I first came across Thomas Arslan in 2011 when five of his films were shown at the Bradford International Film Festival. He also visited the festival and took part in a formal Q&A as well as chatting to several of us in the bar. He seemed like a really nice guy, but perhaps a little diffident for a film director. I enjoyed his films and I’ve looked out for them ever since but I don’t think any of them have got a UK release and I haven’t caught any of them at festivals.
I got the chance to see Bright Nights because of a promotion offered at the Glasgow Film Festival by the streaming service MUBI. I’ll report in full on what a month of MUBI films might look like a little later. Bright Nights is a title that refers to a trip to Northern Norway in the summer undertaken by Michael (Georg Friedrich). Michael is a guy in his late 40s, a construction site manager living in Berlin with his younger partner Leyla (Marie Leuenberger). At the beginning of the narrative he has just heard that his father, who he hasn’t seen for five years, has died from a heart attack in Norway where he has been based since his retirement. When Michael’s sister says she won’t be going to the funeral, Michael decides to take his 14 year-old son Luis (Tristan Göbel) who he has barely seen since his divorce.
Thomas Arslan has a very distinctive film style. His films are often short and this one lasts just under 86 minutes. Arslan’s DoP Reinhold Vorschneider carefully composes static shots which are sometimes held without any discernible action on screen. In an interview on Cineuropa, Arslan responded to the suggestion that he had chosen a ‘relaxed’ pace:
I don’t really think about films in terms of fast or slow. That’s too formal a way to look at it, and I don’t work like that at all. I tried to bring the appropriate rhythm to this very particular story, without being bound by general conceptual rules.
That strikes me as the answer of someone who thinks a lot about how he does things. My own feeling is that he is a good judge of pacing. Yes, shots are held a long time but I didn’t find that off-putting. I should also note that the music by Ola Fløttum (who has worked with Ruben Östlund and Joachim Trier) and the film editing by Reinaldo Pinto Almeida complement the camerawork very well. Added to the pacing is Arslan’s wish to show not tell so the viewer needs to be alert to look around the image for visual clues rather than expecting dialogue to do the job.
After the initial scenes in Berlin (in which Michael learns that Leyla is going to be working in the US for a year, unsettling him further) father and son arrive in Norway for the funeral and then a trip to the far North involving some camping and hiking. Since Luis barely speaks to his father we know this is going to be a difficult trip. When they pick up their rental Land Rover Discovery the film could become a familiar road movie, but there are few ‘adventures’ or interesting encounters. It might be an ‘anti-road movie’ but actually in some ways it becomes a film which conveys very well the the feelings and emotions that can arise on a journey, especially on empty roads in a wild environment. There is a standout sequence lasting over 4 minutes in which the camera simply stares through the windscreen at the road ahead as the vehicle moves through the fog on an upland road. I found this almost a spiritual experience, especially with the music, a synthesiser drone that rises imperceptibly as the car rolls on with the only other sound that of the tyres on the road and the low thrum of the engine. The snow poles which look so odd in the summer landscape reminded me of some roads in the Pennines. Not surprising perhaps but such areas of wilderness are so much more extensive in Norway which looks terrific through Vorschneider’s lens.
Rebuilding a father-son relationship is a relatively common theme in films, but it is rarely achieved with such subtlety as in Bright Nights. At the end of the film, which is mainly composed of long shots, there is none of the emotional catharsis of mainstream movies. There are just a couple of shots in which we search for and find some emotional meaning – and that’s enough.
If you like calm, intelligent and beautifully crafted films, Bright Nights is for you. If you want excitement or a popcorn movie experience, it isn’t. The two leads are both excellent. I thought they seemed familiar and Georg Friedrich was indeed the lead in Aloys (Switzerland-France 2016) which I saw on a plane last year. I’ve got a bit more of an excuse for not recognising Tristan Göbel who was equally good as the 10 year-old boy in the excellent Westen (Germany 2013). I’m delighted to have had the chance to see Bright Lights, now I must find Gold from 2013 with Nina Hoss.
