Friday, 25 February 2011

Pa negre / Black Bread (2010)

Director: Agustí Villaronga
Screenwriter: Agustí Villaronga, based on the book by Emili Teixidor
Cast: Francesc Colomer, Marina Comas, Nora Navas, Roger Casamajor, Laia Marull, Eduard Fernández, Sergi López.
Availability: the film is due out on DVD (with optional English subtitles) in Spain in March, and is currently available on the streaming site Filmin, here.

The silent knowledge of unquiet graves necessarily produced a devastating schism between public and private memory in Spain’ –Helen Graham (2005: 137)

Note: no spoilers included.
     Pa negre was the big winner at this year’s Goya awards, picking up nine Goyas (Best Film, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Actress (Navas), Best Supporting Actress (Marull), Best New Actor (Colomer), and Best New Actress (Comas)) and it became the first film in Catalan to win Best Film. Originally released in Spain in October 2010, its Goya triumph saw it re-released in cinemas whereupon it entered the box office top ten. It was not just the Spanish film industry that rewarded the film, as the end of year survey of forty national critics in Fotogramas saw it rated as the best Spanish film of the year, again the first time that a Catalan film had come top (February 2011).
     The film takes a child’s-eye view (Andreu –played by Colomer) of the post-Civil War goings-on in a small, isolated, rural village, surrounded by forest, in Catalonia. That the film takes the perspective of a child (Andreu is in every scene and where he is not directly part of the action the viewer is nonetheless aware of him as an observer of the world of adults: for example, he often either appears in the foreground -out of sight of his parents, or other relatives- or as a shadowy figure towards the back of the shot) recalls earlier Spanish films set in similar circumstances such as El espíritu de la colmena / Spirit of the Beehive (Erice, 1973), El espinazo del diablo / The Devil’s Backbone (del Toro, 2001), and El laberinto del fauno / Pan’s Labyrinth (del Toro, 2006). As with those films, the child protagonist comes from a family that was on the losing side of the Civil War. The film illustrates the gap between what children see and what they understand, and also explores Andreu’s growing realisation that there is a gap between what adults say and what is true, and that his parents are not infallible. Another similarity with the earlier films is the use of ‘fantastic’ elements. Villaronga describes his film as ‘a drama with elements of the thriller and the fantastic. It starts like a crime film and then the fantastic part appears, but not like in El laberinto del fauno. Through the children we enter into the world of the imagination, of dreams’ (Vall 2010: 37 [my translation]).
      Pa negre is perhaps closer to El espíritu de la colmena than to either of del Toro’s films, at least insofar as Andreu’s initial interpretation of events is filtered through his knowledge of local myth and legend; Ana (Ana Torrent) interprets the appearance of the army deserter through her recent experience of watching Frankenstein in Erice’s film, and similarly in Pa negre Andreu attributes the murders that open the film to ‘Pitorliua’, a ghost that is said to haunt the surrounding forest. This is one of the things that makes Pa negre something other than just another Civil War (or post-War film), because a key difference between Pa negre and the other films mentioned is that Villaronga’s film is not ostensibly about the Civil War or its aftermath. Rather it is a story of betrayals, ambiguous personal relationships, and infantile universes that contain both innocence and monstrosity, that could transpire in other times and places; very little is made of the period itself, and a lot of the power relations and petty jealousies and rivalries pre-date the War (for example, the rivalry between Andreu’s father (Casamajor) and the local mayor (López) over Andreu’s mother (Navas) has clearly been going on for a very long time). This is underlined after Andreu’s discovery of the bodies at the start of the film when one of the men in the bar makes a comment along the lines of ‘what goes around comes around’; unacknowledged events have been festering within the community and are now coming to the surface, and ‘Pitorliua’ is not quite what (or who) Andreu has been led to believe.
       Despite the arguable lack of emphasis on the period, the film is nonetheless rooted in a specific place from the very first sequence, one of the most brutal film openings I have seen for quite some time. I don’t want to spoil the plot for those who haven’t yet seen the film. I watched it knowing very little about it and I think that the film was all the more effective because of that, so I’m going to give as few details as possible. But the opening of the film (in which we see a father and son murdered, and Andreu's discovery of their bodies) and its use of landscape and location are the first indication of how closed and isolated this community is, and also of the otherworldliness that permeates the film. Central to this otherworldliness is the forest, which is revealed as a place of enchantment and refuge, but also of intense fear. Villaronga notes that there is an evolution to how the forest is presented in terms of colour (the main palette of the film consists of shades of green, bluish greys), and which arguably could be said to mirror Andreu’s fall from innocence into 'enlightenment'; the forest starts out illuminated in golden light, but by the end is grey and dark (Iglesias and Kovacsics 2010: 13).
      I may revisit the film on the blog in the future when more people will (hopefully) have seen it, and also when I have got into a better rhythm with my writing (this feels a bit clunky to me). In the meantime I will just say that having seen the film, the Goya triumph is completely understandable. The cast is excellent, and Colomer and Comas (who plays Andreu's cousin, Nuria) thoroughly deserve their ‘newcomer’ Goyas –given how much of the film rests on their performances, it would have been a disaster if they weren’t up to the task. Of the adult cast, I was already familiar with Marull, Fernández, and López, but had never seen Nora Navas before. I will certainly keep an eye out for her appearances in the future –every emotion that her character feels is etched upon her face in what is a heartbreaking performance (and it is largely due to her performance that the last line of the film is so devastating).

Links and further reading:
Official website -There doesn’t yet seem to be a subtitled trailer but here you can see the trailer either in the original Catalan or dubbed into Castilian Spanish. The music and visuals give a good sense of the atmosphere of the film even if you can't understand what is being said.
Boyero, C. (2010) –‘Los niños sombríos de Villaronga', El País, 23rd September.
Costa, J. (2010) –‘Donde viven los monstruos’, El País, 15th October.
Graham, H. (2005) –The Spanish Civil War: A very short introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Iglesias, E. and V. Kovacsics (2010) –‘Agustí Villaronga: “Me interesa esa devastación de la guerra que afecta a la moral”’, Cahiers du cinéma España, no.37, September, pp.12-13.
Monterde, J.E. (2010) –‘El monstruo moral’, Cahiers du cinéma España, no.38, October, pp.33-34.
Vall, P. (2010) –‘La Guerra de los niños’, Fotogramas, October, pp.36-37.
Vidal, N. (2010) –'Pa negre', Fotogramas, October, p.16.