My final post from ¡Viva! 28 is another début feature, another film made by a creative team led by women in key roles – and it’s a cracker, one of the best films I’ve seen this year. Writer-director Nathalie Álvarez Mesén was born in Sweden. Her mother is from Costa Rica and her father from Uruguay. Nathalie went to Costa Rica as a child and returned to Sweden to go to university. (See this interview on Cineuropa) She has benefited from various film festival projects because her short films attracted critical attention. Clara Sola screened in the Director’s Fortnight programme at Cannes in 2021. I’m not sure I have seen a Costa Rican film before. I know little about the country, only that it has a reputation as a stable democracy, with good education and healthcare and has become known for eco-tourism.
Clara Sola is a narrative in which a woman has been recognised in a small, tight-knit community as having powers which bring her close to the Virgin Mary. It is believed that she can heal the sick and she becomes an important figure in religious festivals and community events. In such cases the woman is usually young and in danger of being exploited. In this case, however, Clara is older at around 40 and appears to have some form of social difficulty, perhaps she is somewhere on the autistic spectrum? She is under the control of her mother, Fresia, who she lives with alongside her niece in a house in the wooded mountains. The three women also have relatives in the nearest village. The narrative disruption which allows the development of a dramatic situation is linked to Clara’s niece Maria who is approaching her fifteenth birthday or quinceañera, a festival occasion which marks the transition from girlhood to womanhood. Maria’s excitement is heightened by the presence of Santiago a young man who comes on most days to hire the white mare Yuca, needed as part of tourist activities in the mountains. Clara has a close attachment to Yuca and to the local flora and fauna in general. She is therefore unhappy that Yuca is taken away, but she too is interested in Santiago, an attractive young man who befriends her and teaches her new things.
Maria’s emergence into a sexual being and her growing friendship with Santiago are followed by Clara who is slowly awakened to her own sexuality – something her controlling mother has always been anxious to curtail. Fresia goes as far as denying Clara an operation to correct a spinal deformity that affects Clara’s posture and her gait. She wants Clara kept ‘pure’, just as she was delivered by God. There is one scene involving chilli juice which will cause a wince or two for anyone familiar with preparing and cooking chillies, ouch! This is a film with not much in the way of ‘back stories’ so the audience is required to take the situation as it stands instead of wondering why this is happening to Clara now rather than twenty or more years earlier. But perhaps Clara’s late ‘awakening’ signifies her mother’s fierce control developed by a conservative religious belief?
Natalie Álvarez Mesén and her co-writer María Camila Arias (who is Colombian and co-wrote Birds of Passage, Colombia 2018) screened in ¡Viva! 25) mix several approaches to create a distinctive style. In several ways the narrative might appear to be heading for melodrama territory and the ‘return of the repressed’ as Clara begins to discover her sexuality. Instead, however, the narrative conclusion is reached almost as a calm revelation, involving magic realism. I found the ending was appropriate and somehow very satisfying.
The ideas in the script work because of the performances by the principals, all of whom are non-professionals as far as I am aware. Wendy Chinchilla Araya who plays Clara is a dancer. She must have used her knowledge of her body and control over her movements to create the awkward walk of the character. Daniel Castañeda Rincón as Santiago conveys the remarkably patient and sensitive young man very well and both Ana Julia Porras Espinoza as Maria and Flor María Vargas Chavez as Fresia are impressive. Performances by non-professionals require careful direction and this feels like a very assured début film. It is enhanced by the camerawork of Sophie Winqvist who is able to use big close-ups and beautiful long shot compositions in a CinemaScope ratio to place Clara in her environment and close to the flora and fauna she feels part of – she knows the secret names of animals. I think that the credits suggest that much of the footage was shot in the Monteverde region of Costa Rica, a region that includes the ‘Cloud Rainforest’. Beware, you’ll probably want to visit Costa Rica after watching the film.
The good news is that Clara Sola is coming to the UK, having been acquired by Peccadillo Pictures with a possible release date of September 2022. I heartily recommend it. Do try to see it on a big screen if you can.
Another début film, Diablada is a fiction feature based on the true story of a serial killer who raped and murdered young women, mainly teenagers between 1998 and 2001 in the Chilean region of Alto Hospicio in the North of the country. Although the names of the characters and other details have been changed, the film sticks fairly closely to the narrative of the real events. I found the film impressive in many of the aspects of its presentation but somewhat baffled by the overall approach of the filmmakers writer Omar Saavedra Santis and director Álvaro Muñoz.
