Neruda (Chile-Argentina-France-Spain-US 2016)

Luis Gnecco as Pablo Neruda in disguise on the streets of Valparaiso

Neruda is the latest of several films by Chilean director Pablo Larrain to focus on moments during Chile’s turbulent political struggles between the 1940s and the death of the former dictator Augusto Pinochet in 2006. Larrain’s approach is through a focus on certain characters, either closely involved in the events of the period or perhaps engaged in something that might be read as a metaphor for everyday life in Chile at that time. One of these films, No (2011), is discussed elsewhere on this blog. Immediately after completing Neruda, Larrain directed Jackie (Chile-France-US 2016). Jackie portrayed Jackie Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination, mainly through the device of the former First Lady giving an interview to a journalist. If you are unaware of how Pablo Larrain has approached historical figures and historical events in his films, you may be thrown by a film like Neruda.

Pablo Neruda (1904-73), real name Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, was an extraordinary figure, a poet-diplomat who took his pen-name from Czech poet Jan Neruda (1834-91). Pablo was a poet from age 10 who could communicate directly with the Chilean working-class and was a Communist elected as a Senator. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971 and perished in mysterious circumstances during the suppression of Salvador Allende’s legitimate government in 1973. Neruda was being treated for cancer but suspicions remain that he was murdered by a doctor on the orders of General Pinochet.

Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán) makes up her husband for another ‘performance’ as ‘Neruda’

Larrain’s film is not, as might be expected, a straight biopic. Instead it follows Neruda over a few months in 1948 when, as a Communist, he became vulnerable to the forces loyal to the new President, Gabriel González Videla a supposed leftist who then turned towards anti-communism in order to court American support. Neruda denounced this move and became a marked man. All this is represented accurately in the film, but Neruda’s actions then become fictionalised and Larrain creates a narrative in which Neruda plays cat and mouse games with a police detective charged by the President with arresting him. This character, Óscar Peluchonneau played by Gael García Bernal, is fictional. Neruda (played in a bravura performance by Luis Gnecco) leads the detective a merry dance, at first accompanied by his lover, the artist Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), and then on his own. Neruda was a larger than life character who enjoyed fine wines and fine clothes but was capable of writing poems which could rouse crowds from every section of Chilean society as the film demonstrates very well. The fictional story includes the ‘real’ escape of Neruda to Argentina across the mountains.

Detective Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) who always seems to be just one step behind Neruda

The film is always watchable and I enjoyed it very much. The camera seems to be constantly moving as Neruda moves from one hideout to another. In one extraordinary sequence we meet a young Pinochet, but our main attention is on the detective. He’s an extraordinary character who is constantly attempting to confirm his own identity as a man who is the bastard son of a famous detective. With his fedora and thin moustache he appears like a character out of a US film noir. Neruda ‘plays’ with this character, leading him on with a trail of detective novels which the detective can’t resist reading. The detective’s name in Spanish apparently means ‘stuffed toy’ and this makes sense when the narrative twist is revealed. In the meantime, Neruda emphasises this play by ‘dressing up’ and slipping away in disguise as the detective approaches. I’m not quite sure what this all means (apart from making a commentary on political figures) but it is certainly entertaining and if it introduces audiences to some of the real history of what happened in Chile, that can’t be a bad thing. If only our politicians today were half as interesting as Pablo Neruda.

Britain on Film: Rural Life

‘Machynlleth (In the Heart of Cambria)’

This is a compilation of short films shot in the British countryside (and in the north of Eire) between 1904 and 1981. It is part of the Britain on Film series which has already offered Railways and has a forthcoming compilation Black Britain. This is an archive project to ‘digitise’ thousands of films, originating on celluloid, and making them available for public viewing. These ‘tours’ are distributed by the Independent Cinema Office, who have an excellent track record of providing features and archive material to independent cinemas. I saw this compilation at the Hyde Park Picture House as part of the ‘Leeds Young Film Festival’.

Before the film we had an interesting introduction by Kate McGann, a curator with the National Film Archive in the documentary section. We had some notes with details of the films included in the compilation but she added some particular comments on especially interesting aspects. Her main thrust was to provide a context for these films. She commented that much of the period represented on the films had seen real ‘change and upheaval’ in the countryside. An aspect that is the focus of Laurie Lee’s memorable ‘Cider with Rosie’: Lee provided the commentary for one of the films.

