My short visit to LFF2017 ended with a journey across town to the Hackney Picturehouse. I first visited this cinema a couple of years ago and again we were in the mammoth Screen 1. I was disappointed by the size of the audience since this was the new film by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, one of just two major international auteurs whose films from francophone Central and West Africa have kept alive the strong reputation of the region over the last ten years. (The other one is Abderrahmane Sissako whose film Timbuktu made a big splash in the UK in 2015.)
Haroun has previously set his films in his native Chad. I missed his 2013 film Gris-Gris which showed at LFF but I don’t think was released in the UK. Gris-Gris and his earlier features Abouna (2002), Daratt (2006) and A Screaming Man (2010) were all set in the Central African country. Prior to A Season in France, he directed a documentary, Hissein Habré, a Chadian Tragedy (2016) about the dictatorship and its fall-out in his own country that led to his exile. His new film, as the title suggests, is set in France – though I’m not sure yet what the reference to a ‘season’ means, unless it’s a satirical reference to a hunting season? Haroun himself is based in France so he knows the issues likely to be faced by asylum seekers such as Abbas (Eriq Ebouaney).
Abbas is an asylum seeker in France after fleeing his home Bangui (capital of the Central African Republic). He has with him his two children, Asma and Yacine, but his wife was killed during the family’s flight from CAR. Abbas was a French teacher in CAR and so was Etienne (a philosophy teacher), who I think might be Abbas’ brother-in-law, another who is seeking asylum. The children call Etienne ‘uncle’ but I did wonder if this was just the common usage of ‘uncle’ for any older male known to the family. Abbas and his children move constantly from one rented or borrowed room to another. Etienne has even less to call home and survives as a doorman/security guard outside a pharmacy. Abbas works on a stall in the market and develops a relationship with Carole (Sandrine Bonnaire) who has a floristry business linked to the market stall and whose family is Polish from a different wave of migration. The strain of the asylum application process is very heavy. Haroun presents the waiting room and the security guards at the office dealing with asylum seekers – but we never see the bureaucrats. Instead the asylum seekers receive official letters. If the strain is too great, the asylum seekers can all too easily ‘fail’ in their attempt to achieve permanent status.
In several ways, A Season in France resembles I, Daniel Blake and other Loachian dramas in which individuals without money or status have to deal with a state bureaucracy. (But it also includes dream sequences, which I can’t recall in a Loach film.) I don’t want to give out spoilers, so I’ll just suggest that the film presents a stark moment of tragedy and a gradual loss of hope but has an ‘open’ ending that in a couple of ways is heart-breaking. This is a tough film and an angry film told in a straightforward way. It needs to be seen and I hope it moves audiences to think again about how Europe treats asylum seekers. In some ways, especially to do with the involvement of the French citizen Carole, the film is similar to Welcome (France 2009). French citizens face severe punishment for helping ‘illegal’ migrants. Like Welcome with Vincent Lindon, A Season in France has the presence of Sandrine Bonnaire, one of the best actors in France. I hope this will attract audiences in Europe. Eriq Ebouaney is very good as Abbas and I was interested to see his very long list of acting roles in French and international cinema. I had thought of Claire Denis’ 35 rhums (2009) because of the presentation of an African family in the grey suburbs of Paris, and especially the railway bridges and rail journeys. Ebouaney has a small part in that film and several others I’ve seen. It’s good to see him now in a lead role. A Season in France opens in France in February 2018. Somebody please pick it up for the UK.
You can download a Press Pack with excellent interviews and background from: http://mk2films.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2016/08/pressbook-a-season-in-france.pdf
For my state of mind and my tired brain, I was relieved that my first day of three at the London Film Festival ended with a Danish comedy drama starring one of my favourite actors, Søren Malling. This was a ‘Scope picture presented on the big screen at Curzon 1 Mayfair with an appreciative Thursday night crowd who enjoyed what is a major Danish production. This UK screening came just a week after the official release in Denmark. The Q&A with director Henrik Ruben Genz was equally entertaining and I’m sorry I had to leave before it was over.
