This year’s ¡Viva! Festival of Spanish and Latin American Cinema at HOME in Manchester has been interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic and HOME has closed. We’ve been privileged to have reported on many previous ¡Viva! festivals and we were all set to visit the second week of the festival. Fortunately, thanks to the festival organisers, we are able to bring you at least a few reports on the films screened.
A Thief’s Daughter was the opening film of the festival. It’s the début feature of Catalan writer-director Belén Funes and the festival brochure namechecks both Ken Loach and the Dardenne Brothers as reference points. Certainly this is a social realist narrative and its central character is Sara a young woman in her early twenties in a working-class district of Barcelona. It has that mixture of family melodrama and an exploration of ‘precarity’ that is familiar from the two recent Ken Loach-Paul Laverty films, but I think other aspects of the film are different. Funes appears to belong to the ‘show, don’t tell’ school of storytellers. It therefore takes some time to work out all the relationships in the film and the problems that Sara faces.
We first meet Sara working as a cleaner, but we see that she is attempting to find other work. She has an infant son Joel who seems to be left each day with either Sara’ room-mate with or with Flora, an older woman who runs a bar (where Sara sometimes works). Dani is the young man who we assume may be Joel’s father but though he does look after Joel on occasions he doesn’t appear to want to be with Sara – something she regrets. But as the film’s title implies, the narrative conflict is generated by the return of Sara’s father from prison. Father and daughter have been apart for some time and Sara is in two minds as to whether she misses him, needs his support or wants him out of her life completely. The current cause of the rift is Sara’s young brother, Martín, a 7 year-old with an injured foot who appears to be living in some form of children’s home. (The family details are actually quite complicated with hints dropped here and there but not fully spelt out.)
Sara herself is also in some form of public housing facility and it is time limited, presumably on the basis that she needs support until she has settled employment and Joel’s care is sorted out. This lack of detail about welfare services is one of the main differences between this film and Loachian social realism. Funes does not generate a critique of Spanish welfare services, or of employers. Sara is generally treated with efficiency and courtesy. She has several different jobs that we either see or hear about and eventually finds a good job in a school/college catering team. At this point a couple of clues emerge that suggest that her education was interrupted. During a formal interview she struggles to articulate answers to standard questions even though her work displays her intelligence and diligence. Sara has a hearing aid and again there is no explanation for this. Does she have a congenital condition or was her hearing damaged in an accident? There are some suggestions that perhaps her father was violent towards her some years earlier. All of these questions come together in the final scenes when Sara attends a family court hearing in which she applies to become her brother’s guardian and therefore to recreate a family in which her father loses control over Martín. There is no easy resolution to the narrative and I found the final scenes very moving and quite shocking. Again the court officials and the two advocates are not presented as uncaring, but we do get to appreciate how ill-prepared poor Sara is.
A Thief’s Daughter is a form of anti-melodrama. This is certainly a drama of family relationships but it is presented without any obvious forms of ‘excess’. Although there are moments of diegetic music, there is no music score as such (or perhaps I didn’t notice a score?). Mainly the drama is played out with only direct sound. The mise en scène is primarily functional, showing the action and again I didn’t notice much in the way of expressionist camerawork or editing. This is not to say that the film is dull to watch and Neus Ollé as cinematographer and Bernat Aragonés as editor are experienced filmmakers who serve the narrative well. The performances are very good. Sara and her father are played by the real life father-daughter pairing of Greta and Eduard Fernández. They have played together before and Eduard is a very experienced actor. I have seen him before in previous ¡Viva! films including Marsella (2014) and Truman (2015). On this occasion, Greta has taken centre stage and she shared the acting prize at San Sebastian with Nina Hoss. Overall, there is no heightened dramatic drive to the narrative. Instead we are invited to get to know Sara and to care for her, following her on various journeys and worrying about all the tasks she has to complete. Somehow the lack of any narrative devices to increase the tension and despair of the character (something the Loach-Laverty Sorry We Missed You tends to over-use?) means that the final scenes are more powerful.
The film is in Spanish with some Catalan. The film was co-written with producer Marçal Cebrian and she and Belén Funes had already made a short film with the same characters in 2014. Reading other festival reviews, I get the impression that the established Catalan filmmaker Isobel Coixet helped A Thief’s Daughter get into production. If so, I’m glad she did. This was a strong opening to the festival. Here’s a Spanish trailer, the English subbed one appears to have no sound.
