in the summer of 2002, Sight & Sound invited two well known Spanish film scholars to write about it. Paul Julian Smith wrote a feature for the July 2002 issue and José Arroyo reviewed the film for the September issue. These two writers are aware of the reception of the film in Spain and they are able to spot all the numerous cultural references. Almodóvar is the cover star of the July issue and tagged ‘putting the ‘A’ in art film’. Smith’s piece is given the heading ‘Only Connect’ and the kicker is a suggestion that the film is a change of direction for Almodóvar. With the advantage of a nearly twenty years retrospective view, how should we view the idea of a change of direction now? Looking over the seven features completed since Talk to Her, it seems to me that they represent a mix of stories, genres and ‘personal’/autobiographical interest by the director. What has changed is the nature of art cinema and the status of a filmmaker like Almodóvar both in Spain and Hispanic cinemas and in global cinema more generally.

Two men, two women and three relationships?

Smith describes the reception that Talk to Her received in Spain and the promotion of the film by Almodóvar himself – something that he has become increasingly skilled in organising and presenting. Like many writer-directors, Almodóvar tells us things about himself and why he has included scenes in his films etc. I’m always a little wary of these comments as his promotions of his work are performances in themselves and possibly just as fictional. His comments are useful guides or ‘ways in’ to his films but I’d rather rely on the listings of cultural references in his films by scholars and what I can determine by my own and other more informed readings that are available. In this case there are a number of interesting issues. The first is about the gender discourse in the film and whether its focus is the male relationship between Benigno and Marco or the story of the women – both of which in Almodóvar’s films are informed by his own sexual history and by the women who have inspired him. As Smith argues, there is an initial ambiguity about Benigno’s sexuality. Smith also comments on the way in which Lydia is presented during her ‘robing’ as a bullfighter, with an almost fetishistic focus on the constraints the tight costume creates across her breasts and thighs. Arroyo suggests that the narrative presents Benigno as “his mother’s daughter” and Lydia as “her father’s son”. Sexual ambiguity pervades the narrative.

Benigno shows an image of Pina Bausch to Alicia as he talks to her . . .

The second issue for Almodóvar watchers is the inspirational source for his aesthetics in the film. Unlike the maternal melodrama, fuelled by the director’s affection for All About Eve (1950) which informs All About My Mother (1999), Talk to Her draws upon Rossellini and Antonioni (according to Almodóvar himself) to enable “the intensity of emotion with transparency of style”. I’m quoting Paul Julian Smith’s reading of Almodóvar’s statements here. Smith refers to the ‘classic neo-realism’ of Rome, Open City (1945) and adds the “hip Mexican urbanism of Amores perros (2000)”. I haven’t seen the latter film by Alejandro González Iñárritu so I can’t comment but the Rossellini reference makes sense. Smith also mentions Almodóvar’s reference to Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours (1999) which was adapted as a film in 2002. I saw the film but I don’t remember it well enough to make the connection, apart from the narrative shifts between the stories of different characters during different time periods.

For Smith the cumulative effect of the above and a range of other elements of the film is to create a distinctly arthouse aesthetic. He goes as far as suggesting that the appearance of Geraldine Chaplin in the role of Alicia’s dance tutor is a clear sign to Spanish audiences that Almodóvar is “aiming for the outer reaches of the art movie”. I’m not sure that stands up or the claim that the first few minutes of the film (the dance-theatre sequence) is alienating as an opening. However the cultural references and what Smith calls an “aesthetic patterning” do add up to a rich and compelling narrative. I think I prefer José Arroyo’s conclusion that Almodóvar manages to present a complex story as “simply told”, presenting “a range of feeling at once precise and endlessly evocative”. The more I think about the reception of this film (and its promotion by Almodóvar), the more I am reminded by the similar reception of Julieta in 2016.

One of the performances

The one aspect of the film I haven’t discussed is the most controversial aspect of the story – and that is something I think viewers should come across without any previous knowledge. What I will point out is that Almodóvar presents the whole question through a fantasy dream sequence and that this sequence, several minutes long, is matched by other ‘performances’ by the dance-theatre troupe and by musical sequences, one staged as part of the narrative by the Brazilian singer and musical legend Caetano Veloso. Talk to Her is a joy and I don’t understand how or why I didn’t appreciate it first time around.