The film begins by introducing a small group of characters in a small desert town close to the coast. These include a single parent father Andres (Daniel Candia) and his young teenage daughter Nene as well as a female police officer Rosaura (Catalina Saavedra) who is badly treated by both her managers and her male colleagues. My first thought was that I was watching something like a Chilean version of a Nordic Noir crime thriller. Here is a crime story in which the crimes appear to be happening in a way that exposes a range of serious social and political problems in the society. The central point is that although a significant number of teenage girls have gone missing over the last few weeks and months, the local police have made no real attempt to find them and have assumed that the girls have left the town to seek more ‘excitement’ over the border in Bolivia. The point is made repeatedly that the police will not really do anything for the poor, but will act swiftly if the local wealthy people are threatened by minor crimes. My second thought was that the opening reminded me a little of Australian crime fictions involving Indigenous Australian communities such as in Mystery Road film and TV series. I’m assuming that the local community depicted in Alto Hospicio has a significant indigenous population and that their marginalisation by the authorities is a political issue. The film’s title refers to a traditional dance performed mainly in Bolivia and Peru but which appears also to have developed in Northern Chile. The dance is woven into the narrative because Nene performs in the local troupe, but wearing a costume that her father believes to be for a male rather than female role, thus linking to the gender discourse in the narrative.
As the narrative progresses, more familiar genre elements are introduced, including a new young detective who arrives in the region. He is welcomed by the local wealthy ‘boss’ character but there are signs that he might not buy in to the local male dominance and abuse of women. He also introduces more modern policing methods. When Nene goes missing like the other girls, Andres joins up with Rosaura in an attempt to unite the mothers of the missing girls and to act as an amateur detective team as well as agitating for the police to do more. The problem with the film is that all the details of the community and the introduction of the characters take up most of the running time. There is no time to see how the investigators find the killer, denying the audience the resolution of what had originally been introduced as a conventional crime story. I don’t have a problem with a lack of resolution and I can see that the social/political issues are the most important part of the film. But presumably the local Chilean audience know the ending anyway – the killer was eventually arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment. Another film that is worth considering here is Bong Joon-Ho’s Memories of Murder (South Korea 2003) with the same mix of politics and incompetent policing. Again this was a well-known serial killer case that had already been adapted several times. Bong’s film is much longer and more complex and at the time of the film’s production the crimes from 1986 had still not been solved.
We might ask why Muñoz and Santis didn’t opt for a more straightforward genre narrative or a documentary reconstruction of the crimes and the eventual investigation, arrest and conviction. I can only think that Muñoz and his cinematographer Alvaro Cortés wished to experiment with the presentation of the landscape and the characters. The landscape of the desert and the simple wooden houses are carefully presented in widescreen and there are occasional ‘arty’ shots of isolated features which are effective in themselves, but slow down the narrative drive. There are also some fantasy/dream sequences which don’t seem signalled. I wasn’t sure if I understood a couple of sequences. It may be that the intention was to pose the social/political questions in a way that would provoke discussion. I’d love to know how the film has been received in Chile (and Venezuela) if it has been shown there. As a genre film, Diablada doesn’t focus directly on the actual killings. In that sense it isn’t exploitative but there are a couple of scenes which feature the victims in ways that are quite shocking. One of the few reviews available accuses the film of a lack of humanity towards the mothers. I’m not sure I agree but I can see that there are reasons to make that charge.
I must commend the leading players Daniel Candia and Catalina Saavedra and the production team, but I do feel in the end that something is missing. Diablada shows again at HOME, Manchester on Sunday 22nd August at 13.45.
Billy is an unusual short (71 minutes) documentary feature, first screened at the Seville European Film Festival in 2020 and scheduled to be released in Spain in September 2021. It is another of the UK premières that have been offered by HOME at this year’s ¡Viva!. The film opens with a sequence that appears to come from a European Western (actually El hombre que mató a Billy el Niño, Spain-Italy 1967). A young blonde cowboy on horseback is being chased across across a dry scrub landscape into a small town by a group of ‘Federales’. A voiceover tells us that this isn’t a Western, although there are guns, chases and sheriffs and good guys and bad guys – but it’s too early to reveal them. All this while a woman dashes out of an adobe house to bring in her child in an almost direct hommage to the opening of Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars. The voiceover tells us that in fact this is a film about events only a relatively short time ago in a location that is also not too distant. This is immediately followed by a montage of talking heads all giving descriptions of ‘Billy the Kid’. A close-up of a pistol being fired at the camera turns into an animated credit sequence, also re-calling Leone, announcing ‘Billy’. This is certainly an arresting opening and soon the voiceover returns to tell us that Antonio González Pacheco, a police inspector in the Social Political Brigade of the Francoist regime in Spain during the late 1960s, died without having been tried for his crimes of torture and murder despite the demands of his victims and their families. The coronavirus delayed the post-production of the film and it also took Pacheco and one of the witnesses to his crimes. When shooting began Pacheco was alive, now he is dead but the need to expose his crimes remains.
