Gone are the days when Spanish cinema was recognised outside Spain by Luis Buñuel but since at least the end of the last century, Spanish directors such as Fernando Trueba, David Trueba, Icíar Bollaín, Isabel Croixet, Alex de las Iglesias, Carlos Menem and Julio Medem are known and respected internationally – not to mention the ubiquitous Pedro Almodóvar. And not just directors: actors such as Penelope Cruz, Antonio Banderas, and Javier Bardem have an international appeal. But still there are excellent Spanish films which are largely overlooked outside Spain beyond the festival circuit and Cerca de tu casa is one such film.
The film reflects the social climate of Spain in the 2000s. Spain suffered enormously from the economic crisis which began in the early years of this century and which led to massive opposition, especially among the youth (the ‘indignados‘), and led, indirectly, to a new political party, Podemos, which is now the junior partner in the current Spanish government. As well as large-scale unemployment, one of the effects of the crisis was large-scale eviction of people who could not pay their mortgages. Unemployment is bad enough but eviction can be one step from living on the street. The starting point of the film is an eviction which establishes the tone for the film as a whole. It is in a sense a militant film but not a crudely propagandistic one.
The film is set in Barcelona but it could be any large urban centre in the Spanish state. It tells the story of Sonia (Silvia Perez Cruz), a woman of around 30 who loses her job, as does her husband Dani (Ivan Massagué). Unable to pay the mortgage and with a 10-year-old daughter, Andrea, to care for, they decide to live with Sonia’s parents, Mercedes (Adriana Ozores) and Martín (Miguel Morón). It’s not an ideal situation, especially as Dani doesn’t get along with his mother-in-law who never misses the opportunity to humiliate him about his situation. Dani has had enough and leaves to live in the van from which he sells smoke alarms, his only source of income. Sonia feels obliged to stay for the sake of their daughter. Like her husband she also joins the ‘precariat’, people without steady employment, scraping a living by doing small jobs where they can find them. Sonia has a job as a cleaner with a German couple who have a flat in Barcelona so her job is limited to once a week after the couple have to go back to Germany.
However, Sonia and Dani’s situation worsens catastrophically. The bank is determined to force the couple to pay their debt and even threatens to seize Sonia’s parents’ house; they had given their flat as collateral for Sonia and Dani’s flat. Pablo (Oriol Vila), is an employee of the bank, a schoolfriend of Sonia, and a typical ‘caught in the middle’ character, torn by his feelings for the victims of the crisis and the relentless demands of the bank, represented by the stern branch manager (Victoria Pages). Another such ‘caught in the middle’ character is Jaime, (Ivan Benet) the policeman who feels guilt at the actions he is having to carry out. As for the situation regarding Sonia’s parents’ flat as collateral, Martin admits to Sonia that Mercedes is completely unaware of this arrangement.
As is often the case when people think their situation can’t get any worse, someone arrives to take advantage of their situation, a ‘lawyer’ who offers to help out with the legalities of the situation but needs a sum of money to ensure the services of a barrister to plead her case in court. In order to get the money for his daughter’s legal expenses,(which, of course she never sees again), Martin attempts to steal it from the till in the garage/petrol station where he works for Tomás, (Lluis Tomar) but Tomás catches him in the act. Fortunately, he is a compassionate man and rather than sack him, he hears Martin’s story and persuades him to admit everything to Mercedes. The situation is pushing Sonia to the brink, while Mercedes is cocooned in her own self-righteousness and disappointment and Martin in his feelings of failure and despair.
In terms of genre, Cerca de tu casa is a hybrid of social drama and musical, a sort of cross between Ken Loach and Jacques Demy. I come across people who can’t accept that serious social issues can be dealt with in a musical. Perhaps it was in deference to this sentiment that director, Eduard Cortés, stated: “I want to underscore that this is not a musical, it’s a song-punctuated drama”. Which I think is a pretty accurate definition of the musical. One of the problems that have to be solved in a (non-backstage) musical is to avoid over-jarring transitions from dialogue to song and back again, and the film deals with it admirably. The pre-title sequence takes care of itself as there is nothing to transition with. The camera wanders throughout the city, introducing us to the main characters and locations, ending with the police enforcing an eviction. It is accompanied by melancholic song (‘Dermete’/’Sleep’) sung by a homeless man who occasionally plays the role of chorus, and is accompanied in counterpoint by Perez Cruz’s voice in and the plaintive chords of a cello.