Here’s the German trailer for the film (no English subs), but at least you can get a sense of the cinematography:
Sometimes you find that your selection criteria for festival screenings goes awry. Mobile Homes started late because though we were told the lead actors had arrived they didn’t actually appear in the cinema until 15 mins past the advertised screening start time. I’d chosen the film thinking it was a Canadian film with a French co-production partner. I was bemused that it should have two British leads, Imogen Poots and Callum Turner, but I assumed that the director was French-Canadian. Wrong.
Vladimir de Fontenay won a prize with his short film Mobile Homes in 2013. He is a French director who has lived and worked in the US and studied at New York University Film School which gave him considerable support to help make this extended/’opened out’ version of his short as his first feature. He originated the story based on his experience of areas in upstate New York. Why did he end up shooting over the border with a Canadian crew? The obvious answer is that a France-Canada co-production would be official and would be eligible for both Canadian and French support from public agencies, but there is no indication of this. Does any of this matter, you may well ask. I think so.
The film’s title is both metaphorical and actual. Ali (Imogen Poots) and her son Bone (Frank Oulton) have teamed up with Evan (Callum Turner), a hustler dealing drugs and roosters for illegal fights. The trio move from one motel to the next or squat somewhere overnight. They have no ‘home’, either in terms of a permanent residence or as ‘a place to call their own’. When they become separated, Ali and Bone find themselves in a wooden house which is being transported on a low loader by Robert (Callum Keith Rennie) who runs a small ‘park’ of these wooden buildings. This is confusing for Brits as we tend to think of a ‘mobile home’ as a trailer, a caravan or a van with sleeping accommodation. These are bigger buildings without wheels of their own. They are assembled in a factory and then moved to a ‘park’. Evan, having lost Ali and Bone will come looking for them in the last section of the narrative.
The film is fast-paced in the opening section with the camera whipping about as the trio try to make money from various deals. The cinematography is by Benoit Soler who also shot Ilo, Ilo (Singapore 2013), a very different kind of film that I liked a lot. When the ‘split’ takes place, the pace slows a little but I was dreading the return of Evan. Imogen Poots does very well with her role and Frank Boulton as Bone is excellent. This part might have been a social realist drama. I’ve seen Poots in several roles and she’s always been impressive. There is music in the film, but the most important song (the only one I recognised) was Etta James’ version of ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ – an odd choice, especially as it’s a live version. You may have noticed that I’m being rather down on the Evan character who is described in some promotional material as ‘intoxicating’. I don’t think so. The actor Callum Turner has a list of credits in TV and mainly mainstream films, none of which I’ve seen, but he clearly has a fan following and star potential. He and Imogen Poots offered a rather ‘starry’ Q&A which went down very well with the festival audience. The fourth major character Robert is a potential balance for Evan and as played by the Alberta-raised actor Callum Keith Rennie he adds further weight to the central section of the narrative.
I suspect it is my (old) age (and interest in Canadian cinema) that made me less than sympathetic about the film overall. The lack of Canadian identity in the film (no recognisable Eastern Canada accents or distinctive locations) made it feel like it could be happening anywhere. The whole narrative didn’t seem to hold together – the third section includes a dramatic action sequence which in some ways matches the earlier scenes. What starts off as an odd crime melodrama transforms into a social drama/melodrama and then a road movie of sorts. You’ll be able to make up your own minds later this year in the UK with a release via Thunderbird (a Canadian company I think).
Hunt for the Wilderpeople was a big hit last year. In New Zealand it made over US$8million – which would mean 1 in 6 of the cinema audience saw it. It had success in Australia and healthy returns in both North America and the UK as well. So, what is the attraction? It’s not difficult to understand. Here is a family comedy with a rebellious streak that stars a likeable young teenage boy and a star actor familiar to all. It also helps that it was shot in the mountains and forests of various parts of North Island, New Zealand – and, yes, there is a Lord of the Rings joke.
Ricky (Julian Dennison) is a 12 year-old boy abandoned by his single-parent mother and now has a petty crime record that drives his social worker to her last resort for foster carers. They are Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hec (Sam Neill), a seemingly unlikely couple living on a remote farmstead. Bella is a ‘warm earth mother’ and a rescuer of waifs and strays, but Heck is a cantankerous old bastard who accepts Ricky only to please Bella. Ricky quickly sees that Bella is someone who might actually care for him, but when something bad happens, he and Heck have to team up and go on the run in the ‘bush’.