This year’s ¡Viva! included a retrospective tribute to the Catalan director Bigas Luna who died just six years ago. The festival screened his ‘Iberian trilogy’ and a documentary BigasXBigas (2016) was screened alongside a video art exhibition at the Instituto Cervantes in Deansgate. The exhibition runs until April 13. The whole tribute was curated by Prof. Santiago Fouz Hernández of the University of Durham and Betty Bigas, multi-disciplinary artist and daughter of Bigas Luna.
The screening of La teta y la luna was introduced by Dr Abigail Loxham, University of Liverpool and she and Prof. Hernández conducted a Q&A/discussion after the screening. Unfortunately I could only stay for the first half of this. The screening used an archive 35mm print from Metro Tartan and on the big screen in Cinema One at HOME we noted all the problems with an aged film print but also the real pleasure of watching a well-made ‘film’.
The two previous films in the trilogy Jamón, jamón (1992) and Huevos de oro (1993) were set in Aragon and Alicante respectively but in La teta y la luna the setting is the coast of Catalunya. Like the other two films, La teta y la luna is also concerned with ideas about masculinity and identity presented through comedy and a celebration of eroticism in cinema. The narrative is presented through the eyes and voiceover of Tete (Biel Durán), a nine-year old boy who feels threatened on two fronts – first by his father’s insistence in instilling him with the fearlessness of machismo and secondly with his possible displacement from his close relationship with his mother prompted by the imminent arrival of a younger brother. Tete’s ‘test’ set by his father is to be the boy (enxaneta) who has to climb to the top of the human tower (castell) formed by the local men in an annual local celebration. His fear of doing this becomes displaced into an obsession with his mother’s breasts. If he loses these to his baby brother, he feels he must find another pair of equally fine breasts to take their place.
Tete’s quest takes him to a local carnival show by the sea where he discovers Estrellita (Mathilda May) a beautiful Portuguese dancer who performs with her French husband Maurice (Gérard Darmon) in a variety act. She dances and he farts while astride his motorbike. His farts are very controlled and he uses them to perform stunts. (I’m reminded of that other French entertainer, Le Pétomane (1857-1945) whose family were actually from Catalunya.) Tete discovers where Estrellita and Maurice have their caravan and he spies on them. But he soon realises he has a rival, a young Andalusian flamenco singer named Miguel (Miguel Poveda). I won’t go into more detail on the plot but as we might expect, Tete is exposed to a number of breasts of different shapes and sizes and he will eventually conquer his fear of heights in climbing the human tower.
Before I engage with the introduction and Q&A, I’d like to just share a couple of my own thoughts. I remember watching Jamón, jamón, mostly for the early film appearances of Penélope Cruz (her first) and Javier Bardem. I don’t remember Huevos de oro but I may well have seen it and similarly I can’t be sure about an earlier watch for La teta y la luna. But I can be sure that I enjoyed both Jamón, jamón and La teta y la luna. All three films were photographed by José Luis Alcaine, the last two in ‘Scope. The cast members are all accomplished in these kinds of roles and freely enter the playfulness of Luna’s comic eroticism. Mathilda May trained as a ballerina – I’m not sure if Gérard Darmon ever trained as a flatulist. All the films received an 18 certificate in the UK and YouTube has attempted to certificate the clips that have been uploaded. It seems sad to me that a film with naked breasts could be seen as ‘offensive’ or harmful to younger viewers. Bigas Luna pokes fun at this I think with a surrealist sequence in which Estrellita spectacularly lactates into Tete’s mouth much as wine might be poured from on high from a large flask. There are many other similar visual jokes. Tete’s voyeurism also leads him to believe that women need to be ‘filled’ by their partners before they can produce more milk. Maurice is now impotent so Estrellita needs to be ‘filled’ by Miguel.
The great strength of the film is that everything happens at pace and the rudimentary plot is played out in 90 minutes or less. There is just about enough time to think about identity issues. The title refers to Tete’s appeal to the moon to help him find new breasts. He imagines a moon scene with the flags of Spain and the European Community as it was then. Estrellita’s Portuguese identity is not really highlighted but much is made of Miguel’s Andalusian background and Maurice’s ‘Frenchness’ and Catalunya is represented ahead of Spanish identity as such.