A later song, ‘Reina de la morería/Queen of the Moorish Lands‘ uses the same technique described by Rick Altman in his 1987 seminal study, The American Film Musical. He refers to a scene in an Elvis Presley film, Blue Hawaii (1961) which transcends the diegetic/non-diegetic dichotomy. Elvis opens a music box and sings ‘I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You’. The music box and Elvis are joined by full orchestra which drowns out the music box, and a large chorus is added. The process moves into reverse as the song comes to an end, with the music box again on its own. We have gone from the diegetic sound of the music box and the human voice to a non-diegetic place ”beyond language, beyond space, beyond time.” (p. 66) In Cerca de tu casa, the song starts with Andrea playing a tune on a cheap hurdy-gurdy. Sonia starts to sing and her daughter joins in. Then it is picked up and extended into that ‘neither diegetic nor non-diegetic’ space. We cut to Mercedes and her friends from the laundry where she works leaving the bar after a night out, their laughter merging with the musical soundtrack and Mercedes, now alone, joins the song which becomes a melancholic soliloquy as she reflects on her feelings about the current dilemma she finds herself in.
Another use of music and song is worth mentioning. Perez Cruz has done most of the vocal heavy lifting in the film up to this point but there is a sequence when her voice is absent and the song is relayed like a baton, from character to character. Tomás has persuaded Martín to tell Mercedes the predicament they are in. He drives him to the laundry where Mercedes’ works and observes from distance the painful scene between the couple. His song expresses values of solidarity and compassion, how people can become side-lined before they find their way. The baton is passed Tomás and the homeless man, then to Pablo, to Dani, and to Jaime. The sequence ends with the disconsolate couple going back home in the rain, giving Martín the last few lines. Unless it is over-used, the use of actors who are not singers but can hold a tune can be very effective.
The penultimate number was a song and dance (choreographed by Sol Picó). Sonia is at her lowest ebb and has a complete emotional breakdown. She goes into the Metro station and onto the platform, a location often associated with suicidal despair. Random strangers, anxious about her state, approach her, pick her up, metaphorically and literally, as it segues into a ballet. A modernist dance sequence might face more resistance from members of the audience already sceptical about the music but for me, it conveyed very well the emotional state of the character at this point in the film.
The film had a very modest initial budget of €1.5 million (for five weeks shooting), supplemented by the usual sources – municipal and arts body grants and some TV money -but also crowdfunding. The director and production team had already been involved with anti-eviction activists and the crowdfunding came largely from this. The payment of cast and crew was a mixture of part-paid and part deferred, and some ‘sweat equity’, that is, instead of taking a fee it becomes an investment in the film. Budgetary issues were no doubt responsible for the fact that a potentially important narrative strand involving the policeman, Jaime, was not fully developed. He takes part in the eviction at the beginning of the film and feels guilty at his role in the misery inflicted on people by his actions. Significantly he is absent at the next eviction.
Understandably there are no stars in the film and I only recognised two of the actors. The first is Iván Massagué (Dani) who played an anti-fascist guerrilla tortured to death in El laberinto del fauno/Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006). The other is Lluis Homar, who played the protagonist of Almodóvar’s 2009 film, Los abrazos rotos/ Broken Embraces, and was awarded Best Supporting Actor at the Goyas. The fact that he played a secondary role in a low-budget film suggests that he was expressing his support for a worthy project, social as well as cinematic. I was aware of Silvia Perez Cruz, who plays Sonia, as a singer/composer and she was awarded the Goya for Best Original Song (and incidentally, wrote the music for the animated film, Josep, reviewed on this blog recently by Roy Stafford). It was as singer/composer that she was hired initially but director Eduard Cortés was convinced, by the way she interpreted her songs, that she could act, and the gamble paid off handsomely. Another outstanding performance is by Adriana Ozores in the role of Mercedes, not a particularly easy part to play. She is shown as a strong woman, for example, putting the foreman in the laundry where she works in his place, but she can be harsh and unforgiving. Her main concern is that the neighbours, other people, could become aware of the family’s problems. Her attitude comes close to causing a permanent breach with her daughter.