It doesn’t seem much of a story, unless it is going to be an epic struggle against the elements and the dangers of the ‘wild’. But for all his faults, Heck is a sensible man of the mountains and forests. The pair could survive for many weeks, even with the authorities, led by Paula (Rachel House) the dragon-like social worker, in constant pursuit. Director Taika Waititi has had plenty of success in recent years, headed by Boy (2010), one of the biggest ever films at the New Zealand box office. He knows exactly what he is doing and expertly builds the ‘odd couple’ relationship between Ricky and Hec that becomes the focus of the film.
I realised quite quickly that the central idea of the film was very familiar and that elements of Pork Pie (New Zealand 2017) were beginning to crop up at regular intervals. Pork Pie (like its predecessor, Goodbye Pork Pie, 1981) is an adult road movie with a young Maori tearaway and an older white guy racing through New Zealand with a massive police hunt and a social media campaign attempting to find the duo. This is what Hunt for the Wilderpeople becomes in its third section. The difference between the two films, apart from the age differential, comes from the origins of Hunt for the Wilderpeople in the 1986 novel Wild Pork and Watercress by the comedy writer Barry Crump. Crump himself is presumably the model for Hec. He was famously an archetypal ‘outdoorsman’ whose adventures formed the basis for a string of comedy novels and a big celebrity status.
My knowledge of New Zealand ethnic identities is not great, but clues in the dialogue suggest that Ricky has a Maori identity. Rather than the heavy social typing (he has been abandoned by his mother and is in care with a social worker) I noted the scene where he reads the police ‘Wanted’ notice and comments about the description of Hec as Caucasian – “They’ve got that wrong since you are obviously white”. Ricky names his dog ‘Tupac’ and sees himself as having ‘rapper’ potential. Not much, I know, but the point is that this is almost a ‘colour-blind’ film made by New Zealand’s most successful Maori filmmaker. It’s the kind of film that would be difficult to make in the UK, US and probably Australia. Most of the cast are Maori and it doesn’t really seem to be an issue. Taika Waititi presumably doesn’t feel the ‘burden’ of representing Maori identity in contemporary New Zealand, in the way that some UK directors from African-Caribbean or South Asian communities feel the pressure to represent a ‘community’. It’s difficult from outside New Zealand to be sure how a film like Hunt for the Wilderpeople is understood in terms of identity. For instance, in the image above, Ricky is reluctant to pose for a selfie with TK who sticks out his tongue in what I take to be a gesture from Maori warrior traditions. I’m not sure which aspect of all this makes Ricky embarrassed. I’m happy to be informed by anyone who knows how to read this!
I realise that I haven’t emphasised just how funny many parts of the film are. There are some good movie quote jokes and the relationship between Ricky and Hec works equally well as comedy and genuine emotion. We’ve seen this kind of relationship in several well-known films and it depends on getting the mix right between the experienced adult actor and the relatively inexperienced younger actor. Sam Neill and Julian Dennison are both excellent and we believe in the relationship as it develops. Waititi provides a quartet of oddball characters, including a loopy priest played by himself. The redneck hunters and ‘psycho loner’ seem more heavily typed as do the social worker and her police side-kick. Only the young girl on a horse makes a connection with the emotional drama, everything else is played for laughs. I’m not sure that Hunt for the Wilderpeople would stand up to intense scrutiny as a narrative but as a comedy with a heart that races along with plenty of laughs on the way, it’s hard to beat.
I was going to start this post with another moan about Peter Bradshaw, but in this case his review wasn’t that bad, just not enthusiastic enough for me. Instead it was Wendy Ide, now reviewing for the Observer, who was the real culprit. In a paragraph of clichés she sneers at the film for its worthiness and even manages to imply a plot development that doesn’t happen. I know this isn’t an unusual occurrence, but in this case its impact is compounded by the treatment this film got from some UK exhibitors. I mean you, Picturehouses. The Olive Tree was chosen by Picturehouses for its ‘Discover Tuesday’ slot in which a relatively obscure film is placed in selected Picturehouse cinemas for a single showing at 18.00 on a Tuesday. The argument presumably is that this gives an outlet the film might not usually get and it can be promoted as part of a ‘strand’ in the local cinema’s programming. I guess that for some titles this might actually be beneficial – but in several cases the slot has been used to screen a film that could reach a much larger audience who might not be able to get to that single screening.