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (¡Átame!, Spain 1989)

The plotline of the film as illustrated by Ricky’s drawing.

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! was the follow-up to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown which in the UK/US and much of the international market was Pedro Almodóvar’s break-out film. What this meant for me was a period of catching up on the earlier films and looking out for the new ones as they arrived. I must have watched Tie MeUp! Tie Me Down! in the early 1990s, probably on a rented VHS tape. I don’t remember too much about that viewing but I doubt that I fully appreciated the beauty of the colours and art direction or indeed the many other striking features. Over time I began to realise that the more of Almodóvar’s films I saw, the more my appreciation grew and the more enjoyable the films became and possibly the more I understood about how they worked. MUBI UK currently offers a selection of Almodóvar titles and watching Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! in HD this time was a joy – but also raised quite a few questions.

Ricky and Marina go through this every time he leaves the apartment.

The story of the film is relatively straightforward. Marina (Victoria Abril) has been a porn actress and is now starring in a mainstream genre film for an ageing director who is a little obsessed with her. Ricky (Antonio Banderas) is a young man of 23 who has spent most of his life in care and for the last few years has been kept in a state home for observation of his mental health. But now he has been deemed fit to join the wider community and he is released having learned a number of trades to go alongside his drawing abilities. His first action is to seek out Marina and to kidnap her in the belief that as she gets to know him, she will fall in love with him and agree to marry him and together produce a family. Not until the latter part of the narrative will we learn more of Ricky’s early life and what has informed his quest.

One of my favourite images from the film. Ricky visits the hardware store just like a serial killer in a genre film but he’s actually buying the strongest but softest rope in red with which to tie up Marina.

In many ways this is a familiar Almodóvar scenario but the elements of the story perhaps refer back to the earlier films a little more than some of the other post-1988 films. Certainly the film initially caused some classification problems in territories outside of Spain. In the US it was first classified as an ‘X’ before eventually being re-classified as ‘NC 17′. In the UK it received an ’18’ certificate, now reduced to ’15’. Almodóvar began his filmmaking career as a provocateur in that strange period after the death of Franco in 1975, using stories about sexuality, drug use  and ‘excess’ to expose and undermine the conservative ideologies that had held Spain in thrall for decades. Gradually his style has matured but it still carries the promise of something disruptive. In 2021, however, in the age of #metoo, how should we approach these earlier films? When Ricky breaks in to Marina’s flat he assaults her and later ties her up and tapes over her mouth. In the ensuing interchanges in Marina’s bedroom and bathroom she is sometimes naked or partially dressed. In what Kim Newman in his Monthly Film Bulletin review from July 1990 refers to as Almodóvar’s “regulation sleaze”, we have already seen Marina in her bath indulging in a little erotic play with a motorised frogman (perhaps a porn actress doubled for Ms Abril?) and we’ve seen Marina ‘posing’ in a conventional vamp mode in the film she has just finished. But is there anything here to suggest that Almodóvar is exploiting his star? I think one of the challenges offered by the film is the detailed plot which if taken as the basis for a realist drama may be too disturbing and/or offensive for many audiences. But, remember that this is an Almodóvar film – and a sumptuous melodrama. Trying to see it as a realist exploration of a ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ narrative is a mistake, I think.

Marina ‘posing’ in the film she is making – ‘Midnight Phantom’.

The threatening figure (from the giallo?) in Midnight Phantom.