She also talked about the changes in technology and style across the films. Cecil Hepworth, who made the earliest film in the programme, would have been working with bulky cameras, and the supporting equipment like tripods etc. It seems likely that he staged much of the action, seemingly merely observed. And since synchronised sound only arrived in the 1930s several film rely on title cards [intertitles] to provide information for the audience.

A little later Basil Wright, filming in the Cheviot Hills, was able to work alone with his camera and accessories, but the now available sound would have been added later in the studio. Both these films were in black and white. But another example from the Pathé Company used colour stencilling, one of several techniques like hand painting and tinting/toning for adding colour.

By the 1950s colour film stock had become available and the Technicolor brand offered a rich palette of colours on screen. We had two films that used this technology. (Note, you can see one of the Technicolor Cameras at the Insight Collection at the National Media Museum. Signposts re Science and Media Museum).

The camerawork in many of the films relies mainly on the static shot. As technology developed camera movements like pans and tracks became available. All the film used some sort of editing (cutting between shots), though the later films are more sophisticated .

The programme also illustrated a number of genres in what we now term documentary. The earliest would have been known as ‘actualities’. Early on there were also Newsreels, and there was an extract form one of these. And there were examples of ‘travelogues’, ‘marketing films’ and ‘public relations’, both commercial and state funded. Some of the later films came from television networks and a couple of films really fall into the amateur or ‘home movie’ category.

The compilation ran for 75 minutes. It was partly chronological but partly thematic.

Machynlleth (In the Heart of Cambria) | Dir: unknown | UK | 1929 | 2 minutes

This glorious Pathécolor film of the ancient capital of Wales pops with the beauty of rural life. “

This short film was essentially a travelogue. It offered a series of shots, beautifully coloured with hand stencils. These included shots of a valley, river, trees in blossom and sheep grazing.

There was an accompaniment on the sound track by piano and flute.

O’er Hill and Dale | Dir: Basil Charles Wright | UK | 1932 | 18 mins

The first sound documentary produced in the UK, this is an affectionate and at points humorous account of a Scottish shepherd’s daily life in the Cheviot Hills.”

Basil Wright has been described as a ‘humanitarian poet’. He was a member of the rightly famed British Documentary Movement. The film mainly uses single static shots with a couple of pans over the landscape. But Wright (filming himself) makes extensive use of angles, especially low-angle shots that emphasise the scale of the mountainous vistas. He also (later in the studio) edited the film into a mini-narrative. So after seeing the Shepherd, Martin, with his flocks drama ensues when a storm sweeps across the hills. This leads into a ‘happy’ ending with a lamb saved from expiring.

The commentary, by Andrew Buchannan, and the orchestral accompaniment were added later. And the film was seen in British cinemas courtesy of Gaumont British.

Great Hucklow Jubilee | Dir: L. du Garde Peach | UK | 1935 | 9 mins

These gorgeous scenes of Great Hucklow capture the Derbyshire village’s preparations for the celebration of King George V’s Silver Jubilee, presenting a charming portrait of life and laughter in the Pennine village.”

This is an example of amateur filmmaking in the period. L. du Garde Peach actually worked in the Film industry as a scriptwriter. One of his most famous contributions was co-authoring the 1935 Yorkshire -based Turn of the Tide. Here though he is showing off his locality and the Village Players whom he organised.

The film uses intertitles and was accompanied by a piano and percussion on the soundtrack.

‘Dry Village’ | Dir: Unknown | UK | 1964 | 5 mins

A cautionary tale of the ‘dry village’ of Bessbrook, Co. Armagh, whose founder believed that the absence of a pub would remove the need for both the police and pawn brokers.”

This appears to be an ironic offering from television reporter James Boyce, presumably working with a network team. The film offers a series of interviews and comments. Boyce’s offerings for viewers appear to have capitalised on the eccentric, this is a good example. There is no hint of the ‘troubles, only a few years away.

The Village Pet | Dir: Unknown | UK | 1931 | 1 min

After Billy the seal was caught in the Wash and rehoused in the village pond, this heart-warming newsreel item shows him tentatively accepting a fish supper from his adoptive family – the good folks of Warham in Norfolk.”

This is an extract from a ‘Topical Budget’ newsreel; a newsreel series that ran from 1911 until 1931. The film opens with a highly embroidered intertitle. Then we meet Billy and the village inhabitants, especially the children, enamoured with this occupant of the pond.

