This is a fascinating film which raises a number of the ‘global film’ questions that we like to explore on this blog. The film is directed by the team of Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra who will be familiar to UK audiences because of the wide success of their previous production, The Embrace of the Serpent (2015). The gossip seems to be that the couple have now split up and I wonder how significant it is that Cristina has a joint directorial credit on this film – whereas she was the producer on the previous film. Just as in 2016 when the previous film appeared in ¡Viva!, this was a preview screening and the film will get a UK release through Curzon on 17 May.
There are various ways in which this film could be described in conventional terms and the most popular seems to be as a ‘universal family gangster film’. There is certainly something in that description but it is a little glib to say the least. If I had to try to sum up the film in this way I’d suggest it is something like a cross between Gangs of Wasseypur and a film by Sembène Ousmane or another Senegalese or Malian director with all the rich mix of ideas that such a mash-up suggests. Ciro Guerra in the Press Notes (French via Google Translate) confirms a wish to make a genre film but still retain the exploration of the representation of indigenous peoples from the couples earlier films:
For me, it’s a film noir, a gangster movie. But it can also be both a Western, a Greek tragedy and a tale by Gabriel García Márquez.
Guerra also discusses the idea of ‘myths’ in story telling and sees popular cinema genres as a way to explore these. Later in the Notes Cristina Gallego suggests à propos of discussing the ‘great bonanza’ of the cannabis export to the US and the subsequent drugs wars in the 1970s:
It’s a metaphor for our country, a family tragedy that is also becoming a national tragedy. Speaking of the past, it allows us to better understand where we are today as a country.
The story covers the years 1969-79 and it is set in the peninsula of Guajira, the most northerly part of South America which sticks out into the Caribbean Sea. Wikipedia describes the region nicely:
The scenery of Guajira is very picturesque, with wide desert plains and green, foggy mountains.
The indigenous people of this desert/mountain region are the Wayuu. Under colonial rule, and after, the Wayuu were subject to missionary pressure to convert to Catholicism but in recent times they have been allowed to practise traditional rituals without interference. The Wayuu have always resisted centralised control over their affairs. The film narrative is set at a time when there might be priests around (much as in Sembène’s Ceddo (1977) but they don’t appear in the film. At times it is difficult to believe that this film is set in the 1970s – until we see the Land Rovers and Jeeps. The narrative begins with a meeting of a Wayuu clan in which a young woman, Zaida, who has been confined for a year is brought out to celebrate the moment she has become a woman. She performs a rapid dance with her younger brother and then he is replaced by a stranger, a grown man known as Rapayet. By taking a role in the dance Rapayet (who is also Wayuu) has suggested he is interested in marriage. But this requires a ritual proposal and Rapayet’s uncle Peregrino is an accepted negotiator. A bride price/dowry is agreed in the form of goats, cattle and necklaces. So far, so traditional. For us as the audience, the inciting incident is a chance observation by Rapayet and his business partner of a trio of Americans who we learn are associated with the ‘Peace Corps’ and who are distributing anti-Communist propaganda in the form of playing cards. They are also on the lookout for marijuana for which they can pay in US dollars. Immediately we know that tradition has been undermined by modernity, capitalism and American culture. Rapayet will buy the crops grown by his cousin in the mountains and the Wayuu clans will grow rich.
I won’t spoil the narrative any further. Instead I’ll just outline one or two of the other elements. The bride’s mother Úrsula turns out to be some form of spirit messenger who foresees the tragic events ahead (often via the appearance of certain birds – hence the title). She is also a formidable leader of her clan – to which Rapayet has now pledged himself. What follows is visually dominated by the stark contrast between the semi-desert lands where Úrsula’s clan are settled and the lush tropical hillsides where Aníbal, Rapayet’s cousin, has his house and fields. The second important element of the narrative is the deadly way in which the greed of criminal capitalist enterprise will join with/poison the traditional relationships between clans. This means that once a dispute begins it is almost impossible to end it peaceably. The narrative resolution which I won’t describe does return us to the use of traditional storytelling, although sadly it is too late to compensate for all the damage that has been done.