As Newman also points out, Almodóvar doesn’t attempt to develop anything around the fetish possibilities of bondage – which apparently is what so disturbed the MPAA in the US. I wonder what Hitchcock in 1989 would have developed with the same script possibilities? Overall I thought this was almost a ‘sweet’ movie and [SPOILER!] they do eventually get it together. As well as the hugely appealing performances by the two leads, Ennio Morricone’s score is often gorgeous and almost unbearably tender at one point. There are some well-known critics who really seemed to dislike the film or felt unable to come to terms with it when it first appeared. A ‘dark romantic comedy’ is one description, but I’ve seen references to gialli and particularly Dario Argento, mainly related to the ‘film within a film’ in which Marina is appearing titled Midnight Phantom. Almodóvar teases us with a poster on the wall in the Midnight Phantom cutting room for the original version of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers – the film which satirises the idea of ‘pod people’. Is this a possible reference to audiences who are so brainwashed by conservative ideology that they can’t appreciate what’s really going on? For me the key genre is screwball comedy and this relates to the playing by Victoria Abril and Antonio Banderas. I think also that not enough attention is played to the closing section of the film when Ricky tries to find the village and the house in Extremadura where he lived as a child. Almodóvar often draws upon his own experiences as a boy from rural La Mancha who travelled to Madrid to ‘find himself’. He also often includes stories about women like his mother – this time Marina’s mother – and the women he met in Madrid. The same theme is crucial in Volver (2006) and also in his most recent feature Pain and Glory (2019) – which stars Banderas as an ageing film director thinking about his childhood, this time in a cave village community in Valencia. It’s worth remembering too that Marina is trying to go clean after years of drug use and that she has a little family melodrama of her own which includes her sister and her mother.

Marina’s sister also works on the film as production manager. Red, you might have guessed, is the dominant colour in almost every scene.

I genuinely enjoyed this film but I’m worried that the subject matter will already have put some readers off. I thought I’d check out the the film scholar take on the film to see if I was out on a limb. Rob Stone in his 2002 Spanish Cinema book from Longman offers a detailed study of the film, considering Banderas as star and exploring his presentation of ideas about sexuality in the context of Spanish society in the period and Almodóvar’s position as an important cultural figure. At one point he suggests: “For all its scandalous reputation ¡Átame! is the most romantic of features, wholly celebratory in its final union of our beauty and her beast . . .” I’m not going to attempt to present the whole of Stone’s complex analysis and how he reaches this conclusion, but it is certainly convincing for me. I do realise however that I’ve not mentioned the ‘excessive’ use of Christian imagery in the opening titles and in Marina’s apartment. ¡Átame! is a very rich text. But in their book Contemporary Spanish Cinema (Manchester University Press 1998) Barry Jordan & Rikki Morgan-Tamosunas add a warning to their similar analysis of the film. Referring back to her 1995 contribution to Me Jane. Masculinity, Movies and Women, eds Kirkham and Thumin, Morgan-Tamosunas makes a prescient observation. She argues that Almodóvar’s arguments might work:

within the fictional world that he constructs, free from the constraints of dominant ideological concepts, but that his audiences inhabit a world in which the repression of women is too deeply entrenched within social and psychological consciousness for such representations to be entirely free from mysogynistic interpretation. (1998: 116)

I can’t argue with that. Almodóvar has managed to continue to develop his body of work but it has been a long and complex development and watching the early films now in the current context of #metoo could certainly be seen as disturbing. I think that viewing ¡Átame! in 2021 should make us consider the history of artistic representations carefully and encourage us to read films with more attention to how and why they were constructed in ways which might disturb us. If you’ve never seen Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! I urge you to give it a try and to let it run all the way through before you think about the critics’ response.

Cerca de tu casa (Near Your Doorstep, Spain 2012)

Gone are the days when Spanish cinema was recognised outside Spain by Luis Buñuel but since at least the end of the last century, Spanish directors such as Fernando Trueba, David Trueba, Icíar Bollaín, Isabel Croixet, Alex de las Iglesias, Carlos Menem and Julio Medem are known and respected internationally – not to mention the ubiquitous Pedro Almodóvar.  And not just directors: actors such as Penelope Cruz, Antonio Banderas, and Javier Bardem have an international appeal. But still there are excellent Spanish films which are largely overlooked outside Spain beyond the festival circuit and Cerca de tu casa is one such film.