The film has an accompaniment by piano and accordion.

West of England | Dir: Humphrey Swingler | UK | 1951 | 10 min

Glorious Technicolor casts a dreamlike spell over Gloucestershire’s Stroud valleys in this gorgeous short film. Author Laurie Lee contributes to the script for a narration which accompanies painterly images of evergreen scenery, people and industry. “

This was a fine example of the lustrous palette found in Technicolor. The commentary is read by Stephen Murray. The film is full of glorious shots of the Stroud Valley, old buildings and a graveyard, valley slopes, smooth rivers and nestling tress and flora. Later we enter an old linen factory where the rich colours of the cloth exploit the colour process. The film is edited into a  gentle narrative. The opening shows a horse and rider wending their way down hill. There follow later some good example of forward and reverse tracking shots. The commentary proposes a ‘secret’ which is followed till we hear and see an explanation of the Stroud cloth industry. At the end the horse and rider wend their way back uphill; then a cut shows us a modern tractor, presumably as comment that Stroud is modernising.

The commentary and orchestral accompaniment were added at Merton Park Studio,. And the film received a cinema release from United Artists.

Cold War Villages | Dir: Unknown| UK | 1981 | 3 min

In 1981, with no end to the Cold War in sight, plans are afoot in the Midlands to prepare for nuclear attack. These include a bunker for 400 people in a Rutland village with a population of 300, while in Derbyshire a local landlord takes responsibility for the somewhat simplistic advance warning system.”

This looks like one of those programme fillers in regional television broadcasts. The reporter, Terry Lloyd, introduces two mini-stories related to ‘the nuclear threat’ with interviews with local people. Rather like the ‘dry village’ this looks like an ironic comment on eccentricity, possibly even invented. By 1981 (despite the 1984 TV film Threads) the nuclear question was less of an issue than that of US missiles based in Britain.

The first case is a plan to turn a disused Rutland railway tunnel into a commercial bunker; £2,000 for a single person. Predictably it was never built.

The second tale is a Derbyshire pub with an ‘early warning system’. Among the limitations of this device are the absence of a warning device. There is (almost certainly staged) film of the publican warning the village on his bicycle. It seems the village was spared a nuclear attack.

Any Man’s Kingdom | Dir: Tony Thompson | UK | 1956 | 5 mins (extract)

A standout from the British Transport Films collection of travelogues – this one highlighting the attractions of Northumberland, the northernmost part of England. In this extract people travel from far and wide to enjoy the delights of Bellingham Fair, which includes traditional Cumberland wrestling.”

This film has a commentary and an orchestral accompaniment with actual sound including traditional pipes. It offers shots of the people attending this traditional fair and of some of the attractions. There is a fine sequence of a country dance edited through a series of close-ups of the band and the dancers. Towards the end of this extract twilight falls and a young couple are seen in silhouette followed by a pan over a river. The film, in Technicolor, was finalised at The Anvil Studio.

Blacksmith | Dir: Peter Baylis | UK | 1941 | 5 mins

‘Things aren’t what they used to be’: Mr Bosley, village blacksmith at Corfe, near Taunton, is the subject of this nostalgic study of ancient craftsmanship. As his commentary talks us through the process of shoeing a horse, the patiently composed images gracefully evoke an ageless sunlit Somerset day.”

The film was part of a series on ‘craftsmen’ by the Shell Film Unit. This commercial film’s documentary unit was launched in 1934 and carried on to the present, now ‘The Shell Film and Video Unit’. Its output of mainly short films was an important contribution to British documentary. This film follows a farm horse into the forge as we watch the traditional techniques of shooing in a series of close-ups and mid-shots. .

Eardisland Village | Dir: Unknown | UK | 1978 | 5 mins

The residents of Eardisland, a picture postcard Herefordshire village, are unhappy about their impending conservation status which would curtail new development. How can a village continue to thrive with an ever ageing population and no new blood?”

This films is from ATV’s ‘Today series’ with reporter Peter Green and shot in colour.

The camera takes us round the village and a series of interviews with inhabitants. There are few young people and ‘conservation’ threaten to embed this further. The catalyst for this concern is the proposed closure of the village school. Added to this is the comment that they have even

‘taken the vicar away’.

Despite the film the school did close in 1979.