Here’s a trailer – sorry no subtitles:
Information about the film from Gregorio Balinchón, El País, 16 FEB 2015: “Los desahucios, un drama de cine” and the Making Of video.
Available in the UK on DVD.
After watching this film for only a few minutes I wondered to myself if it was going to stand as a rare stinker from the Japan Foundation Film Tour. Soon after I wondered how on earth was I going to classify it and explain why it didn’t work. Fortunately it got better and eventually began to work for me. By the end I was enjoying it, even if I failed to spot actors I should have recognised. This is actually a mainstream family comedy which is structurally quite familiar in the UK, though its comic targets are mainly recognisable as Japanese, including the whole institution of ‘death’.
The central characters are the Nobata family. Father is a research chemist who has established a successful company but in the process has alienated his daughter Nanase and lost his wife to a mysterious disease. A series of flashbacks establish an unconventional family life with pressure put on Namase to become a research scientist like her father. She, of course, will rebel – in this case by refusing to join the family firm when she leaves university and attempting instead to become a music star, fronting a ‘death metal’ band. Meanwhile, the Nobata family pharma company is being eyed up by a large corporate rival, Watson Pharma, who have placed a mole in Nobata’s senior management. A plot is hatched involving a new drug that will render Nobata Kei (the father) temporarily dead for just two days during which time Watson’s CEO has a plan to take control of Nobata.
Nobata Kei (Tsutsumi Shin’ichi), worried about his daughter, has assigned a young man to follow her and report back. This character, known mainly by his nickname ‘Ghost’ because he is able to fade into any background and render himself virtually invisible will be key to development of the plot. He will be able to foil the plot with help from Nanase and finally another overlooked employee also known mainly by his nickname ‘Gramps’. Nobata Pharma’s money-making drug is an anti-ageing concoction known as ‘Romeo’ and the new drug which induces temporary death is given the name ‘Juliet’. The ‘temporary death’ plotline offers a range of gags some of which involve Kore-reda Hirokazu favourite Lily Franky who plays the ‘Sanzu River boatman’ – the Buddhist Japanese figure who ferries the dead to the equivalent of Hades. Nanase is played by Hirose Suzu who I should have recognised from the Kore-eda films Our Little Sister and The Third Murder.
Not Quite Dead Yet is written by Sawamoto Yoshimitsu and directed by Hamasaki Shinji, as his debut feature after a successful career in advertising films in which he won several awards. Shot in ‘Scope, like all the other features in my Japan Foundation selection, by Kondoh Tetsuya the film looks good. I think my early concerns were that the scenes may not fit together. Early flashback scenes attempt to show the pressure on Nanase coming from her father’s determination to get her interested in science. These vignettes are clever, perhaps too clever next to the ‘death metal’ music scenes featuring Nanase in the present – in performance and with her fans. The music is credited to Hyadain. I don’t know anything about the composer or about ‘death metal’ but I had some expectations and the relatively tuneful mainstream rock music that was presented didn’t seem to fit at all. I think the film began to make sense as a recognisable comic form with the introduction of the ‘Ghost’ (Yoshizawa Ryô). This actor seems very experienced with 65 credits aged just 26. His appearance and the growing realisation that he and Nanase will together fight for her father and the company presents a familiar universal comedy form – the beautiful and privileged young woman and the physically slight and bumbling young man, who is actually very bright – as is she – facing a more powerful enemy. I can think of countless examples of similar plotlines from around the world.
I’ve seen some sneery reviews about poor SFX in the film but I liked these, with the ‘temporarily dead’ father as ghost figure materialising and trying to communicate and mother seemingly trapped in a glass case in the family shrine. The film is much shorter than the others in the Foundation Tour at around 90 minutes and rattles along nicely as the best comedies do. It’s good to have a change of mood and in the end I enjoyed the chases and the finale in what turned out to be a well-written comedy with good performances. Perhaps a little more romcom might have topped it off?