As the witnesses began to identify themselves as members of various anti-fascist political parties that they joined as university students and young activists, I remembered the Spanish political thriller that featured in ¡Viva! 23, Seven Days in January (7 dias de enero, Spain-France 1979) that offered a compelling fictionalised account of the police and fascist ‘guerrilla action’ against communist lawyers and activists which threatened to derail the transition towards democracy in Spain following Franco’s death in 1975. What I certainly wasn’t aware of was the extent to which young anti-fascists were active in Madrid during 1968 when student protest spread from Paris, Berlin, London, California and Mexico across the world. It seems to me now that those Spanish students faced a much more serious threat to their very survival, certainly compared to most student revolutionaries in the UK (though not those overseas students being tracked in the UK by intelligence services). Here in Billy we meet several of those Spanish student activists and other young activists, now in their late 60s or early 70s but with vivid memories of the late 1960s. As one of them puts it:
You could see how the police acted, how they tortured, how they repressed, how they shot for real – they didn’t shoot rubber bullets.
The witnesses constitute a diverse group of men and women who belonged to a variety of communist and anti-fascist political parties which didn’t necessarily agree on tactics. Some were determined to rely on words and the democratic process, others believed in direct action, including armed struggle. Writer-director Max Lemcke and his crew have access to a diverse range of material, including footage of demonstrations and street battles, newsreels and personal archives. Much of it is accessible for any audience but some probably means much more to Spanish audiences. A witness reminds us that it was difficult to find ‘important books’, to hear songs (such as the Victor Jara one used here) and watch movies in this period.
But who was ‘Billy’ and how did he acquire the name? Antonio González Pacheco arrived at university in Madrid in 1968 and in 1969 became a Junior Inspector in the ‘Social Investigation Brigade’. He quickly became a leading player in the ‘Dirty War’ waged by the police and fascist gangs against any left organisations. I think the term ‘Dirty War’ is used to deliberately link to the similar activities in Argentina, Chile, Brazil and other Latin American countries. The ‘Transition’ to democracy was was slow and although democratic elections produced a conservative government it did not have a majority. There was a major issue about the refusal to legitimise the Spanish Communist Party and a concerted effort by the new government to declare various Amnesties and not to investigate the activities of Francoist crimes against the people at that point. These are some of the issues discussed in Billy. Some historians mark the end of Transition with the failed coup d’état of 1981 and the election of the majority government of the PSOE or Spanish Socialist Party (a centrist party by the standards of most of the witnesses in Billy). The crucial point is that the torture and murder of leftist political activists as practised by Pacheco/’Billy the Kid’ did not stop in 1975 but continued into the 1980s.
‘Billy’ is portrayed in Seven Days in January and we get to see clips from that film and to hear the witness statement of the actor who played him. He got his name because he was a show-off who liked to parade his weapon and he was something of a dandy. Different witnesses explain how the torture terror worked and how the murders happened. The vivid descriptions are shocking and so is the observation that the fascists in the police force, just as the fascists in the élite, made the transition to democracy without being investigated or imprisoned and keeping their positions in many cases. The 1970s also saw an ‘International’ organisation of fascist police groups with meetings arranged with similar groups in Italy and West Germany.
I found the testimonies riveting, although the plethora of different political parties and revolutionary groups was a little confusing. The documentary is not publicly-funded or made by a media corporation. It was completely crowd-funded and all the contributors are listed in the long credits. It can therefore be a partial account (Francoists were invited but declined to be interviewed), though some of the witnesses have different views about direct action. The filmmakers have, however, decided that too many talking heads in long sequences would make the film unwatchable for any but the most diehard supporters. They have therefore used the Billy the Kid film as well as a Lucky Luke animated version of the Billy the Kid story and even an old black and white TV advert for Nesquik similar to the ‘Milky Bar Kid’ UK ad from 1961. The witnesses describe Billy in different ways – as a clown, as someone almost ‘deified’, as a sinister man, loathed and feared etc. The name stuck from his earliest university appearances but not everyone thought it was a good idea to repeat the nickname. I see the problem for a filmmaker wanting different material but I think there is probably too much of the feature film material shown – which does suggest Billy as the ‘hero’.