In all the carnage of the second half of the film, the Colombian police appear fleetingly and only to take their cut of the drugs business. Now, several days after the screening, I’ve only just realised that the time period in the second half of the 1970s was a violent time in much of South America and the period of the first two organised crime groups involved in the Colombian drugs business (although by this time it was cocaine rather than marijuana that was being exported to North America). The internal wars in Colombia (which involved both the drugs barons and leftist guerrillas) don’t appear in the narrative which seems to be almost timeless and also completely cut off from the rest of the region. It’s true that the peninsula is the most isolated part of Colombia, but it still feels odd.
The film’s casting does appear to have posed some problems for the filmmakers. I assumed that the largest proportion of the Colombian population was, as in many Latin American countries, mestizo – the result of inter-marriage between European colonists/settlers/migrants and indigenous peoples. This appears to be the case but, as in Mexico, there are different ways of estimating and defining the proportion of mestizos and that of ‘Europeans’. In most of Colombia, the indigenous populations are relatively small except in the peninsula and some border regions of the south. African-Colombians tend to be concentrated in the Caribbean coastal regions. While some of the actors did appear to be indigenous and possibly Wayuu, others were more European in appearance. The Wayuu use the word alijuna which I understand to simply mean ‘outsiders’ or ‘strangers’ – i.e. ‘not Wayuu’. It was this that I found a little confusing and I wasn’t sure if ‘marrying out’ meant being cast out of the community. My concern is that the principal characters (who are all professional actors) appear more ‘European’ than indigenous (though the Press Notes reveal that both Carmiña Martínez and Jose Acosta have Wayuu roots in the family histories). The only African-Colombian character of note, Rapayet’s business partner Moisés, is a loud and aggressive character and I assume that his treatment by the Wayuu is more to do with his personal characteristics than any racial prejudice. The film doesn’t really clarify any doubts about this.
I’m left wondering what I made of the film. Part of me is worried that the genre conventions of a clan war dominate the film too much and don’t allow enough of the unique geography and sociology/ethnography of the region to be fully appreciated (and it must have been a very difficult production to shoot). I fear the ‘City of God‘ syndrome and the over-promotion of the gangster genre so that the film becomes a cult hit based on its genre qualities. On the other hand perhaps there is enough suggestion about traditions and rituals of the Wayuu and the ‘spirituality’ of Úrsula and her family to keep us interested in the cultural questions. The filmmakers themselves have positive reasons for making the film this way and perhaps they are reaching a local audience? It’s what happens in markets like the UK that worries me. Curzon as a distributor used to be quite good with films like this, making available press materials. This time there is relatively little I can find (but perhaps more will appear before the actual release?). At the moment, the language of the film is given as ‘Spanish’ – but much of the dialogue is actually in the local Wayuu language.
I found watching the film was a very intense experience with the dramatic landscapes photographed by David Gallego. Gallego photographed The Embrace of the Serpent for the same filmmakers, but he was also responsible for the photography on I Am Not a Witch (2017) which would have taken him to Zambia, so perhaps my suggestion of an African feel about some images is not too outlandish? I enjoyed the music by Leo Heiblum and the sound design by Carlos García. Both are very strong in eliciting an emotional response and the film worked very well in the big screen in HOME’s Cinema 1. When it comes out, find the biggest screen you can.
Alanis is an unusual study of a sex worker, presented mainly as a kind of social realist ‘prostitution procedural’. We experience what happens to Alanis, a 25 year-old in Buenos Aires with Dante her 18 month old infant still fed at his mother’s breast. Alanis works out of an apartment she shares with Gisela, an older woman who acts as a madam and a carer for the boy. The exact working relationship between the two women hasn’t yet been made clear when local agents, police and a social worker arrive and effectively eject Alanis and Dante from the apartment and arrest Gisela. We then follow what happens to Alanis and Dante.
Argentinian law seems to prosecute brothel-keeping but tolerates individual acts of selling sex. The procedures explored in the film are mainly concerned withthe raid, some of the practices of street prostitution and something of the arrangements in a brothel. Alanis is devoted to her son and her work is to some extent humanised by Dante’s care arrangements. The film features two contrasting scenes with clients, the second of which does move away from social realism to an expressionist representation of the sheer hard work of trying to satisfy a client. This scene is shot in from specific angles in a hotel bedroom in such a way that doesn’t feel exploitative and certainly not erotic, but it is certainly wearing – for the viewer and for Alanis herself. In other scenes social realism conventions are also undermined by camerawork which often frames action in uncomfortable ways –with Alanis seen through doorways or in mirrors. There is also frequent use of shallow focus in which Alanis moves very close to the camera with backgrounds increasingly blurred. Again this seems to consciously undermine the fetishisation of female bodies on screen. We get to see Alanis in big close-ups often with Dante at her breast. Those strange people who are offended by the sight of breast-feeding might find this very shocking.
There isn’t much in the way of narrative drive in the film, only the details of how Alanis will find somewhere to stay and ways to find the money to keep herself and Dante and there isn’t a conventional narrative resolution. The film must be carried by Sofía Gala as Alanis. In a sense I was relieved to discover after the screening that Dante is played by Ms Gala’s own son. As one reviewer noted, the emotional attachment is there on the screen and there is the possibility that later in life mother and son will look back with affection on their portrayal. The film is written and directed by Anahí Berneri. This is her fifth film and she has been winning prizes at international festivals since 2005. I’m surprised that I haven’t come across her before. Alanis won her the best director prize at San Sebastian International Festival and at Havana in 2017. Sofía Gala also won acting prizes for the film.
The links to social realism in the film come through the everyday presentation of the streets of Buenos Aires, the presentation of the characters Alanis meets and the few details we glean from her accounts of her background as a girl from a provincial town. Alanis is not her real name and there is a nice joke when someone asks if she was named after that pop star ‘Morrissey’. If the film overall isn’t social realist it is definitely ‘humanist’ in its depiction of a world and the people in it. As another reviewer points out, what is noticeable is that Alanis never feels sorry for herself and never complains. She simply gets on with the task of looking after Dante and herself. She isn’t ashamed of what she does. We get the impression that she sees sex work simply as work.
I’m not sure I ‘enjoyed’ Alanis but I was never bored (it’s a short film at 82 minutes). I was very impressed by the central performance and by the writing and direction. I’m not sure my feelings about prostitution have been changed one way or the other. This isn’t a ‘social message’ film but, as in all good humanist films, I feel grateful to have got to know a character like Alanis. I’ll certainly look out for more films by Anahí Berneri and anything featuring Sofía Gala. The trailer below doesn’t have English subs but gives an idea of the style of the film.
This was the third film in the festival to feature a father/grandfather and young son/grandson. In Formentera Lady the focus is on the grandfather and in La teta y la luna, it’s on the son with the father only appearing at crucial moments. In En las estrellas, however, the father and the son appear together for most of the time. ¡Viva! 25‘s theme is serious fun and this film fits the bill with its credentials emphasised by the producer’s credit for the cult hero of Spanish cinema, Álex de la Iglesia.
Victor (Luis Callejo) has been devastated by his wife’s death, especially because he thinks he didn’t do enough to save her. He was a filmmaker, a creator of special effects and sets for science fiction and ‘monster movies’ – so talented that he was asked to work with ‘the Americans’. But now he has lost himself and any chance of employment. He is drinking heavily and inveigling his son ‘Ingmar’ (named after the director not the boxer) played by Jorge Andreu to help him make no budget films using a cheap video camera.