Listening back to the Intro, Abigail Loxham crammed a great deal into her short time allocation. She described the film as a ‘Freudian family melodrama’ and emphasised that Bigas Luna’s main point seemed to be to equate masculinity and nationalism and to see both as inflexible and needing to be treated in effect by feminisation and pluralism. She also noted that although he set this third film in Catalunya, it was not in the urban sophistication of Barcelona but in the pluralist and carnivalesque seaside camp site. She made the point that narrating the film through the child enable Luna to make his points about sexuality and inflexible masculinity without prejudicing the representation of the female characters. I’ve paraphrased what she said and I hope I’ve understood the points. She also commented on how the film, though nearly a quarter of a century old now seems timely as we consider where nationalism is taking the UK (England?) as well as other parts of Europe in respect of Brexit. I’m not sure about the feminine aspect though since we seem to be saddled with the most inflexible female leader (oddly also a ‘May’)!
In the Q&A there was a more detailed discussion of ideas about national identity and Prof. Hernández made several interesting comments about the trilogy of films which made me wish I’d been able to view the other two films this week. He discussed ‘passion’ in the film, relating it back to Loxham’s reference to a similar trilogy of plays by Lorca. It occurred to me then just how much red is used in the film (see the stills above). He also said that he was writing about Bigas Luna at the moment (and he praised Abigail Loxham’s work on Luna). After the screening I looked up the three Spanish film studies texts in my library and was surprised to find that Bigas Luna was completely ignored in one, briefly referenced in another and discussed mainly in respect to Javier Bardem’s involvement in the trilogy. I was surprised that Luna was not recognised in the way he (much like Almodóvar) took his early ideas from soft porn into mainstream films, developing the humour and making possible a deeper understanding of aspects of sexuality. I enjoyed the film and I’ll look out for opportunities to see the other parts of the trilogy.
This was a suitably gentle and welcoming title for my first day of ¡Viva! 25. The title suggests a laid-back hippie song from the late 1960s/early 1970s and indeed it is. Formentera is a small island a few miles south of Ibiza which has attracted musicians and travellers for many years. The song was written by Robert Fripp and Pete Sinfield of King Crimson and it appeared as the first track of the album Islands in 1971. The song appears in the film and the central character claims to have helped Sinfield to have written it. This is Sami played by the veteran actor José Sacristán who must have been 80 when he made the film but appears younger. Sami/Samuel still plays his banjo in a local bar and survives in his rudimentary house by the sea where he copes without electricity. One day his daughter Anna (Nora Navas) appears with her 10 year-old son Marc. She says she has to go to France to work and can’t look after the boy, leaving him with his somewhat stunned grandfather.
What follows is a familiar narrative about the old and the young together. One critic has described it as ‘anodyne’ but I think that’s unfair. Certainly it doesn’t push hard towards comedy or tragedy but instead looks for a character study and explores Sami’s predicament with care and insight. If I have a criticism it is that Marc’s character is underwritten. Sandro Ballesteros who plays the boy is not given a great deal to do and inevitably most of our interest is directed towards Sami. Sami in turn is given a series of familiar generic characteristics as well as narrative developments to contend with. He still sometimes drinks or smokes dope to excess and misses appointments, he has an ancient unreliable Land Rover, ex-girlfriends and old musician pals – and a heart problem. He’ll also discover that his bar gig won’t last forever and of course somebody wants him to join a group of aged musicians and go on tour. First time writer-director Pau Durà is a very experienced actor so in some ways the script components make sense in terms of privileging performance. I also enjoyed the music very much. I was never a fan of King Crimson but and certainly not of the dreaded British ‘prog rock’ but Crimson in this mode are fine and what Sami plays on his banjo might be described as ‘psychedelic bluegrass’.