Fifty years is a long time to wait for witnesses to be heard. I’m glad I was able to see this film which has a repeat showing at HOME, Manchester on Saturday 21st August at 12.45. As fascism begins to rise again across the globe it’s important to introduce younger audience to this history and these victims of torture.
It’s rare that I sit down to write about a film without any background information at all but Salvador is a recent film that has not been reviewed outside the Hispanic language press as far as I can see. I’m therefore reliant on Google Translate to make sense of Spanish and Latin American websites. Another shortish feature of under 90 minutes, Salvador tells a familiar tale of a middle-aged romance but situates it in a very dangerous time and place – the centre of Bogota in 1985 during action by the guerrilla forces of ‘M-19’, which included the occupation of the Ministry of Justice building in the city centre. A début feature by César Heredia Cruz, the film is inspired by the director’s own memories of his childhood and by the figure of his grandfather who was a tailor in the city. But it is a fiction, the director’s grandfather was not like the character in the film and did not react to events in the same way.
Salvador Velazquez (Héctor García) is a 46 year-old tailor. He is single and lives on his own except for his dog Laika. Each day he travels into the city centre and takes the lift up to the seventh-floor of a traditional office block and his workshop. It’s an unusual location for a tailor. He works on his own and his customers come to see him in his workshop. Salvador doesn’t have much of a social life but he visits his sister-in-law and his nephew, a university student, on most days. One day he finds there is a new lift operator in the office building, an attractive woman in her late thirties, Isabel (Fabiana Medina). Over the next few days/weeks, Salvador gradually gets to know something about Isabel, though he is slightly taken aback when she has her daughter, a school-child, with her in the lift one day. Gradually a romance develops, but at the same time, tension in the city mounts as M-19 become more of a threat. The local security forces are stopping people on the street to check ID cards and a curfew is brought in.
The romance narrative is structured as a slow but conventional courtship. Salvador is a quiet man but tall and not unattractive, especially when he smiles. Even so, he seems an unlikely partner for Isabel who is lively and adventurous. She attracts the attention of all the men in the office block. What does she want from Salvador? His name of course denotes ‘saviour’ and she is separated from her husband and worries about her daughter. But is Salvador the man for the job? Without wanting to spoil the plot development in any way I should perhaps state that though the pleasures of the romance are present in the film, the other element in the narrative remains important throughout. The film is about the real physical, and moral, difficulties of living in a city under threat of violent action by both guerrilla groups and government forces. Writer-director Cruz provides a kind of running commentary on the escalation of the conflict with snatches of news reports on the TV set in Salvador’s sister in law’s apartment, in the cafés and bars he visits and from the radio in his workshop. This is contrasted with the music that is associated with Isabel. Their early encounters include a discussion of her love for boleros. From his position high up in the city centre Salvador is also conscious of the helicopters above and the soldiers on the streets.
A tailor is an interesting character in this kind of atmosphere. Salvador has customers who might be associated with the military or the guerrillas. His is an intimate business. He deals with potentially dangerous men who he must measure accurately and fit their suits. He doesn’t usually make clothes for women, so Isabel’s entry into his workshop is provocative and creates genuine tension and excitement. Salvador is in some ways a surprising film and it marks a notable début. Colombia is a mid-range Latin-American film production centre with the potential to develop further and I enjoyed this opportunity to see a new release. Salvador plays again at HOME in Manchester on Sunday 15th August at 14.00
After two ‘smaller’ independent films, my third ¡Viva! title is a more mainstream comedy drama. I’ve again chosen to go with the direct translation of the Spanish title into English, since the ‘given’ English title doesn’t make much sense. This is a familiar narrative, probably most recognisable as referencing films such as The Odd Couple (Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, 1968), but really any narrative in which seemingly disparate characters are thrown together and must find a modus operandi of some kind. The setting is Sevilla and an oldish apartment block in a now desirable part of the city. Sara (Juana Acosta) is senior manager in an insurance company, an attractive but rather serious and stressed woman on the brink of 40. She is being shown around an apartment by Óscar (Carlos Areces) a seemingly not very competent estate agent. The apartment is going at half the usual price and eventually the reason for this unusual sale becomes clear. There is an ‘inconvenience’ – the current owner must be allowed to stay on until she dies. Lola (Kiti Mánver) is in her mid 70s with a history of heart problems and she smokes, drinks and eats too many sweet and fatty foods. Óscar gaily announces that she won’t last long and refers to her as an ‘inconvenience’. The fact that Sara rebukes him suggests that perhaps she isn’t quite as cold as she first appears.