The film reflects the social climate of Spain in the 2000s. Spain suffered enormously from the economic crisis which began in the early years of this century and which led to massive opposition, especially among the youth (the ‘indignados‘), and led, indirectly, to a new political party, Podemos, which is now the junior partner in the current Spanish government. As well as large-scale unemployment, one of the effects of the crisis was large-scale eviction of people who could not pay their mortgages. Unemployment is bad enough but eviction can be one step from living on the street. The starting point of the film is an eviction which establishes the tone for the film as a whole. It is in a sense a militant film but not a crudely propagandistic one.

The film is set in Barcelona but it could be any large urban centre in the Spanish state. It tells the story of Sonia (Silvia Perez Cruz), a woman of around 30 who loses her job, as does her husband Dani (Ivan Massagué). Unable  to pay the mortgage and with a 10-year-old daughter, Andrea, to care for, they decide to live with Sonia’s parents, Mercedes (Adriana Ozores) and Martín (Miguel Morón). It’s not an ideal situation, especially as Dani doesn’t get along with his mother-in-law who never misses the opportunity to humiliate him about his situation. Dani has had enough and leaves to live in the van from which he sells smoke alarms, his only source of income. Sonia feels obliged to stay for the sake of their daughter. Like her husband she also joins the ‘precariat’, people without steady employment, scraping a living by doing small jobs where they can find them. Sonia has a job as a cleaner with a German couple who have a flat in Barcelona so her job is limited to once a week after  the couple have to go back to Germany.

However, Sonia and Dani’s situation worsens catastrophically. The bank is determined to force the couple to pay their debt and even threatens to seize Sonia’s parents’ house; they had given their flat as collateral for Sonia and Dani’s flat. Pablo (Oriol Vila), is an employee of the bank, a schoolfriend of Sonia, and a  typical ‘caught in the middle’ character, torn by his feelings for the victims of the crisis and the relentless demands of the bank, represented by the stern branch manager (Victoria Pages). Another such ‘caught in the middle’ character is Jaime, (Ivan Benet) the policeman who feels guilt at the actions he is having to carry out. As for the situation regarding Sonia’s parents’ flat as collateral, Martin admits to Sonia that Mercedes is completely unaware of this arrangement.

As is often the case when people think their situation can’t get any worse, someone arrives to take advantage of their situation, a ‘lawyer’ who offers to help out with the legalities of the situation but needs a sum of money to ensure the services of a barrister to plead her case in court. In order to get the money for his daughter’s legal expenses,(which, of course she never sees again), Martin attempts to steal it from the till in the garage/petrol station where he works for Tomás, (Lluis Tomar) but Tomás catches him  in the act. Fortunately, he is a compassionate man and rather than sack him, he hears Martin’s  story and persuades him to admit everything to Mercedes. The situation is pushing Sonia to the brink, while Mercedes is cocooned in her own self-righteousness and disappointment and Martin in his feelings of failure and despair.

In terms of genre, Cerca de tu casa is a hybrid of social drama and  musical, a sort of cross between Ken Loach and Jacques Demy. I come across people who can’t accept that serious social issues can be dealt with in a musical. Perhaps it was in deference to this sentiment that director, Eduard Cortés, stated: “I want to underscore that this is not a musical, it’s a song-punctuated drama”. Which I think is a pretty accurate definition of the musical. One of the problems that have to be solved in a (non-backstage) musical is to avoid over-jarring transitions from dialogue to song and back again, and the film deals with it admirably. The pre-title sequence takes care of itself as there is nothing to transition with. The camera wanders throughout the city, introducing us to the main  characters and locations, ending with the police enforcing an eviction. It is accompanied by melancholic song  (‘Dermete’/’Sleep’) sung by a homeless man who occasionally plays the role of chorus, and is accompanied in counterpoint by Perez Cruz’s voice in and the plaintive chords of a cello.

