This intriguing film would make an interesting double bill with María y el Araña. I actually saw it before the Argentinian film and at first I thought it was ‘modest’, ‘slight’ even. On reflection it is more interesting than that suggests and it may be that thinking about María in the barrio in Buenos Aires has prompted me to rethink life for a middle-class teen in Quito.
The ‘holiday’ of the title is taken by Juan Pablo, a quiet and seemingly withdrawn 16 year-old from the European middle class, who is deposited by his mother with his uncle’s family in their hacienda in the Andes. The timing is important. This is just before a financial crisis in Ecuador in 1999 and ‘Juampi’ (a family nickname) discovers that his uncle is in serious trouble as President of a bank that has shut its doors and refused to pay out to deposit-holders. Juampi is mocked by his boorish male cousins but finds some sympathy with his female cousin and her girlfriend. Circumstances lead him to help the escape of a Quechuan (Amerindian) youth being threatened by Juampi’s uncle’s men. Through his developing friendship with this young man (also called Juan Pablo) we discover that Juampi is gay, although he only reveals this directly to his sketchbook. The narrative sees Juampi learn more about the lives of people he hasn’t met before and to visit a ‘black metal’ music event before it is broken up by security forces. In his mother’s apartment block, Juampi takes his friend up onto the roof to see the cityscape from a new perspective.
Shot in 2.35:1 Feriado is mainly an intimate drama although one scene by a beautiful waterfall and the scenes of the city at night do make good use of the widescreen. Juan Arregui plays Juampi as very quiet in the opening scenes, but perhaps he just seems so because his cousins are so brash. As he comes out of his shell he gradually becomes more assertive. In taking on sexuality, race and class as dimensions of a traditional ‘coming of age’ youth picture, director Diego Araujo might seem to be overloading his feature, but the ‘modest’ style of the film works and it does enough in 82 minutes to be successful – and the first Ecuadorean film to be officially selected for Berlin in 2014. It’s also impressive as a first feature for the director (see the official website).
I couldn’t find any festival coverage of this film (which was screened at several important festivals) – which surprised me as this was perhaps the most affecting of the films over the ¡Viva! weekend. It’s a youth picture and coming of age story crossed with a family melodrama and presented almost as social realism but with fabulous music and an element of ‘performance’ built into the narrative.
The second screening of the film was preceded by a very useful presentation on ‘The Latin American City in Cinema’ by James Scorer of Manchester University. He explained that the barrio (shanty town) where the central character lives is close to Puerto Madero, one of the newly renovated and now upmarket districts of Buenos Aires. An intelligent young woman, María is soon to finish elementary school and will be offered a scholarship to a high school – a potential way out of the barrio. She lives with her grandmother in a small shack which is shared with Garrido, the grandmother’s younger ‘companion’. María gives out junk mail on the subway system, often meeting an older friend who sells biscuits. One day she meets ‘Araña’, an older teenage boy who wears a Spider-Man hoodie and performs juggling and other tricks on the subway trains.
María is played by a non-professional, Florencia Salas, who has a smile to break hearts. Araña (Diego Vejezzi) is a similarly attractive and engaging young character. All seems set for a sweet teen romance, but as the Buenos Aires Herald puts it: ” . . . as the film unfolds, another story comes to the foreground, a story of subjugation and hidden pain”. The narrative develops in ways that are perhaps predictable but the presentation of the story is successful in representing a range of emotions – including a surprising and in some ways quite optimistic ending which is nevertheless underpinned by the knowledge that the lives of the young people in the barrio are still constrained by the failures of adults, both in the barrios and in the wider civil society of the city, to protect and nurture young people.
I was impressed by the subtle ways in which some aspects of the narrative are developed. Maria’s teacher knows something is wrong and expresses it with the slightest of looks askance. There are also some very strong visuals as befits a melodrama. The skill is in bringing these different elements together smoothly. I enjoyed the music in the film very much. It is mostly diegetic performed by bands in the shanty town and buskers on the subway. The music and the cinematography heighten the emotional pull of the film by contrasting the vibrancy of the performances with the restrictions of life in the barrio.
Director María Victoria Menis has made other films that have got some recognition outside Argentina, mainly in France (this is a French co-production) and I think that María y el Araña deserves to be seen more widely as well. The long trailer here which includes some extended scenes gives a good idea of how the film works. Most of what I discovered about the film came from the film’s Facebook page and the Argentinian production company’s ‘official website’.
Long trailer (minimal dialogue, no subtitles):
Writer-director Alice Rohrwacher made a strong début with her 2011 film Corpo celeste (Heavenly Body) which showed in Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, winning a prize. Although Artificial Eye released the film in the UK in 2012, it got little exposure and I missed it. I’ll certainly seek it out after seeing her new film The Wonders. I understand that both films have something of an autobiographical influence and the director’s sister Alba Rohrwacher, well-known on Italian screens, appears in The Wonders.