This Tunisian film is very good and I am surprised that it has not received UK distribution, only a festival screening. It’s interesting to see this film as part of an African film festival. Tunisia is part of the Maghreb and ‘North African Cinema’ but the links between North African and Sub-Saharan African cinemas is not as strong as they were in the 1970s-1990s as far as I can see. There is a strong link here, however, as the writer-director of the film Leyla Bouzid is the daughter of the writer and director Nouri Bouzid, one of the group of Tunisian filmmakers in the 1980s-90s making films which regularly featured in the Carthage Film Festival when the festival operated in tandem with Ouagadougou’s Pan-African festival.
Leyla Bouzid made this, her début feature, aged 29 just a few years after the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ which ended 23 years of increasingly repressive government by President Ben Ali. In the Press Notes for the film, Leyla Bouzid says that she wanted to make a film to remind everyone of how the repression under Ben Ali worked. She suggests that though many documentaries were made during the revolutionary period, there weren’t any fictions. She wanted to make a film about how people lived during the time leading up to January 2011 so she set her film in the summer of 2010.
Farah (Baya Medhaffar) is an 18 year-old from a middle-class Tunisian family. She has just matriculated from high school with outstanding results and her parents are expecting her to study medicine. But Farah is young, lively and a talented singer. She is more interested in music than medicine and she is the singer in a band led by Borhène (Montassar Ayari), her boyfriend. The band plays ‘political’ material in popular music styles and Farah visits bars where she is soon tempted to sing impromptu. This is a dangerous activity which she keeps from her parents, helped by the family maid Ahlem. But eventually her mother Hayet (Ghalia Benali) works out what is happening, fires the maid and terrifies Farah into promising to stop singing. But she can’t. She refuses to obey her mother and continues her work with the band. Meanwhile, her father is working as a manager at a phosphate mine in Gafsa in the South West of the country.
I don’t want to spoil the narrative but singing is a dangerous business and the inevitable is likely to happen. There are elements of romance and ‘coming-of-age’ issues in the story and some generic ideas from music films, but at the centre is the struggle between mother and daughter. Why does Hayet fight so hard to stop her daughter singing? As a young female director, Leyla Bouzid, took the brave decision to shoot on the streets of Tunis in some of the roughest areas and in bars populated almost entirely by men. In one scene Hayet has to enter one such bar looking for Farah and Bouzid tells us how tense the atmosphere became and how the ‘extras’, who were genuine clients of the bar, stared in almost obscene ways at the actress as she had to repeat the scene. The film was shot by Sébastien Goepfert who had worked on a film for Leyla’s father and this was a film co-produced with four different national partners. Many of the Heads of Department in the crew were Europeans and for the crucial role of the music composer for the film Leyla Bouzid chose Khyam Allami, an Iraqi musician who is part of a band featuring members from across the Arab world. The music throughout the film is very good with Borhène playing what I took to be an oud with an electric pick-up alongside drums, guitar and synthesiser. Overall the approach to the music reminded me of the Egyptian film Microphone (2010). Perhaps the most daring casting decision Bouzid took was to pair Baya Medhaffar with Ghalia Benali. Baya was chosen after a long search but Ghalia is a well-known singer of contemporary Arab music. Fortunately the two women hit it off quickly and worked very well together.
The fear of police surveillance is very real in the film and I should warn you that there is one very distressing (but necessary) sequence. The film is successful in demonstrating just how the police worked in Tunisia under Ben Ali. I hope that things have improved since 2011. I thought this was an excellent film in every way and I would certainly recommend it. Although it has not been released in the UK, it is available on a Region Free DVD from Trigon Films in Switzerland. It has been released in the US and is available on DVD and online. Thanks to Africa in Motion Film Festival for making this available.
Here is a US trailer:
Here’s an unusual film. It’s short for a modern feature at under 75 mins. It doesn’t have much of a plot but it packs in a great many ideas. After the announcement of its state sponsorship we are told that this is an ‘Example of Intonation’ [from?] ‘A Non-Profit Film Foundation’ (Alexander Sokurov’s Foundation). These credits (white on a black background) are accompanied by what sounds like a shuffling of papers. The first image on screen is a pair of soldiers running/stumbling down a steep slope towards us accompanied by the opening of a dramatic orchestral score and suddenly we see the conductor of the orchestra in mid-shot. He is in contemporary dress, the soldiers are from a much earlier period. For the next couple of minutes the image cuts between the soldiers, who have now caught up with their comrades, a raggle-taggle bunch with a horse pulling a cartload of ammunition and a machine-gun, and the players of the orchestra – seemingly it is an orchestra of young players, perhaps from a conservatory? In both locations the camera alternates between closer and longer shots. The camera eventually picks out a boy soldier, perhaps aged 14 or 15? He is being teased by the men. The filmic image of the soldiers is distinctive. There is a high degree of ‘grain’ and the colours are de-saturated so that the greens of the countryside and the browns of the uniforms merge into a sometimes hazy and almost nostalgic glow like early colour photographs. It is also ‘painterly’ in its presentation (see the image above). The corners of the image are rounded. The aspect ratio is hard to determine but it seems to me to be something like 1:1.54, unlike anything I am familiar with. (I measured its dimensions on my computer screen.)
The crosscutting between the orchestra and the soldiers lessens as the narrative develops. Yet as soon as the title, A Russian Youth by Alexander Zolotukhin, has disappeared (we easily identify that the film is going to be about the boy played by Vladimir Korolev), we are shown a close-up of the music score itself. Then, although we see less of the orchestra, we do hear the conductor’s instructions which are italicised in the subtitles so that we can distinguish them from the dialogue between the soldiers. As soon as the narrative begins to develop we forget about the orchestra but we know it is there. It ‘re-appears’ at the climax of the film with attention given to ferocious piano playing. I didn’t really notice the ‘intrusion’ of shots of the orchestra later on in the narrative. Perhaps there were some but I don’t remember them. What does this parallel cutting mean? I thought at first that because the filmic image of the soldiers seemed to refer to ‘silent’ cinema (albeit in the ‘wrong’ aspect ratio) the orchestra was meant to signify the players who would have been in the cinema orchestra in the 1910s. It occurs to me now that we do have an orchestra of young players who seem sometimes to be looking at a projected image of the young soldiers fighting for their lives. The Russians on screen are being encircled by German forces who seem much better armed and better led. Is this therefore an anti-war film? It doesn’t seem to be celebrating the prowess of Russian troops.
We are not told where the fighting is taking place nor when these events are unfolding but there is a brief scene in which some of the soldiers are distributing leaflets, suggesting that there is considerable unrest about the poor leadership of the armies and the inadequate provisions. Our hero ‘Aleksey’ is blinded in his first action by a German gas attack. He has been badly taught the primitive technique for covering his eyes. The Germans have gas masks. Such scenes (i.e. a gas attack on a defended trench position) suggest 1915 or 1916. The gas was perhaps chlorine, used by the Germans on both fronts. The blinded Aleksey is helped by many of his comrades and taken under the wing of one or another. In a sense, he is no worse off than before. In fact he makes his one positive contribution to the Russian effort by acting as a ‘listening observer’ and giving warning of approaching enemy aircraft using a primitive listening device like a gigantic ear trumpet.
I found this film very watchable and intriguing. I’m not sure what it all means but it certainly explores ideas about sound an image in cinema. Several commentators and reviewers have attempted to link the film to the considerable achievements of the later Soviet Cinema in producing films about ‘The Great Patriotic War’ of 1941-45. Tarkovsky’s film Ivan’s Childhood (1962) and Elim Klimov’s Come and See (1985) are the two films referenced, both featuring young characters. I haven’t seen Come and See, but Ivan’s Childhood has a young central character who is quite unlike the the village boy in A Russian Youth. The two wars are very different, one largely before the 1917 Revolution, the other a ‘Patriotic War’. Having said that, I was reminded of Aleksai German’s Trial on the Road (1971/85), simply on the basis that there is a futility expressed in these anti-war films. In A Russian Youth, the final scenes, accompanied by that ferocious piano playing seem to take us back to the beginning with a similar scene of soldiers trying to haul a heavy gun up a hill. The difference is that the men (and the boy) are now prisoners being forced up the hill by their captors.
The credits reveal that the music by Rachmaninoff is the 1909 Piano Concerto No.3 Op. 30 and the Symphonic Dances from 1940 Op. 45. The orchestra is the Tavrichesky Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mikhail Golikov and it is indeed a youth orchestra. Researching the orchestra I came across this excellent piece by Baradwaj Rangan who watched the film on MUBI India. Rangan makes some very interesting points. He’s explored the music and the conductor’s comments as they are juxtaposed with the visual images and dialogue of the soldiers and finds them often connected directly, as if the conductor is giving instructions to his players in a similar way to the orders given to the soldiers, e.g. “Let’s take a break there”. The punchline of Rangan’s piece is to argue that A Russian Youth has much more of an emotional charge through its formal operations than Sam Mendes’ acclaimed ‘one take’ film 1917. I decided not to watch the Mendes film (mainly because I feared something like what Rangan suggests about it). But I do go with the view that A Russian Youth is a very emotionally-involving film.
I was struck by how well writer-director Zolotukhin and his crew (cinematographer Ayrat Yamilov, production designer Elena Zhukova, costume designer Olga Bakhareva and sound designer Fonin Andrey) create the world of 1915. I thought afterwards how it seemed much more ‘real’ than those colourised images of 1914-18 newsreels presented by Peter Jackson that received so much attention a few years ago. A Russian Youth is very much worth 75 minutes of your time. Don’t miss it if you get the chance to see it.
This Is Not Berlin is a stylish and exciting picture set in Mexico City around the time of the 1986 World Cup and shot in ‘Scope with a strong music soundtrack. It focuses primarily on two families with 17 year-old sons at a local high school. At first I thought it might be a conventional youth picture/teen movie. As the narrative begins Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León) appears to be in a dazed state in the midst of a pitched battle between two local high schools. In the next few scenes his taste in music is mocked by his mates. He is with his best friend Gera (José Antonio Toledano) when they come across Gera’s 18 year-old sister Rita (Ximena Romo) and her boyfriend kissing passionately. Next morning Gera is renting out his father’s girlie magazines to his classmates. It’s not long, however, before the narrative develops a rather different feel. Carlos clearly has his eye on Rita but she ignores him until she discovers his electronics skills. When he is able to fix the electronic keyboard used by the band in which Rita is the singer, he and Gera are invited to a performance at Azteca, a new underground club. This proves to be a real eye-opener for Carlos. He is introduced to new music, performance art, new drugs and a developing LGBTQ scene.
This is the fourth feature by director Hari Sama. His career has involved an equal interest in film and music and many of his projects seem to have been autobiographical in some way. He was born in 1967 so This Is Not Berlin has been taken as drawing on his experiences in the mid-1980s. As several reviewers have noted, what he offers is a fairly objective view of young people searching for an identity at a specific time in Mexico. According to this interesting review by Alistair Ryder for ‘Gay Essential website, Sama identifies as ‘queer (but not as gay’). What Sama can clearly represent is a mixture of 80s music and performance art that even someone like me, with not much interest in either, can find engaging and exciting. Carlos is attracted in particular to the art created by photographer Nico, but is he ready for Nico’s sexual advances? Carlos is a very attractive young man and also very creative. It’s not long before he is accepted by Nico’s group and becomes part of the stunts they organise – including a performance piece opposing the homophobia of football – in the midst of the World Cup. But the more Carlos (or ‘Charly’ as Nico calls him) becomes involved, the more he moves away from Gera and his schoolfriends – and his family.
