Una Mujer Fantástica – A Fantastic Woman

The word is dignity.

Daniela Vega imbues Marina with such dignity, and it makes beautiful viewing. It’s a stunning, delicate performance which deserves all the plaudits it is receiving.

The film is rooted in the truth of Marina’s situation, the resilience she finds to deal with her travails and the choices she makes as to when to comply and when to stand up for herself. The ordinariness of her life exists side by side with the extraordinariness of her situation, and director Sebastián Lelio has woven a beautiful, fantastic tale about a very fantastic woman. It was an honour to meet her.

Arrebato – Rapture

I’ve just about picked my jaw up off the floor. I was not expecting anything like that! That’s what happens when you book tickets weeks in advance, then don’t check up on what you’re going to see.

In the pre-screening introduction, I learned that Arrebato was a movie which had immense difficulties in filming, had a short run, and disappeared into oblivion before becoming something of a cult.

It’s a film which can’t properly be described, as it needs to be seen – or better, experienced – first hand. It’s certainly nothing I would have picked out on my own, but that’s the beauty of film festivals.

Filmmaking is a drug. Filmmakers are vampires.

La propera pell – The Next Skin

We first meet troubled teenager Leo causing havoc at his care home, and follow him as he is reunited with his mother after a period of eight years, during which he has been reported as missing. He also has amnesia, and so cannot be sure that the woman he meets is actually his mother, nor help to fill in the gaps in those eight years. As the mother tiptoes around him as he settles, and other friends and family interact with him, doubts emerge as to his true identity.

What I liked about this was the way I found myself changing my mind as to the actual truth, without getting annoyed at the film for doing this in an arbitrary flip-flop way. I was desperately trying to hold on to all the important points I thought I had noticed, trying to explain away those which didn’t make sense, deciding on what I thought had actually happened – and so I was kept on my toes.

It helped that Emma Suárez and Sergi Lopez were present among the cast, as I enjoy watching them on screen.

Perhaps the very last images were unnecessary – I would rather it had finished about 30 seconds earlier – but enjoyable nevertheless.

Siete días de enero – Seven Days in January 

Siete días de enero begins in a documentary style, with news reels and on-screen text outlining the events which are about to be dramatized in the film. It may seem like a strange choice, telling the audience the important points beforehand, but in reality this would have been for contemporary Spanish audiences little more than a quiet reminder of what happened just two years previous to the film being originally released in 1979.

For someone like myself, who was unaware of events, the introduction alone was an eye opener, and the subsequent retelling of events in narrative form proved to be very powerful.

Screened in a grainy print, the feel of the late 1970s was present from the start. We are introduced to those who were on the right of Spanish political feeling at a family wedding – clearly wealthy, well-connected families, including the church and the military. The opposition voice is provided by union workers and leaders, together with the solicitors representing them. Their family is the collective here, we don’t see them at home in domestic situations, but with colleagues and comrades.

The sympathies of director Juan Antonio Bardem (himself a Communist) are unequivocal, and although we see why the younger right wing protagonists act in the way they do, our sympathies are with the socialists who are the victims of outrageous violence, a violence which proved to be the catalyst for significant change in Spanish politics.

I was aware of the post-Franco regime change but not of the details, and although some of the roles are played by non-professional or apparently first-time actors, I found this to be a very moving and powerful film.

Pasaje de vida – Safe Passage (+Q&A)

A Spanish/Argentine co-production which more or less successfully handles leaps of time from the Argentina of the 1970s to present day Spain by some very astute casting and camera shots.

Miguel (Miguel Ángel Solá) is visited by his son in hospital; his disorientation and loss of memory due to dementia leave him asking questions about people unknown to his son Mario. As the younger man looks for answers, we see Miguel in his younger years (now played by Chino Darín) and his involvement in union resistance to the government in Buenos Aires in the seventies.

If you are looking for the big picture of Argentina in this era however, you won’t find it. What we have is a family story, a personal story, a story of a couple, and how the period affected them in their younger days. The fact that it’s about the people actually made it a much more interesting film, and one which offers a different approach to the historical dramas generally set in this time period.

After the screening, director Diego Corsini spoke in some depth about how the previous Argentine government partially funded the film but how the current government (much less liberal) is quietly turning away from it. He spoke about how the film is not directly a biography of his parents, but that much of the material is taken from things which happened to his parents and their compatriots at the time – and I think this personal touch shows.

Corsini was delighted at the full house which turned out for his film, and it certainly deserves to be seen by a large audience.

 

Cien años de perdon – To steal from a thief 

The annual VIVA Spanish and Latin American Film Festival swung into life this evening at HOME with a feature and a short, both of which were reminiscent of classic films from decades past, yet which also stood up very firmly in their own right. They are also linked by a theme.

The short, Nini, is clearly influenced in tone by Jules Dassin’s Rififi, with a silent heist at its centre. The economic situation in Spain is the reason the group is compelled to steal to improve their lives – we see at the end that their ill-gotten gains are put to sensible, positive use, and don’t get the impression that they are career criminals. It was tense, funny and clever, and (with the exception of the last few minutes) entirely dialogue free.