The only recreation for father and son is an old cinema which still operates even though it has no customers. But down in the basement are hundreds of reels of classic SF and monster films. Back in their rundown apartment every square inch is taken up by books, videocassettes, robot toys etc. It’s an existence that cannot continue indefinitely and there is a social worker sniffing around. The other major feature of the plot is a series of fantasy sequences in which Victor tells his son the stories that he would like to film. Inevitably these involve memories of the missing wife/mother Ángela (Macarena Gomez) and they are illustrated by quite beautiful painted sets and fuelled by an inventive imagination.
I enjoyed this film very much. It follows a Spanish tradition of child-centric films, once revered by Franco’s censors as ‘innocent’ but since the 1970s used to critique fascism (e.g. in The Spirit of the Beehive and later in Pan’s Labyrinth. More recently the Spanish director J. A. Bayona made A Monster Calls (Spain-UK-US 2016) with some similar elements. As well as the role of children, Spanish cinema is also known for its interest in SF/fantasy/horror genres. Up Among the Stars is a title that also recognises cinema history and in particular the monsters and robots who are the stars of classic movies. The obvious references are to Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (France 1902) which is arguably the basis for the father’s fantasy, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and the legacy of King Kong. I was also intrigued by a 1934 colour cartoon of Don Quixote from UB Iwerks shown on a TV set. I wonder also if writer-director Zoe Berriatúa was influenced in any way by Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (US 2011) and its portrayal of the Méliès studio?
I realise that I’ve focused mainly on the cinematic references to the monster/robot films and also on the child in the film. I’ve underplayed the element of the father’s grief and guilt about his wife’s death and I guess that there are other cinematic references to horror films/ghost stories and romances that I haven’t really thought about. There is also a gentle critique of the film industry and the way it funds/doesn’t fund creativity. I doubt the film will appear in UK cinemas which is a shame. I think it may be available on Netflix or Amazon. I’d recommend it as a diverting 86 minutes but its ‘Scope presentation would work much better on a big screen.
Here’s a trailer. There are no English subs but it does give you an idea of the wonderful mise en scène and the music:
This year’s ¡Viva! included a retrospective tribute to the Catalan director Bigas Luna who died just six years ago. The festival screened his ‘Iberian trilogy’ and a documentary BigasXBigas (2016) was screened alongside a video art exhibition at the Instituto Cervantes in Deansgate. The exhibition runs until April 13. The whole tribute was curated by Prof. Santiago Fouz Hernández of the University of Durham and Betty Bigas, multi-disciplinary artist and daughter of Bigas Luna.
The screening of La teta y la luna was introduced by Dr Abigail Loxham, University of Liverpool and she and Prof. Hernández conducted a Q&A/discussion after the screening. Unfortunately I could only stay for the first half of this. The screening used an archive 35mm print from Metro Tartan and on the big screen in Cinema One at HOME we noted all the problems with an aged film print but also the real pleasure of watching a well-made ‘film’.
The two previous films in the trilogy Jamón, jamón (1992) and Huevos de oro (1993) were set in Aragon and Alicante respectively but in La teta y la luna the setting is the coast of Catalunya. Like the other two films, La teta y la luna is also concerned with ideas about masculinity and identity presented through comedy and a celebration of eroticism in cinema. The narrative is presented through the eyes and voiceover of Tete (Biel Durán), a nine-year old boy who feels threatened on two fronts – first by his father’s insistence in instilling him with the fearlessness of machismo and secondly with his possible displacement from his close relationship with his mother prompted by the imminent arrival of a younger brother. Tete’s ‘test’ set by his father is to be the boy (enxaneta) who has to climb to the top of the human tower (castell) formed by the local men in an annual local celebration. His fear of doing this becomes displaced into an obsession with his mother’s breasts. If he loses these to his baby brother, he feels he must find another pair of equally fine breasts to take their place.