The Word of God is an adaptation of a Danish bestseller from 2004 written by Jens Blendstrup, the youngest ‘son of God’ in what is an autobiographical novel. ‘God’ is Uffe (Søren Malling) a familiar character in a number of narratives. In 1986, around the time of the Chernobyl disaster, Uffe’s traditional parenting methods are being called into question. His eldest son has left home and reversed all his father’s teachings, becoming a God-fearing Christian in what in the UK might be called a ‘happy-clappy’ evangelical community by non-believers. Second son Thomas has convinced himself that he has agoraphobia and can’t leave the house and Jens, the youngest is a 14 year-old ‘genius’ poet/writer. Swedish mother and wife Gerd Lillian (Lisa Nilsson) tries to keep this lot together. Uffe has a simple strategy to deal with both joy and despair – he makes ‘Army soup’ from his younger days, a ferocious concoction of unpeeled onions stewed in concentrated soup stock and schnapps. In his professional life he runs a psychotherapy group that convinces its members to abandon medical drugs and instead to progress with groupwork interaction (and copious amounts of beer and cigarettes). Beer is referred to as ‘vegetables’ (i.e. to accompany the soup). The ‘narrative disruption’ is double-headed when Uffe’s eldest returns to announce his marriage and Uffe himself discovers that he has developed potentially terminal cancer – and that he doesn’t want to accept new chemical treatments. In times of stress, as well as making his soup, Uffe retires to his ‘Arabic corner’ and smokes a shisha or hookah. When he discovers that Jens is a writer he unearths his typewriter from the ‘Swedish chest’ that Gerd Lillian brought as a her dowry and attempts to write his autobiography, inspired by Jens’ success writing morbid poetry. The narrative question becomes ‘can the family stay together and resolve their issues’?
I enjoyed The Word of God very much. It is funny and it is also quite moving, because of the performances I think. Lisa Nilsson is very good in a difficult role as the mother and the family rings true. Watching it I was reminded of two films for different reasons. The plot is very similar to that of East is East (1999), a British film which was very successful but which disturbed me greatly because of its representation of a Pakistani father and mixed-race children. It was also an autobiographical story – about a mixed race family in Salford in the 1970s. I found The Word of God to be less offensive and generally quite ‘humanist’ in its acceptance of characters (though some might argue about the wedding scene involving Uffe and his son’s Christian community). A more recent Nordic story which has less in common, apart from a seemingly anti-social lead male character, would be A Man Called Ove (Sweden 2015). Uffe is completely ‘unreconstructed’ but he does the right thing by his ‘patients’. He’s less successful with his children – though I think he always means to be helpful. Søren Malling is a terrific actor, but I hope the paunch he developed to play the role was prosthetic. The Word of God might confirm all the typical traits of Danish life in the 1980s for some audiences (including a questionable sex scene) but I was onside throughout. I hope this film gets a release over here and many more audiences in the UK get to enjoy it.
A trailer with English subs is here: https://www.levelk.dk/films/word-of-god/4003
Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910-1997) was one of the most remarkable men of the twentieth century. Even at just over two hours, L’odyssée struggles to cover only the middle stretch of a career that lasted over fifty years. The film focuses on the highlights of the most productive period of the life of Cousteau when he gained international fame through his undersea exploits, television programmes and eventual turn to environmental concerns. I think it will be difficult for younger audiences in the UK to comprehend what kind of international following Cousteau was able to attract – he won major civil honours in several countries and only David Attenborough has ever reached the same profile as a celebrity associated with the natural world. The surprising omission for me was any mention of Louis Malle who as a young man co-directed the Academy award-winning The Silent World (1956) with Cousteau. Fans of Wes Anderson and Bill Murray will however recognise that The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) is based on the exploits of Cousteau and his crew.