The main feature, Cien años de perdon, also features a heist, this time in the form of a bank robbery. The hapless crooks find their plans thwarted by heavy rain, and although Dog Day Afternoon is set in the New York heat, it is reminiscent at times of the same shambolic atmosphere.

It’s made very clear from the start that the bank’s customers are victims of both Spain’s economic hardship and the ruthless operations of financial institutions, and in fact robbing the bank of its money is not the prime motivator for the criminals. We see them do good things for the customers who they hold hostage for a time, and learn about political corruption among government representatives high up in the country’s ruling elite.

It’s no surprise then that, part way through the movie, I found myself kind of wanting them to succeed at their crime – they’re not perfect people by any stretch, but it didn’t seem fair if they weren’t allowed to get away with it. It helped that four good performances gave credence (and humour) to some of the gang – Luis Tosar and Rodrigo De la Serna in particular.

You’ll need to see the film for yourself to find out who (if anyone) escapes judgement – and it’s funnier than this trailer suggests!

Neruda

Director Pablo Larraín gives Chilean poet Pablo Neruda a taste of his own magical reality by mixing elements of Neruda’s real life with a fictional police officer who is on his trail.

As can be expected, Gael García Bernal beautifully inhabits the self-aware, self-aggrandising fictional sleuth, hot on the trail of Neruda, a fugitive in his own country as a member of the Communist Party.

It’s a clever mix which worked really well for so many LFF audiences and which I appreciated a lot. I generally find it difficult to go along with this kind of magical realism though, and I struggled to actively enjoy the film, despite good central performances. There were some glaringly obvious and ropey false backgrounds in the vehicle scenes too – perhaps this was to enhance the strange reality of the film, but I’m not so sure I can give them the benefit of the doubt.

Saved from total disappointment by Bernal’s performance.

El Clan – The Clan

A film based on real-life events in the Argentina of the 1980s, which intersperses odd moments of original news footage with the drama.

What I recall from news at the time is that Argentina had its fair share of mafia-style and government corruption, and this is the setting for this story. The clan of the title kidnaps people in return for money, and we see the various levels of involvement of the parents and mostly grown children of the family. But while focussing so much on the tight environment of the family, the wider situation in the country is left drifting.

There’s a lot of mirrors and glass reflections shining a light on the characters, asking them to look at themselves – but the invitation to Argentina to reflect on its less than perfect past is vague.

It’s not often I think a film isn’t heavy-handed enough, but perhaps this is one of those times.

 

El Sur – The South

Fascinating in many ways.

Released in 1983, this is half of what director Víctor Erice  (The Spirit of the Beehive) originally envisaged. It would appear that financial issues prevented filming the full script, and the director was left to make what he could from what had been filmed.

And while, at the end, there is a definite feeling that there is more to come, the film which exists is exquisite in its simplicity and lacks nothing.

The focus of the story is Estrella, a young girl observing the unhappiness in her parents’ marriage without truly understanding the depths of the situation. Things happen elsewhere, or in the past, and both we and Estrella only understand them through what is told to us, never seen by us. It captures beautifully the innocence and semi-understanding of youth, against the backdrop of domesticity and the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War.

The colour palette is drab, reflecting a very different Spain from the one we perhaps expect – the Spain of the South (El Sur). Estrella also has dreams of what the South (her father’s birthplace) is like, and we have glimpses of this through visits from relatives with their strange accent, and picture postcards of flamenco dancing and flowers. We have none of that in the cold, wet, constantly autumnal north, which sits so perfectly with Estrella’s attempts to understand her father’s unhappiness.

Estrella is played in her teenage years by Icíar Bollaín, whose work as director of También la Lluvia I’ve admired since first seeing it; I hadn’t realised she was also an actress!

Los abrazos rotos – Broken Embraces (+ podcast)

There’s a lot of Pedro Almodóvar around right now – a number of venues have been hosting retrospectives of his work in the run up to his latest film, Julieta – one of these venues being London’s Curzon Bloomsbury.

As part of its mini-retrospective, Curzon invited the Cinematologists podcast to record its latest episode there following a screening of Almodóvar’s 2009 release Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos), and as I had nothing better to do on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I went along to see the film and meet up Dario and Neil, the voices and brains behind the podcast.

The guys are both lecturers in film at universities in the south of England, and what I really appreciate most about their podcasts is that it is not for reviewing film but for exploring it. Each podcast features an introduction to the screening, a Q&A with the audience afterwards, and interviews with other knowledgeable people on themes related to the film under discussion. Listening to the podcast has introduced me to some really interesting films which I would have missed – Seconds, The Last Detail, Orson Welles’ The Trial to name just three, and it was great to meet them in person instead of the usual twitter exchanges.

Take my advice – if you have an interest in film, subscribe and listen!

As for Broken Embraces, well it’s not top-notch Almodóvar, but it is an interesting exploration of film-making and the people involved in it. Having not seen it since it was first released, I’d forgotten just how much it references Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and that interested me a lot – more so than the film itself, to be honest.