Day in the Hayfields | Dir: Cecil M. Hepworth | UK | 1904 | 3 mins

Enchantingly beautiful, Cecil Hepworth’s modest interest film captures the essence of an English midsummer and the harvest in a time before tractors with men cutting hay using a horse-powered reaper. Less productive but very charming are the local babies and toddlers playing in the cut grass.”

Cecil Hepworth is one of the most important pioneers from the early days of British cinema. One of his most famous titles was a the key contribution to canine cinema, Recued by Rover (1905). Here he is filming on location alongside the Thames near to his studio at Walton-on-Thames. The film offers a series of static shots, almost like tableaus. we see the harvesting, transport by horse and cart, and the local children playing.

There is an accompaniment on piano and accordion, as lyrical as the film itself.

Skating on Lough Neagh | Dir: Unknown | UK | 1963 | 2 mins

As the Big Freeze plays havoc with the working life of Northern Ireland, there is plenty of time for play. The frozen Lough is a call to the adventurous and the ridiculous as dogs, dancers and even drivers take to the ice.”

This appears to be either amateur footage or something filmed for a local television network. It appears that it is actually the ‘Black Lough’ at Dungannon. And like some earlier films it is partly a record of oddities and eccentricities, including a group performing the twist and a mini car travelling over the frozen lake.

The end credits of the compilation include Stephen Horne who performed the musical accompaniment for the films without soundtracks. Stephen is a multi-instrumentalist as demonstrated in the accompaniments.

The films came courtesy of BFI National Archive, the Media Archive for Central England and the Northern Island Screen Digital Archive.

They were all transferred on to a 2K DCP. All were in either 1.33:1 or 1.37:1 ratios. The image quality was generally good. Note, as usual the DCP was in 1.85:1 and the titles for the individual films was spread across the complete frame; this was a shame as it prevented the cinema bringing in the masking to the Academy ratio. The sound was variable, presumably partly due to older prints and also to transferring optical or magnetic tracks on to digital.

Definitely a programme worth seeing. And there is more information about the films, the series and ‘Britain on Film’ at the BFI.

Get Out (US 2017)

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‘Ye-es ma’am!’

Blumhouse has a reputation for low-budget horror productions, such as the very successful Paranormal Activity (2009-15) and The Purge (2013-) series. Get Out has beaten them and parlayed a $5m budget into, to date, $184m worldwide box office. In order to attain such numbers it’s clearly broken out of its teen core audience and shows what can be done when genre pleasures, this is a good horror film, are woven into the zeitgeist. Jordan Peele, the writer-director, has made a film that is about race in the 21st century.

Black British actor, Daniel Kaluuya, takes the lead as Chris who’s going to meet the parents of his white, preppy, girlfriend Rose Armitage, played by Allison Williams. He asks if they know he’s black and she tells him her parents aren’t racist. Chris is obviously not entirely reassured by the blasé statement because he knows that even if they aren’t racist it doesn’t mean that they won’t treat him in a racist way so embedded, particularly in the American psyche, is the politics of slavery.

The end credits state the film’s shot in Alabama, however this location (to my eyes at least) is not obvious in the film. At first I thought this was a missed trick, evoking the Deep South would immediately trigger associations of slavery, however I realised that Peele didn’t want to make a point about the racism of Old America, he was showing racism now anywhere in middle class America.

Peele leads us into the horror with great skill. The Prologue shows a black man being attacked on a suburban street; when he states before the attack that the suburbs are scary he means for a black person. After this the build-up is slow, with enough hints (particularly from Catherine Keener’s mum) that beneath the wealthy, liberal surface there lurks something not right. Allison’s dad points to a cellar, that resonant setting for horror, and states it’s sealed off because of black mould. Chris’s discomfort increases as the wealthy white and their black servants surround him; when he tries to connect with a ‘brother’ he finds incomprehension.

Spoiler alerts:
Peele takes us on a tour of references including Invasion of the Body Snatchers (US, 1956), The Stepford Wives (US, 1975 and 2004) and, in the clinical and opulent mise en scène of the Armitage house, Kubrick’s The Shining (UK 1980). These references avoid being derivative because they’re used to make a statement about contemporary racial politics, particularly the #Blacklivesmatter campaign in America. In a fantastic climax it appears the police have arrived to save Chris. He puts up his hands, his white girlfriend is lying on the floor crying for help… Peele knows most in the audience would realise that there is good chance, in those circumstances in reality, that the police would summarily execute Chris.