L’odyssée is a major production with an estimated budget of €20 million – large by European standards, even if France is the major European film production centre. Director Jérôme Salle seems to specialise in large-scale productions with major stars but as far as I can see his films have not previously appeared in UK cinemas (though two have been released on DVD). According to IMDb, L’odyssée is being screened in a 2.66 : 1 ratio and it was shot digitally on a 6K Red camera. I’m not sure about the ratio at the screening I attended, but you’d expect an epic presentation for Cousteau’s story of exploration and overall the film doesn’t disappoint. There are three major stars (perhaps two of them are ‘star actors’). Lambert Wilson has the trickiest job as ‘JYC’ (Cousteau) and since the action begins around 1949 when Cousteau was approaching 40 and finishes when he is approaching 70. Wilson himself is in his late 50s. Audrey Tautou faces a similar long haul but she has the advantage of being nearer in age to Cousteau’s wife Simone in 1949 and with make-up and wigs she approaches 60 more easily. She also doesn’t appear on screen as frequently (one of the major minuses of the film for me). The third major character is Cousteau’s younger son Philippe played as an adult by Pierre Niney, highly praised on this blog for his role in Frantz (France-Germany 2016). Sporting very fetching 70s facial hair, Niney is a strong presence in the second half of the film.
As I’ve indicated, this is a partial biopic, but that is only one of the genre repertoires that Salle draws on. Perhaps just as important is the mix of epic adventure/exploration and natural history film/environmental polemic. I was struck with the similarity in parts to the Norwegian film Kon-Tiki (Norway 2012) with Cousteau seeking funding for his expeditions and then risking everything in physical encounters with seas, storms and sharks. The underwater scenes in the film are definitely one of its attractions and the budget was partly spent on location shooting in the Bahamas, Croatia, South Africa and Antarctica. The weakness of the narrative is the final genre repertoire, the family or personal drama. Perhaps not surprisingly, ‘JYC’ was unable to be the father and husband that his wife and sons expected. The narrative also suggests that his desire to succeed in his ambitious ventures led him to become too interested in the money that could be earned and that he exploited his family and loyal crew members. (At the same time, he is unaware just how expensive his ambitious plans have become.) There isn’t time to explore this and there is quite a telling moment when Cousteau is in the US for his television commitments and his elder son phones to tell him that his father has died. JYC refuses to return to France immediately. This feels like an insertion of a little shorthand scene to stand in for a whole sub-narrative. The film’s script was written by Salle and Laurent Turner and is based on two books, one by Jean-Michel Cousteau, the surviving older son who has carried on the family business and the other by the captain of the Cousteau ship, the Calypso. On this basis, there must be a strong factual starting point to what appears on screen. I think I would argue that despite its flaws, there is a great deal to commend about L’odyssée. It boasts wonderful cinematography by Matias Boucard and a music score by the celebrated Alexandre Desplat. You should seek out the biggest screen you can find.
We watched the film at the new arts centre in Halifax, the Square Chapel, in the smaller ‘Copper’ auditorium which is also used for theatrical productions. It’s good to be in a new cinema space and we were impressed to see how busy it was for a Friday morning screening. The downside is that films are presented without masking – the CinemaScope film was shown on a standard widescreen ratio screen so there were visible white bars above and below the image. Someone once tried to tell me that nobody notices this, but sitting two rows from the front they were clearly visible to us. Please, cinemas – bring back masking!
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.
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.
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).
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.
This was perhaps the most enjoyable film I saw at ¡Viva!. A comedy drama with a terrific central character, strong supporting cast and a solid story with plenty of laughs – what’s not to like? Having the opportunity to hear the director Nely Reguera talk about the film in the Q&A after the screening was an added bonus.
María is a thirty-something living in Galicia. When we first meet her she has been caring for her widowed father who has been receiving treatment for cancer. Her day job is with a small local publisher and bookseller. She has encounters with men she knows, but doesn’t have a committed partner. When Dad is fully recovered it is time for his birthday and his two sons and their partners return home for the party. Dad invites his nurse from the health centre to the party where he makes a sudden announcement that surprises everybody and has all kinds of repercussions, including questions about the future of the family restaurant which has been closed for a couple of years. María has done all the cooking for the party, but the eldest son Jorge is a chef currently working in London. I don’t want to give away any more but the plot sets up a range of issues affecting different members of the family. (The rough English translation of the title is ‘Maria (and the others)’.)