The Olive Tree is written by Paul Laverty, arguably one of the UK’s most consistent screenwriters whose scripts have graced two Cannes Palme d’Or winners for director Ken Loach. He is also the partner of the director Icíar Bollaín, the most high-profile female director in Spain. The Olive Tree is their second production together after the critically acclaimed Even the Rain (Spain-France-Mexico, 2010). They met on Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom (1995). The Olive Tree is a ‘comedy drama’ that for me was both very funny and deeply moving. It is, as might be expected from Laverty and Bollaín, rooted in observation and social commentary. So, although on the surface this may indeed be a simple story, you don’t have to look far beneath the surface to find the commentary about the ongoing economic crisis in Spain, the anger about aspects of corporate practice and the pain of contemporary social and personal problems. Despite the subtitles, everybody can access the humanity of this film and in any sane film culture they wouldn’t have to look carefully for its single showing in their local cinema.
Many of us love trees. We especially love old trees and this olive tree is perhaps 1,000 years or old or more. (The grandfather in the film claims it is 2,000 years old.) Anything this old and especially a tree which has supplied fruit for the livelihood of succeeding generations of farmers is not just a tree, it is a symbol of a way of life. Consider the destruction of Palestinian olive trees by Israeli settlers in the West Bank – a deliberate act of vandalism in trying to destroy a culture. The situation in the Valencia region of Eastern Spain is not so critical but unbearably painful nonetheless for the farmers and their families. In The Olive Tree, Alma (Anna Castillo) is a young woman working in the chicken shed on the family farm and acting as a carer for her grandfather who has dementia. He now barely touches his food and doesn’t speak but instead wanders into the ancient olive plantation staring at a mound of stones. When Alma realises that he is thinking about the olive tree that was sold several years earlier when she was still a child, she resolves to somehow get the tree back. Unfortunately the tree was sold for €30,000 to an energy company in Düsseldorf – where it has pride of place in the atrium of the company’s HQ. Alma is a resourceful young woman, but the only way she can proceed is by subterfuge, persuading her uncle and a younger driver to ‘borrow’ a truck with a crane and head for the Rhine by telling them a made-up story about an offer to return the tree. It’s a crazy prospect and we seem to be in the fictional world of madcap adventures and ‘feelgood’ films. Laverty and Bollain have the task of making the journey – and its outcome – credible while at the same time entertaining us and making serious social comments. I think they do this splendidly.
At one point I wondered if Laverty’s starting point was his own script for The Angel’s Share (UK 2012) and indeed there are similarities, but The Olive Tree has a different tone and perhaps a broader perspective. One of its strongest themes is about the pain and misery of the Spanish boom before 2008 and the subsequent crash. The family lost its money through investment in a seaside restaurant and the anger about the moneyed classes who survived the bust is neatly encapsulated in a visual joke. The economic and social plight of Spain is also represented by the tree’s sale to Germany – which is the strong Eurozone centre oppressing the weak Spanish Euro partner. On the other hand, the film also acts as a rebuke to Brexiteers as the truck sails along, passing signs welcoming the trio to France and Germany – signs in blue with the circle of yellow stars of the EU. There are no borders, no customs posts, no currency exchanges.
Lying behind or underneath the feelgood road trip and the economic and social commentary is a family melodrama – a tale of repressed emotions. Through the tree Alma is linked to her childhood relationship with her grandfather. She doesn’t speak to her father who has a different set of feelings about the old man. She does tease her uncle but she has failed in her relationships with men nearer her own age. Perhaps the journey is also about addressing these issues. Alma’s difficulties with family and work colleagues are contrasted with her relationships with her female friends and with the women who drive the social media campaign which develops during the truck’s journey. The campaign exposes the energy company’s ecological crimes and focuses on the ‘tree rescue’ as a news story about popular resistance.
So, this isn’t just a ‘simple story’, it’s many-layered. All the performances are good but I especially enjoyed that of Javier Gutiérrez as Alma’s uncle Alcachofa and that of Pep Ambròs as Rafa, his driving mate. The film looks wonderful in Sergi Gallardo’s ‘Scope compositions and sounds great with Pascal Gaigne’s score. It was nominated for four Goyas with a win for Anna Castillo.