One false note for me was LilRey Howery’s Rod, Chris’s ‘comic turn’ mate, whose bumbling detracts from the drama too much. As a horror film it has enough gore at the climax to satisfy most and not too much to detract for the squeamish.

I imagine that the film is popular with minority ethnic audiences and demonstrates, like the never-ending Fast and Furious franchise  (2009-), that producers daring enough not to  assume ‘white’ is the default setting can be a profitable route. The film garnered a bit of controversy in America when Samuel L. Jackson questioned the casting of a British actor rather than a ‘brother’. Kaluuya’s considered response, in Vanity Fair, suggested he is a brother because he is an ‘outsider’:

“When I’m around black people I’m made to feel ‘other’ because I’m dark-skinned,” he explained. “I’ve had to wrestle with that, with people going ‘You’re too black.’ Then I come to America and they say, ‘You’re not black enough.’ I go to Uganda, I can’t speak the language. In India, I’m black. In the black community, I’m dark-skinned. In America, I’m British. Bro!”

Get Me Out is about outsiders and how some poeple use liberal attitudes as a badge of their own character and not as an ideological position to fight for equality. Although not quite directly related to  this, an altercation on CNN between a white Trump supporting pundit and three African American voices shows how the default setting of debate is the white setting – click here.

Graduation (Bacalaureat, Romania-France-Belgium 2016)

After the all too common long wait, the UK finally got this 2016 Cannes prizewinner (shared Best Director for Cristian Mungiu) at the end of March 2017. It was worth the wait. I have only a fleeting acquaintance with Mungiu and the rest of the ‘Romanian New Wave’ of the last ten years or so, but I recognised the basic elements of this type of film – a single setting and a group of interlinked characters involved in relatively routine actions. The skill comes in scripting the scenes in such a way to build a strong central narrative ‘line’ while layering the narrative with several different forms of commentary.

The first thing I noted was that this is a co-production with France and Belgium – ‘Why Not Productions’ and the Dardenne Brothers’ company ‘Les Films du Fleuve’. Both companies work with Ken Loach and other leading filmmakers such as Jacques Audiard. Romanian films need this kind of outlet. Although Graduation was the third best performing Romanian film at Romanian box office, it was still only able to take €145,000. Romanians are not very interested in their own cinema. Directors like Mingiu must sell their films in the international market and therefore the films must have universal elements in their stories – or their local stories must appeal to international viewers.

The ‘inciting incident’ in the narrative for Graduation is an attack on a young woman one morning on her way to school. Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) has a lift to school from her father but stops in a small building site expecting to meet her boyfriend (who is late). Slightly injured and shaken up by the attack (which we don’t see), she is hindered in her preparations for her final exams at school where she is an ‘A’ student – but otherwise this could be a disturbing and unfortunate incident but nothing more. But Eliza’s father Romeo (Adrian Titieni) is a surgeon at the local hospital and he seems even more upset than Eliza. He has invested a great deal in Eliza’s education and now she must get high grades to win a scholarship at a ‘prestigious university’ in London. He isn’t prepared to see her fail.

Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) and her father Romeo (Adrian Titieni) at the school graduation event

Romeo believes himself to be a man of principle and honour and he despises what he sees as the disease of corruption in Romanian society. But he is also aware how things work in Romania and he can’t stop himself trying to do his utmost for his daughter. He starts by trying to get her more time to finish her exams (she now has a bandaged wrist) but soon finds that he could exert more pressure to ensure she gets the grades she needs. The narrative is set in Romania’s second city, Cluj in the Carpathian mountains, but we don’t see much of this large city, just a few streets and public buildings and on one occasion the grassy top of the ski jump in summer where the police are conducting a search for Eliza’s attacker. Romeo is there because the police officer in charge is one of his old school friends and a source of advice on how to play the system. Reading reviews, I can see that this focus on corruption is read by most critics in relation to the inability of a generation of Romanians to free themselves from the culture of survival under the Ceaușescu regime in the 1970s and 1980s. I can certainly see this, but I don’t think viewers in other societies should be quite so judgemental – similar systems operate in many parts of the world. Which school you went to and who you know is not at all unhelpful in getting access to many things in the UK.