The main focus is the challenge to María’s sense of who she is and what’s she should be doing now her ‘carer’/’supporter’ role has changed. One possibility is that she might finish the novel she has been writing, another is a search for a more permanent relationship. These are both familiar ‘drivers’ for a comedy and here they are melded into the general family drama. Director Nely Reguera (who co-wrote the script with four others) had spoken about her film in the panel discussion about ‘Contemporary Female Filmmakers in Spanish Cinema’. This was her first feature after two short films and plenty of production experience as an Assistant Director. She said that María took her several years to get into production. Her comments raised expectation that this would not be a straight genre picture despite familiar tropes such as María’s relationships with her girlfriends and the different ways in which plot developments thwart her attempts to achieve her goals. I was particularly interested in the two other young women in her family – her sister-in-law and Anne, the English partner of her eldest brother, the chef. I asked Nely about this in the Q&A and she said the English connection was partly simply realism – many Galicians travel to work abroad and that there are many Spanish workers in the UK. But she also said that Anne was one of her favourite characters in the film. It struck me that though Anne and María don’t have a great deal of interaction, Anne does have both a positive and a negative impact on how the rest of the family view María. María’s cooking is local and home-cooked, whereas Anne speaks about how she and Jorge often get take-aways, especially Thai food. In defending traditional Galician attitudes towards food, Maria is parochial in the face of Anne’s ‘globalised modernity’. Equally, however, Anne is much more supportive of María’s need for independence when her sister-in-law and others assume that she will follow tradition. Then again, Anne is possibly a figure of fun in her jogging gear.
María (y los demás) was released in Spain in December 2016 and doesn’t seem to have been released in other markets yet. It has been very well received in Spain with several nominations and a couple of wins at festivals and awards events. Nely Reguera has received attention as a promising new director and Bárbara Lennie in the lead role has received similar attention. Nely told us that she was lucky to get Lennie for the lead role before the big success of her recent films such as Magical Girl (2014) for which she won a Goya. She is perfect as María and the supporting cast is equally good. This is a film that is well-written, skilfully directed and wonderfully performed. In any sane world it would sell widely across different territories. Fingers crossed, it will. I hope you can find it and enjoy it.
Another first feature by a female filmmaker from South America, Rara followed Alba and offered ¡Viva! audiences a third young teenager’s struggles in a family group. In this case the family group is intact, but following a divorce, lawyer Paula (Mariana Loyola) is living with Lia (Agustina Muñoz), a vet. The central character is Sara (Julia Lübbert), who with her younger sister Catalina (Emilia Ossandon) is getting used to the new family arrangements – which involve visits to her father’s new household. Like Alba this is a first feature. Director Pepa San Martín had also previously made two short films and her first feature was co-written with the experienced Alicia Scherson. I think the best way to describe the film is as a family drama with comedic elements. Watching it I did feel that many scenes would have worked in situation comedies and television comedy drama series. This is not in any way a criticism. In the UK these types of narrative forms have often been where women writers have had most success and established themselves. I thoroughly enjoyed Rara and found many aspects of it impressive. My only concern was that the narrative as a whole didn’t seem to be completely coherent. I wondered if I was misreading some scenes.
Rara doesn’t announce where it is set until the first mention of ‘the capital’, Santiago and the implication that we are outside the capital (and actually in Viña del Mar, north of Valparaiso). When I checked after the screening I discovered that civil partnerships between same sex partners were made legal in Chile in 2015 and that moves to legalise same sex marriage are current under the presidency of Michelle Bachelet. Rara is clearly a topical film and this perhaps explains the background to what is ostensibly a youth picture about Sara and her approaching 13th birthday – her first since having braces removed with the promise of kissing to enjoy. Much of the narrative is taken up by Sara’s vacillation over how to celebrate her birthday. Should she have a small party in her mother’s house or a bigger party (planned by her close schoolfriend), possibly in her father’s new house? She has other relationships to worry about as well – her first possible boyfriend at school and her sometimes difficult times with her younger sister. Catalina is always likely to steal the narrative limelight – especially when a stray ginger kitten appears. But these questions about the party (and at one point the cat) also have implications for the two families. Whether Sara understands what her actions might provoke is unclear, but they give her father and his new wife some possible opportunities to develop a case for custody of the two girls. The new status of same sex partnerships has not been universally welcomed and some of the staff and students at school aren’t totally supportive. It’s all too easy to say the wrong thing or to react without thinking. According to the review on the Queer Guru website, the story is:
actually based on the true story in 2004 when a Chilean Judge lost custody of her own children purely on the basis of her sexuality. Rara (which means ‘sad’) stops before the trial begins . . .