This is a quite glossy and beautifully-presented ‘Scope comedy that offers a familiar story in an attractive city. It is certainly funny and and sometimes quite moving. It’s not giving too much away to note that the two women are both lonely and for not dissimilar reasons. They will initially be at loggerheads but will also each grudgingly admire the other at times. Óscar provides a kind of running joke by popping up at regular intervals in various service jobs, none of which he can hold down for long. His incompetence is something the two women can agree about. In terms of timing and performance it is perhaps worth noting that Carlos Areces and Kiti Mánver are both alumni of Almodóvar productions. Juana Acosta is well cast as the business woman with her own problems beneath a polished veneer. Director Bernabé Rico is making his feature film début after several shorts and a decade of producer credits. Cinematographer Rita Noriega is also a features debutant. The script is by the director and Juan Carlos Rubio (based on his own theatre play) and the music is by Julio Awad.
I did find the film entertaining and I enjoyed the performances and the presentation, but I think that the relationship between the two central characters could be explored further, including their back stories. The basic premise (about a half-price apartment that Sara sees as a sound investment) refers to a real social issue in Spain – the rising cost of housing. This and Sara’s lack of a work-life balance, which means that she hasn’t yet decided whether she wants to have a child, point the way towards a richer social comedy that might have more resonance while remaining a mainstream entertainment. The dramatic element might be a little more developed too. El inconveniente is showing again at ¡Viva! on Saturday August 14th at 18.00 and Friday 20th August at 20.40. It would make a good weekend ‘fun film’. This trailer (no English subs) gives a sense of the rapid-fire dialogue:
This second ¡Viva! film at HOME in Manchester turned out to be not quite the film I expected, though I still enjoyed it. It is promoted as a ‘road movie’ and though that description is certainly applicable, in part because it includes some familiar genre elements, the film doesn’t fully commit to the road movie narrative and the actual distance travelled is not very far. But in terms of ‘changing’ the central character Nora, the film does deliver.
Nora (Ane Pikaza) is a woman in her early thirties who is experiencing a form of midlife crisis. She has had a relationship that hasn’t worked out and she still hasn’t found a job that gives her real satisfaction. She has tried looking for new openings that might make use of her talents (which include drawing skills), but so far no luck. She is looking after her grandfather who is in serious decline and has a close friend who is perhaps using her as a bastion against her own marriage difficulties. And, finally she doesn’t really get on with her parents. Dad is supportive but Mum is critical. When her Argentinian grandfather is finally at peace, Nora sets off in his old Citroën Dyane van (an ‘Acadiane‘?) in the classic attempt to ‘find herself’ and to put his ashes where he wanted them to go. Her family’s Argentinian roots will show through with grandfather’s music on the old cassette player and Nora’s occasional tango moves as she enjoys her freedom.
The central part of the narrative is very enjoyable partly because we get to see the stunning countryside of the Biscay and Gipuzkoa regions of the Basque country. Nora is not a good driver but she survives and meets strangers who each help her and possibly teach her something. The actual journey itinerary is not clear but she appears to be travelling East along the coast and eventually crosses the border into France. Her grandmother is buried in Ciboure, a small town just over the border. The film is a Spanish-French co-production so this may simply be a requirement of the deal. This is a multilingual film and Nora turns out to speak Spanish, Basque, French and English to the different people she meets and when she finds a bookshop just over the border she finds herself using all four languages in the space of a few hours.
The road movie usually ends with the protagonist in a new place having changed as the result of their adventures. In this case, Nora will first return home and then sally forth again, knowing what she wants. That seems a satisfying resolution to me. The film is the second feature by writer-director Lara Izagirre, a Basque native who trained in New York and Barcelona before returning home. The film is presented in Academy ratio for no particular reason that I can discern, but the presentation works well. Nora is an interesting character and Ane Pikaza gives a strong performance. One of the things about Nora that I like is that she is prepared to say no and sometimes to behave ‘badly’ when she, not unreasonably, refuses to go along with someone else. She is not a naïve young traveller. She has something to offer and she will find a way to use it.
Nora seems to have been well received in Spain and I don’t see why it shouldn’t travel successfully to other territories. I’ve always wanted to travel to Northern Spain. The film helped to convince me and once the pandemic is under control, perhaps I’ll go. In the meantime, Nora is a good advertisement. I can recommend the film and future screenings at ¡Viva! are on Sunday 15th August at 18.00 and Wednesday 18th August at 16.00.