The release of Pork Pie on February 2nd 2017 was a significant moment for the New Zealand film industry. In 1981 Goodbye Pork Pie, co-written and directed by Geoff Murphy, became the first homegrown smash hit for the NZ film industry. Thirty-six years later, Geoff’s son Matt Murphy has directed what may be the first commercial remake of a popular Kiwi film, thus marking a certain coming of age point for the industry.
The two films are road movies and comedies that act as love letters to the landscapes and characters of New Zealand. Pork Pie starts in Auckland where a young Maori escapes from a group of villains by stealing a bright yellow Mini Cooper S and heading South. This is Luke (James Rolleston) and on a rural road he nearly runs down Jon (Dean O’Gorman) who has already been been introduced to us as an older guy, a would-be writer who is going nowhere and now wants to find his ex-fiancée whom he jilted out of cowardice. A little later this odd couple rescue Keira (Ashleigh Cummings) from her boring and humiliating job in a drive-through burger bar. Together the three of them will then head further south with an ultimate destination of Invercargill – the last major settlement before Antarctica. On the way they will have to deal with increased action by police trying to catch them and media coverage that threatens to expose them – as well as making them into rebels/anti heroes. This brief synopsis suggests a familiar genre mix and in one sense that’s all it is. What elevates the film are its local references, strong performances (all three actors are well-known in New Zealand) and enjoyable soundtrack. As an example of Kiwi filmmaking it demonstrates strong production skills and an excellent use of locations. The highlights include a stunning car chase through the centre of Wellington and, in one of the local jokes, a clever way of getting the car across the Cook Strait and onto the roads of South Island. I’m not sure that there is much more to the film than this brief outline suggests. I found it enjoyable, mostly because of the playing of the three central characters and because I recognised the locations in a madcap chase through the streets of Wellington.
The important narrative information is that Luke is a highly skilled driver and the stunts with the car are very well-handled. The use of a Mini-Cooper does perhaps hark back to the classic scenes in The Italian Job (UK 1969), though the current Mini is a rather bloated version of the original. Keira is the character responsible for the social media coverage which provides a narrative device not available to Goodbye Pork Pie. The film’s title has had various explanations in the past, with the most popular suggesting that Pork Pie refers to the rhyming slang for lies – porky pies. Jon is the character who has lied to himself and by extension to his girlfriend – and now it’s time to put things right. Others have suggested it is a reference to the Charles Mingus number ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ that is included on the soundtrack. As Variety‘s reviewer points out, the appeal of a car-chase road movie with attractive young rebel characters should be universal, so I expect the film to find international buyers. According to IMDb it is due an Australian release in May and since the NZ distributor is StudioCanal, I think it should get European releases as well.
I’m reluctant to be too judgemental about this film because I missed the first 25 minutes. Reading Jonathan Holland’s review in The Hollywood Reporter, to try to discover what I missed, I have to agree with everything he says. Marsella (Marseille) appears to be a film which explores the relationships between three female characters who are affected by what is an important social issue. Sara (María León) is a 28 year-old from Andalusia who has been allowed by a judge to resume her legal position as mother to Claire (Noa Fontanals), the 10 year-old who was taken from her when Sara had alcohol and behavioural problems as a teenager. Claire has been fostered by a middle-class couple, Virginia (Goya Toledo) and Alberto, who are reluctant to let her go because they still believe Sara is not a ‘fit mother’. The narrative is constructed as a road trip taken by Sara and Claire with the aim of finding Claire’s father. All Sara knows about Jerome, who she has not seen since she became pregnant, is that he worked in a soap factory in Marseille. This genre structure should work well but the real problem with the film seems to be a sub-plot in which Sara has agreed to smuggle a package of cocaine into France. The sub-plot is necessary to the extent that Sara’s pre-occupation with this criminal task means she neglects Claire one night and the child phones Virginia because she is scared. Virginia rushes to her aid and eventually it is agreed that she will join them in the quest to find Jerome. But the scripting of the sub-plot doesn’t really work and it takes time away from the road movie which ends in a more low-key manner than we might expect.