The Hollywood Reporter review suggests that ‘Rara’ means strange. Either way, the script has to present Paula’s family as ‘just like other families’ – which it clearly is – but also to subtly indicate why problems might arise and the first indication is when Catalina’s drawing of her family shows her two mothers. She has actually left off her gran, Pancha – another mother whose conservatism makes her less supportive than she might be. A UK review by Isabelle Milton makes a good point in noting that in some sequences showing Sara in school, the use of long tracking shots seems to suggest an art cinema sensibility that is not supported by more familiar generic scenes such as dancing to pop music in a bedroom. The character of the father (played by Daniel Muñoz) seemed less well-drawn than the other main characters and I couldn’t ‘read’ his behaviour in some scenes. Is he playing ‘weak’ to disguise his intentions, is he simply ‘mild-mannered’? A colleague suggested he seemed ‘feminised’. This added to my sense of a slight incoherence.
Shot in CinemaScope and running at a concise 88 minutes, Rara is nevertheless an enjoyable film to watch with many excellent performances, especially by the two young sisters. It seems to have been released in Italy, Mexico and Spain with France to come and I hope it opens in more territories. Here is a trailer (with English subs) which perhaps pushes the conservative comments about sexuality harder than in the film itself:
and here is the Chilean trailer (no subs):
and here’s a long interview (with translation) from the Berlin Film Festival screening:
Alba was the second of three films at ¡Viva!, to present young teenagers in complicated family situations. 11 year-old Alba lives with her mother who is bedridden and dangerously ill. Alba is reliant on her own company and struggles to make friends at school. When her mother is hospitalised Alba is sent to live with her father Igor who she doesn’t really know since she was a baby when her parents divorced. He too is a solitary figure and seems beaten down by life. But he makes an effort and as a new relationship between father and daughter slowly develops, Alba also finds a new friend at school and starts to ‘open up’. But, once she begins to engage with her classmates, familiar issues of peer group pressure emerge and, in Alba’s case, social class attitudes. We realise that Alba’s mother must have put her daughter into a school in a middle-class area and her father’s lifestyle and his job in a municipal office don’t fit in. The narrative then has to deal with this new predicament.
Alba is a film developed with help from various film festival schemes as a first feature by Ecuadorian director Ana Cristina Barragán. She had previously made two well-received short films and this enabled her to attract two pairs of producers from Mexico and Greece who helped to make the film a success at festivals in Rotterdam and San Sebastian as well as Chicago, Mumbai and Lima. I haven’t seen a debutant film as fine as this for a long time. Despite sometimes employing the dreaded Steadicam and shallow focus at times, the CinemaScope frame is used by cinematographer Simon Brauer for lovely compositions which tell us a great deal in a film with less dialogue than usual given the shyness of both Alba and her father. The details are very well worked into the narrative and I would enjoy watching the film again to pick up what I might have missed first time round. Macarena Arias as Alba is fantastic. Like the young actor in La Madre, she has the kind of face that can be switch from vulnerable child to serious young adult and can be revealed as just as pretty as the privileged girls when dressed up for a party. Pablo Aguirre Andrade as Igor is also very good. I thought he seemed familiar and now I realise he was in the youth picture María y el Araña which screened at ¡Viva! in 2015 (and which I also liked very much).
The film doesn’t name the city in which Alba lives, but in the most lyrical section of the narrative Alba and Igor visit the seaside area of Santa Elena. This section sees Alba playing a cassette in Igor’s clapped-out old car. He confirms that the tape is one of her mother’s. ‘Eres tú’ was a massively popular Spanish song from the early 1970s sung by Mocedades and a big hit around the world. The scenes that follow are the most lyrical with a patient father recognising and supporting Alba’s affinity with living creatures and her appreciation of natural beauty.
But the joy of these scenes can’t last and there is more drama to follow. I like the way in which Barragán manages to show how Alba can ‘blossom’ through friendship but then find herself in more difficult situations because of unfamiliar social differences. It’s rare to find such a moving mix of ‘growing pains’ youth picture, family drama and subtle social commentary in a film that is also beautiful to behold.