Tete’s quest takes him to a local carnival show by the sea where he discovers Estrellita (Mathilda May) a beautiful Portuguese dancer who performs with her French husband Maurice (Gérard Darmon) in a variety act. She dances and he farts while astride his motorbike. His farts are very controlled and he uses them to perform stunts. (I’m reminded of that other French entertainer, Le Pétomane (1857-1945) whose family were actually from Catalunya.) Tete discovers where Estrellita and Maurice have their caravan and he spies on them. But he soon realises he has a rival, a young Andalusian flamenco singer named Miguel (Miguel Poveda). I won’t go into more detail on the plot but as we might expect, Tete is exposed to a number of breasts of different shapes and sizes and he will eventually conquer his fear of heights in climbing the human tower.
Before I engage with the introduction and Q&A, I’d like to just share a couple of my own thoughts. I remember watching Jamón, jamón, mostly for the early film appearances of Penélope Cruz (her first) and Javier Bardem. I don’t remember Huevos de oro but I may well have seen it and similarly I can’t be sure about an earlier watch for La teta y la luna. But I can be sure that I enjoyed both Jamón, jamón and La teta y la luna. All three films were photographed by José Luis Alcaine, the last two in ‘Scope. The cast members are all accomplished in these kinds of roles and freely enter the playfulness of Luna’s comic eroticism. Mathilda May trained as a ballerina – I’m not sure if Gérard Darmon ever trained as a flatulist. All the films received an 18 certificate in the UK and YouTube has attempted to certificate the clips that have been uploaded. It seems sad to me that a film with naked breasts could be seen as ‘offensive’ or harmful to younger viewers. Bigas Luna pokes fun at this I think with a surrealist sequence in which Estrellita spectacularly lactates into Tete’s mouth much as wine might be poured from on high from a large flask. There are many other similar visual jokes. Tete’s voyeurism also leads him to believe that women need to be ‘filled’ by their partners before they can produce more milk. Maurice is now impotent so Estrellita needs to be ‘filled’ by Miguel.
The great strength of the film is that everything happens at pace and the rudimentary plot is played out in 90 minutes or less. There is just about enough time to think about identity issues. The title refers to Tete’s appeal to the moon to help him find new breasts. He imagines a moon scene with the flags of Spain and the European Community as it was then. Estrellita’s Portuguese identity is not really highlighted but much is made of Miguel’s Andalusian background and Maurice’s ‘Frenchness’ and Catalunya is represented ahead of Spanish identity as such.
Listening back to the Intro, Abigail Loxham crammed a great deal into her short time allocation. She described the film as a ‘Freudian family melodrama’ and emphasised that Bigas Luna’s main point seemed to be to equate masculinity and nationalism and to see both as inflexible and needing to be treated in effect by feminisation and pluralism. She also noted that although he set this third film in Catalunya, it was not in the urban sophistication of Barcelona but in the pluralist and carnivalesque seaside camp site. She made the point that narrating the film through the child enable Luna to make his points about sexuality and inflexible masculinity without prejudicing the representation of the female characters. I’ve paraphrased what she said and I hope I’ve understood the points. She also commented on how the film, though nearly a quarter of a century old now seems timely as we consider where nationalism is taking the UK (England?) as well as other parts of Europe in respect of Brexit. I’m not sure about the feminine aspect though since we seem to be saddled with the most inflexible female leader (oddly also a ‘May’)!
In the Q&A there was a more detailed discussion of ideas about national identity and Prof. Hernández made several interesting comments about the trilogy of films which made me wish I’d been able to view the other two films this week. He discussed ‘passion’ in the film, relating it back to Loxham’s reference to a similar trilogy of plays by Lorca. It occurred to me then just how much red is used in the film (see the stills above). He also said that he was writing about Bigas Luna at the moment (and he praised Abigail Loxham’s work on Luna). After the screening I looked up the three Spanish film studies texts in my library and was surprised to find that Bigas Luna was completely ignored in one, briefly referenced in another and discussed mainly in respect to Javier Bardem’s involvement in the trilogy. I was surprised that Luna was not recognised in the way he (much like Almodóvar) took his early ideas from soft porn into mainstream films, developing the humour and making possible a deeper understanding of aspects of sexuality. I enjoyed the film and I’ll look out for opportunities to see the other parts of the trilogy.