The film is co-written and directed by Belén Macías and this is her second feature film (most of her earlier work being for television). She is one of two female directors in ¡Viva! this year dealing with middle-class couples who are/have been engaged in adopting/fostering children from working-class families (see the earlier post on L’adopció). Here, the male characters are less important and there is a real opportunity to focus on the relationships between them. I thought that when this happened it worked very well but there isn’t enough of it. The child actor is good and this was the second appearance of María León in this ¡Viva! festival (see the post on Carmina y amén) . She is a commanding presence and the social class difference between Sara and Virginia is represented through the performances of León and Goya Toledo as well as in the dialogue.
Part of that class difference refers to learning foreign languages so that Virginia (and Claire to a certain extent) have an advantage over Maria when they cross the border. The plot also includes an encounter with a truck driver (played by the engaging Eduard Fernández) and his son, an older teenager. I enjoyed this encounter which again could have been expanded but instead it is dragged into the smuggling sub-plot. Overall this film felt like a missed opportunity in which good ingredients were not allowed to come together to make a satisfying film – but perhaps that’s unkind and if I’d seen the opening I would think differently?
This unusual film was introduced by its writer-director Alejandra Sánchez who joined ¡Viva! programmer Rachel Hayward for a Q&A after the screening. Ms Sanchez is a documentary filmmaker who has here moved into ‘documentary drama’. In 2006 she made a documentary about the violent attacks on women in the city of Juárez near the US border. She made contact with a woman whose daughter had been killed in Juárez in one of these attacks and who was now looking after her two small grandchildren. Ten years after her daughter’s death this woman was herself attacked and shot several times outside her house. Somehow she survived the shooting (which Alejandra Sanchez argued was prompted by her work as an activist in the campaign about violence directed towards women). The director then decided to dramatise the story of the two children, one of whom witnessed the shooting. She wrote a script and then decided to cast the real teenagers to play themselves. As well as this element, she also used photographs and ‘home movie footage’ of the children and their mother as part of her film.
In the film the two children, Jade and Kaleb, now teenagers, are visited in the hospital where their grandmother is in a coma by a journalist, Martha, who has been summoned by the family’s lawyer, David. Martha (Nora Huerto) is asked to take the teenagers on a trip, away from possible danger, with the hope that they will be able to meet up with their grandmother in Mexico City when she has recovered and go with her to a safe house in Canada.
Seguir viviendo thus turns into a road movie. The brother and sister are understandably traumatised by this second attack. Kaleb never speaks (a device suggested by the director) but his sister eventually comes round. Later it is revealed that Martha has lost her small son in a car accident and one stop on the road trip is at the bar owned by her former lover, the dead boy’s father. There isn’t a great deal of plot but the road trip includes some of the familiar generic moments, including a drive down the coast and various overnight stays in motels and at least one village house. The film has an ‘open’ ending with a song and an animated sequence – which I certainly wasn’t expecting. During the Q&A Alejandra told us that she chose the ending against advice because she preferred it to the more realistic end point of the airport where the teenagers would board a plane to take them to the safe house.
Why was the children’s mother murdered in the first place? Why are women being attacked in Cuidad Juárez? These are the questions that several people in the audience wanted answers for. Alejandra was not able to answer such questions directly (it may have been simply a translation problem). She said that the attacks and killings had been going on for more than 20 years and that you really had to live in Mexico to appreciate what this meant. I took her statements to imply that the children’s mother was killed almost as part of the overall violence of the city rather than for something that she did and that the grandmother was attacked because she was an activist campaigning for better police and judicial action against the killers. This discussion did, of course, raise the spectre of violence associated with Mexico’s drug gangs, especially in the areas near the US border. A Guatemalan filmmaker in the audience said that this violence should be discussed and audiences needed to be educated about it and why it has happened – otherwise the representation of Central American societies remains simply barbaric for outsiders. This is something people feel strongly about and indeed it does need discussion. Both Rachel Hayward and Andy Willis asked questions which tried to focus on how Alejandra felt in dealing with such highly emotional (and possibly personally dangerous) filmmaking. There are a couple of scenes where the characters think they might be being followed and Alejandra admitted that the paranoia was ‘real’ for herself and the teenagers and her crew.