Alba is a positive and encouraging story about a young girl told with considerable skill and panache. I hope to see more films by this director and Alba deserves to be widely seen and enjoyed. So far, promotional material is only available in Spanish via the official website which carries a Press Pack and the trailer below (from which I’ve taken most of the screengrabs in this posting).
The Japanese title of this film by Fukada Koji translates roughly as ‘Standing on the Edge’, which does have a direct reference later in the narrative, but in some ways ‘Harmonium’ is equally relevant, referring to both the musical instrument and to the concept of (dis)harmony in the family at the centre of the narrative. When the film begins Toshio and Akie have what seems from the outside to be a stable marriage, though perhaps they do seem a little distant from each other. Their small daughter Hotaru is bright and very close to her mother. She is the one who is learning to play the harmonium. Toshio runs a small metal-press workshop from home and one day a man suddenly appears asking for work. Toshio clearly knows who this is but for the audience Yasaka appears mysterious and slightly unnerving. He’s tall and thin and dressed in a crisp white shirt with the sleeves buttoned and dark formal trousers. He walks stiffly and speaks formally. Yasaka is played by Asano Tadanobu, a very well-known Japanese actor who in his early 40s already has around 90 film roles to his credit. In his younger days he was something of a ‘heart-throb’ star of various genre films such as Ichi the Killer and his presence here in such an unusual role is very effective.
Toshio invites Yasaka to lodge with the family (without consulting his wife first) and to work in the metal-press and at first he seems to behave very well. Eventually, as we suspect, his presence has an effect on all three family members. This is a narrative which has been used many times for different purposes. In a play like J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls the outsider comes into a family gathering uninvited and through questioning unearths a range of dark secrets, exposing the corruption in bourgeois society. Sometimes the outsider is more of a religious figure (saint or demon), or possibly a ghost, but the effect is similar. We expect to learn something about this family and we suspect it won’t necessarily be good – or at least what happens will be disturbing.
I don’t want to spoil the narrative, but we do slowly find out what links Toshio and Yasaka and we are led towards a tragedy. The plot then changes and we rejoin a more fractured family at a later date before a finale based on some important coincidences. Overall this is a dark family melodrama presented in a very carefully controlled and composed manner. It is also a form of thriller (Polanski is a director I thought of at various points) – as one reviewer points out, it doesn’t deliver conventional thrills, but sometimes the tension of suspense is unbearable. There are some fantasy sequences suggesting the disturbed state of family members – with phantom appearances of other characters. Fukada’s technique involves removing the clutter and clatter of family life and focusing on relationships. There are moments of melodramatic excess that don’t so much ‘erupt’ but quietly come to our attention and then resonate in a disturbing way. I’ll pick out a couple. Yasaka’s formal attire includes a crisp and dazzlingly white boiler suit for his work on the metal-press. In the trailer below you can see him on the street, suddenly opening the top of the suit to reveal a scarlet T-shirt beneath (the girl’s schoolbag is similarly red). The trailer also includes the harmonium playing a tune which Yasaka teaches to Hotaru – a tune accompanied by the clicking of the metronome.
At Yasaka’s first breakfast time with the family he eats at a ferocious speed, washing up his dishes before the others have finished eating. Perhaps this is a clue to where he has been, but it is in its own way disturbing when Akie takes time to whisk raw egg in her bowl. In the trailer we also hear the start of Hotaru’s story about the spiders who immediately start to eat their mother after their birth. This is discussed in some detail. As I reflect on the film, I realise that there are many such instances which will become more apparent on a second viewing. This is a ‘rich text’ that I’m sure will reward re-viewings. I’m not surprised that it has won prizes, though I think its appeal may be limited as mainstream audiences may find it either too slow and ponderous or too contrived and ‘clumsy’. I think it is the opposite, but then perhaps this is the kind of film I like. UK audiences will get a chance to see it as Eureka/Masters of Cinema plan a release in May 2017. This means we should get a quality DVD/Blu-ray with selected cinema screenings. In the trailer below there is an indication of several plot developments that I have avoided exposing in this blog post, so be warned! It’s a good trailer though and effectively teases you with the qualities of the film.