The film is also a family melodrama. In fact it is a genuine hybrid, mixing several repertoires. I’ve read various reviews, mostly from the Sundance screenings of the film early in 2019 (it was picked up by Samuel Goldwyn Films and released in the US in August 2019). Many discuss the music, the queer discourse and the ‘coming of age’ narrative, but few mention the family, especially in relation to social class. The two families seem to me to belong to a ‘European’ middle class living in the outer commuter belt of Mexico City. Sama in the Press Notes tells us this is meant to be Lomas Verdes (‘Green Hills’). Wikipedia tells me this is 7 miles from the centre and describes it as ‘upper middle class’. But this puzzles me. Two well-known films that have something in common with This Is Not Berlin are Roma (2018) and Y tu mamá también (2001), but in both these cases the families have live-in servants, usually mestizos or indigenous people. Sama’s two families don’t have servants as far as I can remember. He describes them in the notes as “broken families, conservative and dysfunctional”. Carlos lives in what seems a relatively small house with his mother Carolina (played by a criminally under-used Marina de Tavira, the mother in Roma) and his much younger brother. Carolina seems severely depressed and possibly dependent on prescription drugs. We don’t learn much about Gera’s parents until the final scenes. Sama argues that the youth of these families in effect found a family ‘on the streets’ and eventually in the ‘post-punk’ underground. They were the children of parents who had experienced the political upheavals of 1968 and the early 1970s (the focus in Roma).
The focus on music in This Is Not Berlin links it to Y tu mamá también, but that is a film that looks outward from Mexico City to explore a ‘national metaphor’ and to encounter the mestizo and indigenous peoples of the South West. The only direct contact, as I remember in This Is Not Berlin, between the middle class European youth and the ‘other’ Mexicans, is at an outdoor concert (much like the entertainments in Roma) on waste ground where Rita’s band plays and the hostile crowd are not interested in the ‘post-punk’ synth-based music. The local band (of mestizos?) sport mohicans and play music more recognisably ‘punk’ in the UK sense. I should also point out that the film opens with a quote from Proust and the film’s title comes from a comment, a put-down of Nico, in a brief but telling political argument in which Nico is accused of just imitating European art movements. You are not a true artist he is told. The politics go further, Nico’s friends are accused of “just partying” all the time with AIDS spreading while they take no notice.
The music genre question also permeates the family melodrama. Hari Sama has a small role himself as Carlos’ uncle, his mother’s brother. He wears leathers and rides a motor-bike and his musical taste appears to have developed through listening to old blues guys like Lightning Hopkins, whose more melodic guitar playing seems to have influenced Carlos in turn. The uncle also turns out to be the engineer who encourages Carlos to develop his talents and think of electronics engineering as something to pursue. Early on in the film Gera scoffs at Carlos for playing a track and praising the guitarwork which Gera dismisses as ‘country’. Meanwhile Rita identifies herself with Patti Smith’s poetry in a school literature class. There have been criticisms of This Is Not Berlin because it doesn’t have a strong narrative drive. This is odd, since at one point I thought the structure was becoming too conventional and I was concerned about how the eventual ‘high life’ that Carlos was pursuing would eventually come crashing down. I won’t spoil the narrative resolution and I did eventually come to appreciate the mix of cultural and political issues in the film. Having said that, I think it is the case that the film raises too many narrative possibilities that can’t all be pursued. But better too many than missing some out altogether?
Much of the impact of the film depends on the cinematography by Alfredo Altamirano which manages to create a variety of moods through fluid movement as well as close-up work and the use of various devices to create textures. Altamarino does not appear to have a long list of feature credits but he is very experienced in shorts and commercials and his work has been featured at many festivals. He has some interesting promo reels on his website here. Overall it is the combination of music, camerawork and art direction – all the creative units – as well as the performances that present this evocation of a period.
This film seems to be destined primarily for streaming, which is a shame as it would be a wow on a big screen. I note that IMDb records a US rating of TV-MA which I understand is a rating for cable TV and streaming? There is a significant amount of nudity (much of it male nudity ) in the film and it’s interesting that this hasn’t stopped the film’s US release. It was due to feature in the BFI’s Flare LGBTQ festival which has had to be postponed. I hope that it will get a UK release of some kind. There are already three other Mexican films available with links that might encourage analysis and further study. As well as the two mentioned above, I would add Güeros (2014) as another film about youth, music and ‘protest’ set in 1999, but harking back to New Wave styles.