Romeo watches Eliza ride off with her boyfriend

Mungiu develops the narrative slowly. It’s almost like a web made up of the surgeon’s interactions with a diverse group of people. Romeo is gradually trapped in the web and his secrets are exposed. Questions are posed about several characters, many of whom are inter-related in different ways. About halfway through the film I thought to myself, “This is enjoyable and well done, but I’ve seen the like before”. Then Mungiu started to up his game and bring in more elements. For a UK viewer the London connection is ironic – Romeo declares that Eliza will be so much better off in London (where women aren’t attacked in the street!) and where there is no corruption (another misconception?). We also might wonder whether a bright young woman like Eliza shouldn’t stay and help to build the new Romania. But mostly, I think, we are concerned about what is happening to Romeo (and to his depressed wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar) and his elderly mother – there is a family melodrama of sorts in the mix). Some of the questions posed by the narrative are answered, some are left open. It’s quite a long film (128 minutes) but it is always engaging and in many parts gripping. This is what I consider to be ‘quality cinema’ – entertaining and thought-provoking. The script by Mungiu and his direction of excellent performances by his cast are tight and efficient. I hope he finds his audiences. As of the first week of April, Graduation had made approx. €1.6 million in Europe as a whole.

The Olive Tree (El olivo, Spain-Germany-France-Canada 2016)

Alma (Anna Castillo) in the olive plantation

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.

Alma as a child, learning from her grandfather how to graft an olive tree.

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.

Alma with her uncle, Alcachofa

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.

Ilo Ilo (Singapore-Taiwan-Japan-France 2013)

retratos-de-familia

Bonding in adversity

Might be the conjunction of the planets but there’s been a few interesting films on free-to-air UK TV recently. Ilo Ilo (the title, the Guardian’s reviewer says, is a “Mandarin phrase meaning “mum and dad not at home” – but the director says it’s title comes from the name of the province in the Philippines) is a family melodrama focusing on the impact of the economic crises for the ‘tiger economies’ in the 1990s. Coincidentally, similar to the film in my last post (The Olive Tree), economic issues form the context but the grandfather-grandchild is not so central in this Singaporean film. Angela Bayani plays Terry, the Filipina maid brought in to help with the badly-behaved 10 year-old, Jiale. Although wringing the child’s neck seems a reasonable reaction to his actions, it is clear that mum and dad’s problems have left him neglected. If there is one weakness in the film it’s the transition from antagonism to friendship in the relationship between Terry and Jiale is a little abrupt but everything else in writer-director Anthony Chen’s debut feature is convincing.

In one particularly effective scene a neighbour in the high-rise flats commits suicide from the building’s top. We experience this from Terry’s perspective; the shock she feels is palpable. Although we are not told why the person gave up his life it is likely the economic insecurity that led to his actions. Like in Falling Down (US, 1993), Jiale’s dad goes to work each day even though he doesn’t have a job. The American film was one of a number that reflected American anxiety at the rising economic power of East Asia; 20 years on it seems everyone is in decline (except China and India).

The film’s also emotionally engaging in terms of the plight of migrant workers. At best, they are treated as second class citizens – Terry’s passport is immediately confiscated by Jiale’s mother – and her desperation at being away from her baby is clear.

I noted in my post on The Olive Tree that melodrama is not an effective genre for instigating political action but is good for raising awareness. Ilo Ilo does this, for those of us in the west, about ordinary people’s lives in South East Asia. The insecure job market is endemic, as is the poor treatment of migrants. In the UK we are embarking on what will no doubt, if today’s disgusting (even by its standards) Daily Mail is allowed to set the tone, be a vicious election campaign where the right wing will shout down any compassion for others. Watching films from other cultures is one of the few ways we can learn to empathise with others as they are, of course, just like us.

_95695698_dmfrontpage19aprilThe contempt for democracy, which requires dissent, is obvious in the headline but I wonder whether whoever chose the image of PM Teresa May realised how demonic she looks.

¡Viva! 23 #9: Santa y Andrés (Cuba-Colombia-France 2016)

Santa brings her chair so she can conduct her vigil over Andrés’ movements

This Cuban offering during ¡Viva! is an example of the sometimes confounding nature of Cuban art and culture. I looked in vain in the end credits for any mention of the Cuban state film agency ICAIC, but it didn’t appear. I learned afterwards that although the script for the film was accepted in 2014 (and I think won an award) the completed film has been disowned by ICAIC and denied a proper release in Cuba. It was also withdrawn from official competition at the Havana Film Festival in New York with claims that this represents pressure from ICAIC on the Festival which would suffer from losing such support. (The director then withdrew the film completely from the festival.) On the other hand, the film has been shown at major festivals around the world, starting at Toronto in September 2016. It looks like a cock-up by ICAIC, giving ammunition to right-wing Cuban exiles in Miami. So what’s the problem?