 A later  song, ‘Reina de la morería/Queen of the Moorish Landsuses the same technique described by Rick Altman in his 1987 seminal study, The American Film Musical. He refers to a scene in an Elvis Presley film, Blue Hawaii (1961) which transcends the diegetic/non-diegetic dichotomy. Elvis opens a music box and sings ‘I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You’. The music box and Elvis are  joined by full orchestra which drowns out the music box, and a large chorus is added. The process moves into reverse as the song comes to an end, with the music box again on its own. We have gone from the  diegetic sound of the music box  and the human voice to a non-diegetic place ”beyond language, beyond space, beyond time.” (p. 66) In Cerca de tu casa, the song starts with Andrea playing  a tune on a cheap hurdy-gurdy. Sonia starts to sing and her daughter joins in. Then it is picked up and extended into that ‘neither diegetic nor non-diegetic’ space. We cut to Mercedes and her friends from the laundry where she works leaving the bar after a night out, their laughter merging with the musical soundtrack and Mercedes, now alone, joins the song which becomes a melancholic soliloquy as she reflects on her feelings about the current dilemma she finds herself in.

Another use of music and song is worth mentioning. Perez Cruz has done most of the vocal heavy lifting in the film up to this point but there is a sequence when her voice is absent and the song is relayed like a baton, from character to character. Tomás has persuaded Martín  to tell Mercedes the predicament they are in. He drives him to the laundry where Mercedes’ works and observes from distance  the painful scene between the couple. His song expresses values of solidarity and compassion, how people can become side-lined before they find their way. The baton is passed Tomás and  the homeless man, then to Pablo, to Dani, and to Jaime. The sequence ends with the disconsolate couple going back home in the rain, giving Martín the last few lines. Unless it is over-used,  the use of actors who are not singers but can hold a tune can be very effective.

The penultimate number was a song and dance (choreographed by Sol Picó). Sonia is at her lowest ebb and has a complete emotional breakdown. She goes into the Metro station and onto the platform, a location often associated with suicidal despair. Random strangers, anxious about her state, approach her, pick her up, metaphorically and literally, as it segues into a ballet. A modernist dance sequence might face more resistance from members of the audience already sceptical about the music but for me, it conveyed very well the emotional state of the character at this point in the film.

The film had a very modest initial budget of €1.5 million (for five weeks shooting), supplemented by the usual sources – municipal and arts body grants and some TV money -but also crowdfunding. The director and production team had already been  involved with anti-eviction activists and the crowdfunding came largely from this. The payment of cast and crew was a mixture of part-paid and part deferred, and some ‘sweat equity’,  that is, instead of taking a fee it becomes an investment in the film. Budgetary issues were no doubt responsible for the fact that a potentially important narrative strand involving the policeman, Jaime,  was not fully developed. He takes  part in the eviction at the beginning of the film and feels guilty at his role in the misery inflicted on people by his actions. Significantly he is absent at the next eviction.

Understandably there are no stars in the film and I only recognised two of the actors. The first is Iván Massagué (Dani) who played an anti-fascist guerrilla tortured to death in El laberinto del fauno/Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006). The other is Lluis Homar, who played the protagonist of Almodóvar’s 2009 film, Los abrazos rotos/ Broken Embraces, and was awarded Best Supporting Actor at the GoyasThe fact that he played a secondary role in a low-budget film suggests that he was expressing his support for a worthy project, social as well as cinematic. I was aware of Silvia Perez Cruz, who plays Sonia, as a singer/composer and she was awarded the Goya for Best Original Song (and incidentally, wrote the music for the animated film, Josep, reviewed on this blog recently by Roy Stafford). It was as singer/composer that she was hired initially but director Eduard Cortés was convinced, by the way she interpreted her songs, that she could act, and the gamble paid off handsomely. Another outstanding performance is by Adriana Ozores in the role of Mercedes, not a particularly easy part to play. She is shown as a strong woman, for example, putting the foreman in the laundry where she works in his place, but she can be harsh and unforgiving. Her main concern is that the neighbours, other people, could become aware of the family’s problems. Her attitude comes close to causing a permanent breach with her daughter.

Here’s a trailer – sorry no subtitles:

Information about the film from Gregorio Balinchón, El País, 16 FEB 2015: “Los desahucios, un drama de cine”  and the Making Of video.

Available in the UK on DVD.

Chaotic Ana (Caótica Ana, Spain 2007)

chaotic-ana

Digging into past lives

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.