This an emotional and at times very moving film and Alejandra Sanchez is a brave filmmaker who deserves support. The film is technically well-made but it is quite short (81 mins) for a feature and I did feel that the final section lacked something. I fear that the film will mainly be seen at specialist film festivals but I hope it does find a wider audience and that it encourages other filmmakers to be equally brave and authorities to initiate action against the violence and towards support for the victims.
I knew this film was going to work from the first few minutes of the opening scene. Four men in their late 70s or older are sat round a table in a café-bar playing dominoes and squabbling. Suddenly one orders 5 shots of tequila. Consternation amongst the other three since none of them drink any more. The drinker explains that they are all for him and that he is ‘out’ – he has colon cancer and he hasn’t got long. He then makes the other three promise that they will deliver his most prized possession to its final resting place when he is gone. This object is a paper napkin on which are written the lyrics to a new song by the famous singer José Alfredo Jiménez. The lyrics are dedicated to the dying man and signed by the singer. This is indeed a historical document that is dated and in the handwriting of the star. The three survivors are charged with taking this sacred object to the museum in Dolores Hidalgo where the singer is buried – a trip of over 250 kilometres from Mexico City. That doesn’t sound very far, but these are old men with very little money.
The ‘three amigos’ are great performers, each very different, and I knew I would enjoy their company. The film was briefly introduced by Yossy Zagha Kababie, co-writer and producer (and brother of the director) who featured in a Q&A after the screening. He confirmed that all four of the old men are experienced performers from TV, theatre and film – some primarily working in comedy sketches or telenovelas but others as character actors. One of them, José Carlos Ruiz (Emiliano) has appeared in Hollywood films including Peckinpah’s Major Dundee (1965). Luis Bayardo (Augustin) reminded me at times of Stan Laurel with a quizzical expression and a general air of innocence.
The plot develops a road movie with a clever script that finds numerous ways of delaying the trio on their journey so that it takes several days for just one of them to reach Dolores Hidalgo and deliver the napkin. (UK readers will possibly remember a similar trip in Last Orders, UK 2001, a Fred Schepisi film based on a Graham Swift novel.) Each of the three men who start the trip has a family issue to deal with. One is a widower being forced into a nursing home by his daughter-in-law, one has a wife with dementia and one is constantly finding the ghost of his dead wife popping up and criticising him. These are universal problems for men of a certain age but the appearance of the ghost also refers us to the ways in which the film tries to connect with Mexican culture and the nostalgia for the trio in thinking about the Mexico of their youth. One of the men ‘sees’ a white horse on a couple of occasions – a reference (Yossy told us) to one of the 1,000 songs written by Jiminéz. The men also meet a ‘witch’ and survive a dangerous premonition that involves another ghost. As one of the audience questions highlighted, the role of women in the film is quite interesting in this film about four men – the women have quite small parts but they are often characters with real ‘agency’ – assertive, organised and ‘active’. Yossy agreed that the script had tried hard to achieve this.
This is a genuinely funny film with laughs aplenty but also a social commentary and a moving drama. It’s a major achievement. In answering questions during a lively Q&A conducted by Andy Willis, Yossy Zagha Kababie made many revealing statements. He explained that there is a big growth in film production in Mexico, but small films (this cost just US$1.5 million) find it difficult to get screened in Mexico despite the box office boom in admissions (Mexico now rates as the fifth biggest film market in cinema admissions). Most cinemas screen American films and the 100,000 admissions for this film is a sign of success in a difficult market. He argued that as a producer with his brother they aimed to make films about Mexican culture that weren’t about drugs gangs. Comedy is popular in Mexico but mainly ‘simple’ comedy and not the character stuff as in this film. Comedy is also a harder sell to international film festival programmers. So, it’s difficult but worthwhile work that the filmmakers enjoy. The focus on music and the town of Dolores Hidalgo – one of Mexico’s official ‘Magic Towns’ with a historical role in the struggle for Independence – is part of this ‘reclaiming of Mexican culture’. I think any festival would benefit from including this film and I just wish a distribution deal was possible in Europe – it seems that a Mexican comedy like this doesn’t even travel to other Spanish language markets elsewhere in Latin America, but the Hispanic market in the US may be a taker of both DVD and TV rights? If you stumble across this film, take the plunge and you’ll have a great time.