Santa y Andrés, directed and co-written by Carlos Lechuga, is a film set in rural Eastern Cuba in 1983. It presents a narrative in which a well-meaning but naïve woman, Santa (Lola Amores), is ordered by her boss Jésus at the collective dairy farm to watch dissident writer Andrés (Eduardo Martinez) for three days. Jésus has been told to make sure Andrés does not attend the Regional Forum where he might speak to foreign journalists as he would seem to have done in the past. Andrés is doubly marked as both a dissident writer and a gay man. Santa sticks to her task. She is resolute in sitting on her chair outside Andrés’ shack and then taking him to the local hospital when he is injured in an altercation with a local rent boy. Eventually she cracks and discovers that she and Andrés have much in common and she puts on a dress and tries to build a relationship with him. (I think her change to a dress is an attempt to ‘soften’ her image and show she is not ‘on duty’.) We then learn more about both characters and their life in Revolutionary Cuba. The cinematography by Javier Labrador Deulofeu captures the feel of the locations very well.

The beautifully-lit and nicely composed image of the hospital vigil

This is quite a slow-moving narrative but the film held my attention. We gradually realise that the story is as much about Santa learning about herself as it is about what will happen to Andrés. The chair is a nice touch (i.e. how she carries it around as a representation of something about herself?) and in a sequence later we see a truck arriving in the village carrying a load of chairs and dropping off just one at a shack before driving on. In a later scene between Santa and Andrés there is mention of a ‘shape-shifter’ character and a few minutes later a brief appearance by a character dressed as what I took to be a shaman of some kind. These two incidents are contrasted with more realist/documentary shots of Santa at work in the cow-shed or buying clothes from a trader who arrives in the village by train.  I should mention here that there were problems in screening the DCP at HOME (something I’ve not seen before). It froze on a couple of occasions and was difficult to restart. We might have lost a few minutes and I can’t be sure of all the details of the narrative. The overall mix of elements in the film reminded me of a range of Cuban films from earlier periods including the satirical/metaphorical films of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío (whose name appeared in ‘thanks to’ credits at the end of the film). This was Lechuga’s second feature and later I realised that I’d seen his 2010 short, The Swimmers, which was in the same tradition as Alea and Tabío’s films with its ironic commentary on Cuban sporting facilities, economic shortages and social divisions. If you search carefully online you can find several examples of Luchaga’s work.

Santa and Andrés on a day out on the coast

The real question is why did this film upset ICAIC so much? Films which critique the revolution in different ways have a long tradition in Cuba since 1959. Usually, however, in such ‘critical’ films most characters are supporters of the revolution who find fault with aspects of daily life. This film presents us with Andrés who is still writing in secret (although we don’t know what it is that he is writing). I don’t think his gender orientation is the real problem. I do find this kind of situation very difficult. In the Summer of 1983 I marvelled at all the help Cuban workers, teachers and advisers were giving to the Revolutionary Government in Grenada. I’ll always support the Cuban revolution, but I despair at the attacks on dissident writers and other artists. I can understand the arrest of counter-revolutionaries who directly threaten the state and could damage the society, but once a state starts persecuting writers, it begins to lose credibility. The health of any society is judged by how it deals with criticism and this just feels like an over-reaction by ICAIC. What is being exposed in the film are the petty bureaucracies of the system and, if I understood the truncated final sequences, the inefficiencies of a system that allows some people to go unpunished for criminal behaviour (i.e. not ‘political’ crimes). The final outcome for Andrés seems a sad conclusion. Overall, I enjoyed watching Santa y Andrés and I thought the two central performances, by actors who have no previous credits listed on IMDb, were excellent.

Here’s the Toronto Festival trailer:

Also available on YouTube is a collection of ‘Making Of’ episodes. Here’s one with Lola Amores (they all have English subs):

¡Viva! 23 #8: El Mundo sigue (Life Goes On, Spain 1965)

The poster for the film’s re-release in Spain.

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.

Gemma Cuervo as Luisita

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.

Eloísa (Lina Canalejas) and Faustino (Fernando Fernán Gómez)

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).

A confrontation of sisters as their despairing mother looks on

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.