Alice Rohrwacher has an Italian mother and a German father who was a beekeeper. These are all part of the ‘narrative material’ of The Wonders. I find it difficult to categorise this film. There are strong elements of neo-realism, sometimes developed in surprising ways, and also moments of if not ‘magic realism’, at least something vaguely spiritual or fantastical. It’s also funny, dramatic and very moving. In genre terms I suppose it is a ‘coming of age’ narrative, but just as importantly it is a commentary on aspects of contemporary society – delivered with humour but also acuity. The Wonders won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2014, but I’ve also seen reviews that describe it as ‘slight’. I couldn’t disagree more.
The family at the centre of the film comprises an Italian mother, Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher), a German father (Belgian actor Sam Louwick) who keeps bees in the organic/’natural’/’bio’ manner, their four young daughters and Coco a family friend (also German, I think). It isn’t clear if they are squatting on the land or renting it. Clearly they don’t have much money and the bulk of the work seems to be organised by Wolfgang, but actually carried out by the eldest daughter Gelsomina. I’m not sure how old she is meant to be – 12-13 perhaps? The ‘business’ has all kinds of problems, but the two ‘disruptions’ that drive the narrative are a reality TV show, ‘The Wonders’, and the arrival of a 14 year-old boy seemingly as cheap labour on some kind of rehabilitation/probation scheme (he’s German as well). The reality show is a brilliant satire of Italian TV in which Monica Bellucci in a long white wig is a kind of carnival queen looking for colourful locals who in this part of coastal Tuscany can represent the farming community and evoke the ancient Etruscan culture. Wolfgang ignores the show but Gelsomina is entranced and secretly registers the family for the show. The boy says very little but entrances the girls with his ability to whistle.
“Le meraviglie is a film about the countryside, about the somewhat peculiar love between a father and his daughters, about missing male sons, about animals and little people that live in the television. It is a film in the viterbese dialect, but when the characters are angry, they even respond sometimes in French and German. Le meraviglie is also a fable.” (Alice Rohrwacher in the Press Notes)
I think that the film can be enjoyed simply on the level of the coming of age/family story (which does have a slight ‘twist’ at the end) but its real strength is Rohrwacher’s commentary on being an outsider – or an outsider community. She stresses that her setting is a specific region of Italy, where Tuscany, Lazio and Umbria meet and where dialect is still important and mingles with the languages of migrants. She points out that though many think of rural areas as somehow more ‘pure’ and monocultural, they are in this region likely to include the mixed family groups of which this family is representative. (Alexandra Lungu who plays Gelsomina comes from a Romanian family.) But it is more than just a story of migrations. Rohrwacher also points to the marginal position of Wolfgang and Angelica in terms of politics and lifestyles:
“They are people that arrived in the country as a political choice because in the cities there were no more jobs and years of demonstrations had been stifled by violence and disillusionment. So they read books, learned to make a vegetable garden with handbooks, tried hard, and fought the seasons alone. They are all ex-somethings, with different languages, distant pasts, but with common ideals. I have met many families like this in Italy, but also in France, in Greece. Small communities untethered to the rest, with autonomous rules and a parallel life to that which we read about in the newspaper. But it is not a simple life: you have to work hard and it is difficulty to survive without the comfort of belonging to a movement. You are not a true farmer because you are not from the land, but you can also not be defined as a city person because you have severed ties to the city. You are not hippies because you break your back from sun-up to sundown, but you are also not agricultural entrepreneurs because you reject the use of more efficient agricultural technology in the name of a healthier life. Not having a movement, a definition which can be ascribed from the outside, all that remains is one word: family.”
I realised while watching the film that I’d seen another film about a struggling family living on the land. Will It Snow For Christmas? (France 1996, dir. Sandrine Veysset) is a much bleaker and more realist film but it would be interesting to compare them. I’m still thinking through my readings of The Wonders – there are further remarks from Alice Rohrwacher about the post-1968 generation and conflicting ideas about what the changes post-1968 might mean – but I think it is also worth exploring what the film means in terms of the large number of migrants from Africa now entering Italy as the access point to Europe. I’ll definitely be coming back to this film which has been acquired for a UK release by Soda Pictures.
As a late night film on TV this was an undemanding but generally enjoyable watch. I watched it because of Felicity Jones and she and Jessica Brown Findlay as the two leads both give spirited performances. On reflection, the film offers a case study in the problems facing British filmmakers. There are quite a few films like this, offering vehicles for some talented performers and technicians but also being deeply flawed because of poor scripts. I try not to moan about scripts – I’m sure they are difficult to write and I couldn’t write one. However, the relatively inexperienced Tamzin Rafn doesn’t seem to have had much support here. The producers must take some of the responsibility.