The film scores best when it deals with Sami’s fear about how he will survive the next few years. He plays for older people in a club/residential home and meets the son of an old friend whose mother (of Sami’s age) is suffering from dementia and talking about the old days when Sami’s partner (the Formentera Lady of the title) was around. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative but I’d argue that José Sacristán’s performance, the music and Sami’s story are definitely reasons to watch the film. The other aspects of the story are conventional but won’t spoil your enjoyment. It’s a shame that Anna doesn’t appear more in the film. I realised later that Nora Navas was the star of a very well-received ¡Viva! title in 2016, L’adopcio (Spain-Lithuania 2015). This film is mainly a male drama/melodrama but all the women who appear could be given more screen time.
This isn’t an art film but a mainstream film belonging to Catalan as well as Castilian Spanish cinema and both languages appear in the film. The short trailer below is without English subs.
Formentera Lady is on for a third screening at HOME on Friday 5th April at 20.30.
This is a very accomplished film that I found disturbing to watch, especially since the director and co-writer was present – and the story was inspired by her own experiences. Daniela Féjerman answered questions after the screening (the UK première) when around half the audience stayed on and raised a wide range of questions. The film carries a strong emotional punch and the questioners were generally very supportive.
The ‘adoption’ of the title is set in motion by a Spanish couple, Natalia (Nora Navas) and Daniel (Francesc Garrido), who arrive in an unnamed East European country where they are met by an intermediary who they have paid to help them adopt a child under 3 years-old. The process they must go through is bureaucratic and extremely stressful – not helped by the fact that it is Christmas (with offices closed and family rituals) and very cold. It soon transpires that they need the intermediary for more than just interpreter duties – is she to be trusted? At the beginning of the narrative Natalia and Dani appear to have a strong loving relationship, but as the adoption process begins to hit all kinds of snags and they are faced with extremely difficult decisions, the two react in different ways and their relationship begins to suffer. In an interview with Cineuropa, Féjerman describes the film as “like a Christmas tale told by Kafka” – which seems a very good description of the narrative as well as of the real problems of producing the film.
The production had three Spanish companies, two Lithuanian companies and support from tvE (the Spanish public service broadcaster) and took several years to put together. It was a multiple language film – the Spanish language dialogue sections being shot twice with the second version in Catalan. L’adopció is the Catalan title. The film is also known by the international English title Awaiting. The Castilian Spanish title is La adopción. This is one of the increasing number of European films in which people from different European countries must speak English in order to negotiate bureaucracies. And this in turn creates divisions since the ability to speak a second (or usually third) language denotes either a good education or opportunities to travel and/or work abroad. The film uses Spanish/Catalan, English, Lithuanian, Russian and Italian. The local actors are mainly very experienced Lithuanian theatre actors (everything was shot in Lithuania). The English dialogue seemed to me very impressive and I was slightly surprised that though she introduced herself in English, Daniela Féjerman (herself Argentinian) answered questions via an interpreter. It says much for Ms Féjerman’s directorial skill that she accomplished so much on a multilingual shoot.
I said at the beginning of this post that I found the film disturbing. By this I mean that the film provokes strong audience responses which will be different for each audience member. I could certainly identify with the Spanish couple and I did indeed think about how I would react faced with the same circumstances and difficult decisions I was reminded of similar stresses on my travels, but associated with less important decisions. The two central performances are excellent. It took me some time to realise that Nora Navas had appeared in a previous ¡Viva! festival screening, Tots volem el millor per a ella (We All Want What’s Best For Her, Spain 2013). She was excellent in that role as well. I liked Natalia whereas I gradually began to turn against her husband. The central issue is international adoption as a practice. Personally, I find the whole idea problematic, but I appreciate that for some couples it becomes their only viable option for a child. In this case there is also the issue of making out that a whole country is corrupt – from the baggage-handlers at the airport, through civil servants and the medical profession to relatives who might view children as ‘for sale’ to people from Western Europe with money to spend. The latter point works both ways – why shouldn’t they earn extra money while seeing the child have a ‘better’ future in the West? In this case, Daniela Féjerman told us that the story was based on her own experiences adopting a child from Ukraine and that the circumstances in her film are commonplace – or so the Spanish Embassy told her. I’m not sure what my reaction was to that announcement. She also said that the Lithuanian production partners were happy with the script. The country isn’t named and in fact doesn’t allow international adoption. The titles do, however, announce the co-production.
But this is a fiction film narrative and much depends on how we might classify the film. On the whole, the film presents itself as a social drama, focusing on the adoption process and what it means for the participants. There are moments of wry humour and moments of heightened emotion about the couple’s relationship such as when they dance to a romantic Italian song in a Vilnius bar. The bar has Murphy’s stout on tap, but does it have Italian songs on a jukebox? Mostly, however, the approach is social realism with rather muted and cold cinematography making some kind of ironic comment about the emotional stress for the couple during the Christmas period. It’s small things like this which made me think about melodrama. In the Cineuropa review Féjerman tells us:
” . . . it was essential to maintain a certain tone: I had to prevent it from becoming melodramatic, which I was tempted towards, and it’s something that could easily have happened. I had such a brutal vision of the experience that I just couldn’t make a movie with violins playing in the background, because there were certainly none to be heard there.”
I suspect that I don’t have the same ideas about melodrama as this director. I understand what she is saying, but during the film she includes scenes and lines of dialogue which hint at typical relationships within a family. We never find out what Natalia and Dani do for a living, but we do know that Natalia has a father who is a high status and wealthy doctor and that Dani is perhaps affected by this. We also wonder what has happened in the couple’s attempts to conceive. I can see that it is difficult to decide how much back story to give to the central characters, but the narrative does offer the potential of two intertwined stories, one about the adoption and one about the marriage. This could be a melodrama with Natalia as its centre without resorting to the violins that the director worries about. The film actually has a carefully worked score and includes children’s songs as well as the Italian song described above.
L’adopció is certainly a film to talk about and others will feel differently about the issue of international adoption and about melodrama. As far as I am aware the film has only been released in Spain (in both Catalan and Castilian) and up till now only in Spanish festivals. It deserves a wider audience and we should thank ¡Viva! for bringing it to the UK. L’adopció plays again at ¡Viva! on Thursday April 21 at 18.20.
International trailer (with English subs):
The different language cinemas of Spain are not necessarily known for the work of female directors and so this second film by the Catalan director Mar Coll offered a rare treat during the ¡Viva! Weekender at HOME in Manchester. The ‘her’ that everyone wants to do their best for is Geni (short for Eugenia), a 38 year-old middle-class woman in Barcelona who we first meet in her doctor’s office. She has clearly suffered both physical and mental damage as the result of a traumatic accident – though the precise nature of this is not revealed until much later in the narrative. Eventually we realise that Geni is not making the progress back to ‘normal’ bourgeois life that is expected of her. In a marvellous performance by Nora Navas, Geni is revealed as unable to be as articulate as she once was and to have become forgetful and lacking in the kind of confidence and social skills she needs to return to work as a legal executive (it isn’t clear if she is actually qualified as a lawyer).
Geni is married to Dani, an architect and she is part of an extended family with a wealthy father and grown-up siblings, though one of her sisters is also in some form of therapy. All the family attempt to ‘care’ for her but none are able to appreciate how she feels and consequently they seem to be trying to erect a cocoon for her within which she will find a way to return to normality. Her one chance of ‘breaking free’ comes when, by chance, she meets an old school friend who she hasn’t seen for twenty years. Mariana (Valeria Bertuccelli) is a ‘wild’ Argentinian who claims to have travelled the world but who is now trying to get a job that will allow her to live abroad permanently. Perhaps Geni can join her in some way? In practice this proves quite difficult. The narrative has an open ending that didn’t please a couple of people sitting behind me but seems the best outcome in the circumstances. The dissatisfied audience members thought that the film was depressing but as another of their group said, “this is reality”.
I ‘enjoyed’ the film mainly because of the central performance and I felt that I had come to understand how she felt. It occurs to me that many of us don’t face the same questions until we retire – when we don’t have the constant pressures of work (or running a home) to pre-occupy us. I’m not sure if it is better or worse to confront the pressures to conform when you are 38 than it is when you are 68. Reviews of the film refer to it as a ‘tragi-comedy’. I did think it was sometimes like the ‘comedy of embarassment’ that I personally find hard to watch. Most of the time I felt anger on behalf of Geni rather than laughter at the situation. The weakness in the film is that the other characters don’t get much opportunity to make their case, apart from Mariana. She says that Dani is a bit of a ‘dickhead’. That may be true but we can’t be sure from how we see him behave – he does try to fulfil the caring role but spurns Geni’s demands for intimacy. I don’t mind the open ending but we do need a bit more about who he is and a bit more about the rest of the family as well.
I can’t remember much distinctive about the look of the film but the soundtrack has some lively jazz, including Django Rheinhardt. I’m grateful for Rebecca Naughten’s usual perceptive review for pointing out that Mariana ‘erupts’ into the narrative in a red coat. She is also the means by which Geni watches a rather wonderful B movie which the subtitles refer to as ‘What Have We Done to Deserve This?’ – a reference perhaps to the early films of Pedro Almodóvar, suggesting that Mariana might really have been having fun (she appears in the film as a nun)?
The screening of Tots volem el millor per a ella was preceded by a 10 minute short, Somos Amigos (We Are Friends, Spain 2014). This classy widescreen effort hones in on the current period of austerity with a wry tale about ‘downsizing’ and the imperative to never mix ‘friendship and business’. The director Carlos Solano is listed in the HOME brochure as a former student of Mar Coll. I presume this was at ESCAC (Escuela Superior de Cine y Audiovisuales de Cataluña), part of the University of Barcelona.
Researching Tots volem el millor per a ella, I discovered that it had already shown in the UK at the ICA as part of the ‘Catalan avant-garde season” – though it isn’t really an avant-garde film – and in Birmingham as part of a season of Catalan, Basque and Galician films. It would be good if it got a wider UK release.
Trailer (in Catalan with Castillian subs – please correct me if I’m mistaken):
It’s difficult to describe this short feature (72 mins) without spoiling the narrative surprise. I’ll just echo the Viva blurb and say that we first meet Elisa when she is approaching her eleventh birthday. She experiences a shocking event which she immediately represses – so much so that afterwards she has no memories of the event at all. But these memories ‘return’ fourteen years later with terrible force.
This is a Catalan language film in two parts. In the first part, presented in black and white ‘scope, we see Elisa living with her mother and two siblings in rural Catalunya. Every fortnight the three children (Elisa’s brother is slightly older) travel by train to Barcelona where they are met by their father who entertains them with trips around the city and meals in a favourite restaurant. It is on one of these weekends that the event occurs. We don’t see the event itself which happens offscreen (a narrator tells us what is going to happen). We see the aftermath and how Elisa slowly recovers and finally grows up and attends university in the city. In the second much shorter part Elisa is shown in her apartment overseas during her postgraduate studies and this is presented in colour.
Two features of the film that might deter some audiences were pluses for me. First, there is a (male) narrator who I don’t think appears as a character on screen. Second the shooting style is very slow and deliberate. Framings often in long shot are held sometimes for what seems like a long time. The camera is relatively static throughout with good use of the ‘scope frame. A meal is shown through the window of a restaurant with the characters seemingly mouthing their words, the mother is shown on the station platform looking towards but beyond the camera as the train moves past her on the righthand side. There is an unobtrusive but effective musical score (which of course includes Beethoven’s Für Elise). I’m a sucker for black and white ‘scope and I loved the street scenes in Barcelona. All of this calm then disappears in the second part, shot in colour with a moving camera desperately trying to follow the desperate Elisa as she tries to come to terms with what she remembers.
Looking for other reviews from festivals I discovered that Hollywood Reporter dismisses the film as pretentious but Variety has time for it and so do some other reviewers. The co-directors Jordi Cadena and Judith Colell are an experienced couple with many credits in Spanish cinema and television. The cinematography by Sergi Gallardo is excellent and so was the all round cast. The two young women who play the younger and older Elisa also look as if they could be the same person at different ages.
The interesting question for me is why the film is so short. In the UK, unless the film is by a well-known name – e.g. Shane Meadows with Somers Town – it won’t even be considered as a feature if it is under 80 mins. Internationally, I think the cut-off point is 69 mins or something like that. Elisa K is based on a novel by Lolita Bosch. Unless it is just a slight novella, I would expect more material for adaptation. I thought that perhaps the film had been made for TV, but although TV money went into the production, the aesthetic is defiantly ‘cinematic’. This is a film that deals with a sensitive issue in an unusual way, forcing the audience to appreciate the impact of the events on characters over time rather than simply responding emotionally immediately. And I think it works.
There is a beautiful trailer on the official website (Catalan/Castilian).