This is the second film in which Ingmar Bergman directs from his own original script (following Prison, 1949) without any other writers involved. Once again the script features a flashback, this time a long flashback that follows a decisive moment and gradually leads back to it. The film’s title perhaps refers to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and the ‘Ode to Joy’ in the final movement which is being rehearsed by an orchestra in Helsingborg, as the film opens. The performance of the same piece then closes the narrative. When the flashback occurs it takes us back several years to when Stig (Stig Olin), a young man with ambitions to be a violin soloist, and Marta (Maj-Britt Nilsson) have just joined the orchestra, she as the lone woman violinist. The orchestra is led by Sönderby (Victor Sjöström), who is frustrated by the day’s rehearsal and the lack of progress.
As we might expect, Stig and Marta are going to get together and will eventually marry. The main part of the narrative will focus on their difficult relationship. Sönderby acts like a surrogate father to the couple, visiting them at key moments at home and providing a sounding board or a wall against which Stig can bash his ego. There are only three other significant players, Birger Malmsten, another Bergman favourite, turns up as a rather smooth member of the orchestra with a spiv’s moustache, always mocking Stig. A young woman Nelly and her much older husband Mikael also befriend Stig.
If this makes the film sound dull in visual terms, I hasten to confirm that it is lensed by the great Gunnar Fischer who offers a number of rich compositions. Helsingborg is on the coast of north-west Scania with Denmark a few miles across the water. Stig and Marta live by the sea at one point. There are train journeys and a wedding in the Town Hall. As well as the central importance of Beethoven’s 9th, the orchestra and Stig at various points play Mendelssohn, Mozart and Smetana.
I was tempted to write that this Bergman narrative seems more coherent than in the earlier films but I’m not sure that is the case. I have mixed feelings about the film. It is well staged and the performances are strong. I am generally against the idea that an unpleasant character means that a film cannot work with audiences, but I confess that I did find Stig intensely annoying and at times quite stupid. On the other hand we (i.e. many men) all do stupid things at times in relationships. It doesn’t help that Maj-Britt Nilsson is beautiful and seemingly sensible. How could anyone behave in that way towards her? But then we know that Bergman’s characters are going to be tortured by self-doubt and to feel that they have been abandoned. In this case, Stig is the artist who thinks he has the talent to be supremely successful, but also suffers from the self-doubt that will prevent him attaining his goals. He doesn’t seem to realise that working on his relationship with Marta will probably improve his playing.
To Joy is closer in feel to the realism of Port of Call, rather than the expressionism of Prison, but there are certainly some melodrama moments and the orchestra setting provides the film with music and a representation of ‘artistic performance’. Also, two significant objects are carefully positioned/foregrounded at the start of the flashback and will eventually be revealed as such. At another point, a bottle of nail varnish is tipped over and begins to soak into a table-cloth. The film is monochrome but we assume that the nail polish is red. Bergman was a Hitchcock fan. The two ‘significant objects’ act in the narrative in ways that are familiar from Hitchcock’s films and Bergman follows the Hitchcock practice of appearing in his own films. Here he is an expectant father waiting in a maternity hospital.
As in all of Bergman’s films, there is plenty of evidence here that Bergman and his team have many good ideas about how to stage scenes. They can also draw on very skilled actors who appear to be keen to work on Bergman films. Whether I enjoy the films seems to depend mainly on what Bergman is trying to achieve. I think I feel that he doesn’t like people very much or that he wants to explore the demons in his character’s heads because of his own demons. I feel that as I move forwards through his filmography that I find it harder to get involved with his characters. I’m trying to understand why many of the directors I admire were inspired by Bergman early in their careers. I need to watch Margarethe von Trotta’s film about him and read some more critiques.
Perhaps Bergman’s lack of interest in the sociology of his characters is my problem? We never learn anything about Stig’s background and all we know about Marta is that she has ‘grandparents’, but since this is mentioned in a family context this might refer to her own parents, i.e. the grandparents of her children. This contrasts with Stig’s relationships with both Sönderby and Mikael – older men who take the place of his father? What this film does provide, however, is babies – even though they follow previous abortions.
(Most of the images above come from dvdbeaver.com where you can find details of the DVD and Blu-ray editions of the film.)