Ms Rafn has stated that she was inspired by the example of Diablo Cody who developed the script for Juno (Canada/US 2007) after beginning to write autobiographically about her life as a stripper. Rafn took on board the idea of writing about what she knew and produced a script featuring a ‘naughty girl’ in a seaside town. From this interview it is clear that the script was gradually changed in pre-production and what began as a ‘cuckoo in the nest’ domestic comedy became more about the relationship between two young women. The film begins with Emelia (Jessica Brown Findlay) as a rather mysterious but vivacious 17 year-old taken on as a cleaner in a small private hotel owned by Jonathan, the German writer of a single bestselling novel (Sebastian Koch), his shrewish wife Joa played by Julia Ormond, bookish daughter Beth (Felicity Jones) and her much younger sister Posy. Emelia is witty and tantalising and has soon entranced the writer and Beth, pushed Joa almost to the edge and amused Posy. Emelia is later revealed to be living with her grandparents and the ‘albatross’ of the title is that she genuinely believes she is related to the writer Arthur Conan Doyle. She has left school, started taking casual jobs and wants to become a writer.
The scenario sounds familiar with the insertion of a ‘disrupting influence’ into a family which has become mired in frustration in terms of its internal relationships. The reviews and critical reaction tend to refer to this as a ‘coming of age’ story with both Emelia and Beth as 17/18 year-olds. The marketing of the film deliberately makes reference to David Leland’s Wish You Were Here (UK 1987). Tamzin Rafn tells us that Leland himself sent an encouraging message after the film’s Edinburgh screening. Leland made several very good films and TV plays about young people in the UK and Rafn finds parallels between her own experience and that of Emily Lloyd as Leland’s young heroine in a 1950s South Coast town. Both films make use of Bert Hardy’s iconic image of freedom and sexual liberation for holidaymakers in Blackpool – yet the young women in both films are residents not ‘grockles’.
And here is the second problem for the film. It was made by CinemaNX the company that managed the investment-funding of the Isle of Man Film Commission and its first and best-known credit was Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles (US/UK 2009) which used several key locations on the island. I think it has now been taken over by Pinewood Studios. The Isle of Man is a fabulous location with a range of landscapes and many buildings that can stand in for a variety of locations – as they did for a New York theatre in the 1930s in the Linklater film. In Albatross the key location is the pretty harbour of Peel. For those of you outside the UK, the Isle of Man sits in the Irish Sea almost equidistant from England, Scotland and Ireland. Its glorious scenery reflects its geographical location, though it could also represent West Wales or the Cornish/Devon coast. But it doesn’t look like the coast further east where I take Albatross to be set. Landscape does matter. More important for the narrative perhaps, Emilia and Beth feel isolated in this ‘dump’ of a South Coast town. This is fine, but unlike Emily Lloyd in the 195os, 17 year-olds today could easily catch a train or hitch a lift to London at any time. Think how much more ‘isolated’ they would be located on the Isle of Man or the coast of Scotland or Northern Ireland when it comes to one of the key sequences – Beth’s visit to Oxford for a university interview. A decent script would use the sense of place. The idea of the writer who buys a hotel in a quiet seaside town could work quite well – I’ve seen some films set on Scottish islands that do this.
The film eventually becomes about the two very different young women and many reviews compared the film to Pawel Pawlikowski’s My Summer of Love (UK 2004) with Emily Blunt and Natalie Press. The comparison doesn’t favour Albatross. My first thoughts turned to Sandra Golbacher’s underrated Me Without You (UK 2001) with Anna Friel and Michelle Williams. Again, the comparison doesn’t do the script of Albatross very many favours. It’s a shame because the performers are generally very good, including the wonderful Peter Vaughan as Emilia’s granddad. The direction is fine by Niall MacCormick and the ‘Scope cinematography by Swedish(?) cinematographer Jan Jonaeus shows off the locations very well. The music score is lively – but there is only so much you can do with characters who don’t have much to say that is interesting.
My initial focus was Felicity Jones. Here she plays a character much younger than her real age and it only showed a couple of times. This film completed a trio of youth pictures following Cemetery Junction (UK 2010) and SoulBoy (UK 2010), both ‘period’ stories. Also in 2011 she was the lead in Chalet Girl, an enjoyable romantic social comedy which perhaps I’ll write about later. Felicity Jones has already clocked up an impressive list of film and TV credits and is now beginning to appear in more international films following her The Amazing Spider-Man 2 appearance in 2014. This year she is opposite Jonah Hill and James Franco in the re-titled US film Jill. She has also completed the next Eran Creevy film Autobahn made in Germany with US money. I’m looking forward to that. Jones has been all over the US chat shows in the last few years and she is clearly going places. She’s clearly bright and hard-working and distinctive. I hope she can maintain that persona.
Meanwhile Jessica Brown Findlay, who is actually the lead in Albatross, hasn’t quite capitalised on her high profile in Downton Abbey as yet but she is clearly talented too. But then so was Julia Ormond whose reign as a lead in Hollywood films was altogether too brief in the mid-1990s. Now she’s a character actor (in a thankless role here, I think).
See all three of the British actors (I couldn’t find any reason why Sebastian Koch was cast as the author, unless it was an attempt to sell the film in Europe) in this trailer: