Wednesday 20 November 2013

Guest Post: Michael Pattison - Notes on Some Spanish Films at the Seville European Film Festival

     Though their country’s economic plight worsens daily, Spanish filmmakers are beginning to assess and get to grips with a political climate that is, in the final analysis, antagonistic to artistic endeavour. While films ineluctably express the complex, contradictory tensions that characterise the social context in which they are made, the aim and hope is that any historical period finds its artistic match: those works that grasp the matter at hand, embrace the difficulties ahead, and refuse to evade the work to be done. To this end, there were a significant number of Spanish films at the tenth Seville European Film Festival (SEFF) whose general focus and political persuasion spoke of a palpable discontent with regard to the current state of things. Not every film will be politically charged, of course, and so it is to SEFF’s credit that it waded through what I presume to be a large swamp of mediocrity in order to present, by and large, the strong selection it finally offered. These works speak to the present precisely because they convey an understanding – to varying degrees – of how they relate to the unfolding historical moment.

Costa da morte / Coast of Death
     I have written elsewhere here and here   on Lois Patiño’s Costa da Morte, but some further remarks won’t go amiss (I first saw the film in Locarno in August, and again at the Viennale prior to my arrival in Seville). An essay film on the eponymous Galician coastline – named so because of its history of shipwrecks – Patiño’s debut feature frequently surveys its region from afar, zoomed-in so as to flatten its landscapes and thereby deny a more visually harmonious vantage point. There’s something unnatural about such optical choices: as humans, we cannot, after all, get a closer look at an object without telescopic aid or without physically moving to a closer proximity. Consequently, the film enables an unspoken but ongoing commentary on its own function: in denying itself and its audience a postcard-friendly view of the Coast of Death, it suggests a better understanding of these locales might come from a more idiosyncratic view. By flattening the landscape in such a way, Patiño’s film pits a multiplicity of histories against one another, privileging none and including all. Just as every landscape is the sum of its parts, so the present is the sum of its pasts. Note the plural: at no point in history has there been a moment without contradictions – the remnants of a bygone time, the formations of an era to come. 

El Futuro / The Future
     El Futuro takes an aesthetically different approach to history. Set in the immediate aftermath of Spain’s 1982 General Election – which was won by the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party – Luis López Carrasco’s debut feature confines itself to a house party attended by a group of increasingly inebriated twenty- and thirty-somethings hell-bent on indulging the post-Franco night away. When I saw the film at Locarno in August I couldn’t write the soundtrack list in its end credits down fast enough: this boasts an infectious selection of the Euro-synth and -punk of the period, and lends the narrative a real verve. There’s something futuristic about electronic music, of course, and yet ’80s synth – as well as other fashions from that decade – seems to have dated quicker than most. Likewise, the forward-thinking euphoria facilitated by a socialist party’s assumption of governmental responsibilities now seems a distant memory: López Carrasco’s ironically-named film is anything but optimistic, and the textured grain of his 16mm compositions reminds us at every turn of its own retrospection. Every smile, laugh and suggestion of a future appears as a ghost prohibited today by Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy’s enforced austerity.

El triste olor de la carne / The Sad Smell of Flesh
    Mariano Rajoy is a secondary character in El triste olor de la carne, the second feature by Cristóbal Arteaga Roza. Having his first state-of-the-nation address in February this year overheard in intermittent snippets here recalls Andrew Dominik’s similar employment of Barack Obama soundbites in Killing Them Softly (2012). Unlike that film, however, El triste olor de la carne has no time for allegory: a single-take trudge through Madrid’s urban sprawl, it takes one citizen’s financial loss to its logical, literal and inevitable (if no less powerful) conclusion. Said citizen is Alfredo (Alfredo Rodríguez), an uncanny cross between Boris Karloff and Peter Capaldi, his visibly fatigued face saying more than the character ever does, as he tries desperately to defer a meeting with the bailiffs who are coming to repossess his home.
     When a recession begins to affect the perfect image of a white middle-class nuclear family, you know you’re in trouble. Alfredo’s burnt-out businessman is a figure of belated if bewildered acceptance, and the only resistance he can summon rings, in the end, all too true. Though some critics might feel its persistent, unbroken take results in unnecessary bouts of dead time – such as when Alfredo is driving, or else travelling on a bus or in a taxi – this is precisely the film’s strength, lingering as it does on those unbearably long passages in which unthinkable stress drains a person’s life away. Indeed, the prospect of financial collapse is now too familiar a prospect for many Spanish people that contrived dramatics are no longer necessary.

Alegrías de Cádiz / Joys of Cádiz
     Not every Spanish film at SEFF felt like it was making a significant contribution to the battle. Gonzalo García Pelayo’s Alegrías de Cádiz returns its director to filmmaking after three decades in other fields, and feels very much the product of someone lacking practice. (For a serviceably flashy take on García Pelayo’s venture into professional gambling in the 1990s, see Eduard Cortés’s The Pelayos (2012)). Anyone familiar with the director’s work – pseudo-cerebral, flesh-heavy forays into the beauty of women, the joys of sex, monogamy as a socially conditioned and therefore unnatural state, and so on – will not be surprised to hear this is a heavily indulgent work. Not without its lively moments, the film is an uneasy blend of a meta-comedy about a ménage-à-trois and a sincere essay film on Cádiz. As such, it keeps itself busy for its two-hour running time, but García Pelayo’s implication-cum-assertion, that the most interesting thing about a city is its women, seems like a perverted joke.

10.000 noches en ninguna parte / 10,000 Nights Nowhere
     Other films disappointed. 10.000 noches en ninguna parte, by Malaga-born writer-director Ramón Salazar, is a centrifugal triptych on themes of loss and – of course – love. Wide-eyed Andrés Gertrúdix plays the same character thrice, living in parallel dimensions: with a bohemian trio in Berlin, with a childhood love in Paris, and with his alcoholic mother in what I presumed to be Spain. A dull, cold visual palette – with shallow-focus camerawork – gives the film a terminally malaised look, and though a certain whimsicality forces its earlier passages along, the employment of Arvo Pärt’s overused ‘Fratres’ reveals an essentially juvenile sensibility at work. Indeed, at a certain point during the film I wrote in my notebook: these people don’t live in the same world as me – the real world, with financial pressures etc

Los chicos del puerto / The Kids from the Port
     Nor do the protagonists of Los chicos del puerto, by Alberto Morais. The film’s eponymous port is that of Valencia, and its kids are Miguel, Lola and Guillermo, three pre-teens who embark upon the ostensibly simple trek to a cemetery, to place an army jacket on the grave of the recently deceased friend of Miguel’s grandfather. The pilgrimage of course turns out to be more arduous than first assumed. The friends underestimate their bus fare; they journey to the wrong cemetery; they become lost; they grow hungry; they go broke. That one-note tone of dramatic seriousness – more familiar to French productions than to Spanish – sets in quickly: characters act not how people do, but for a desired symbolism, one which over the course of even a slim 78 minutes drains all would-be energy. Programme notes mention “sparse dialogue and a formal Bressonian minimalism”, but the invariably stilted interactions here are part of a wider filmmaking trend that may very well be indebted to Bresson but which provides too little social commentary to justify the comparison. Too many filmmakers seem to mistake this sullen, ploddingly mopey register for mysteriousness, for ambiguity, for poetry or for purity – or for any other apparently desirable trait.
     All the more refreshing, then, to watch more upbeat films like El Rayo, Un ramo de cactus and Las aventuras de Lily ojos de gato. The first of these, directed by Fran Araúgo and Ernesto de Nova, screened in SEFF’s ‘Andalusian Panorama’ section following a world-premiere at San Sebastian, and sees a defiantly high-spirited itinerant labourer trekking across Spain back to Morocco on a tractor. The second, which received its world-premiere at SEFF as part of the festival’s inaugural ‘Resistances’ strand, is a pleasing if sometimes technically amateurish comedy by Pablo Llorca, featuring a deceptively masterful central performance from Seville-born Pedro Casablanc, who has in recent years been ubiquitous on Spanish television. Casablanc’s deadpan style and pockmarked face recall Bill Murray, and his turn in Llorca’s film – as a fiftyish farmer at odds with his family’s acceptingly money-oriented ways – deserves much wider recognition. In contrast to a film like Los chicos del puerto, both Un ramo de cactus and El Rayo demonstrate that a serious film need not be glum.

Las aventuras de Lily ojos de gato / The Adventures of Lily Cat Eyes
     Las aventuras, meanwhile, is a night-in-the-life-of tale centring heavily on inebriation as a means to forget. Working as a PR for a bar in Madrid, Lily (Ana Adams) meets a bleary-eyed customer with whom, after hours, she solemnly swears to drink till she hits the ground – and perhaps would if real-life events didn’t get in the way. To be sure, Lily is drinking away the hurt of a break-up, but her temporary escape is frustrated by more pressing matters: a friend’s pregnancy, her new pal’s paralytic state, an abusive employer, and so on. A more systemic understanding of things might be beyond Boix and his film; I would have preferred a less cartoonishly cruel boss, for instance. And though these are palpably more universal features with which to pepper a story – as opposed to the characteristics of the Galician landscape, or the political fate of Spain – the film nevertheless has an undeniable strength, in taking an otherwise insufferable young drunk and accounting for her self-destructive behaviour in a non-evasive way. Played by British actress Adams – who speaks Spanish fluently – Lily has a rugged, get-on-with-it edge, which makes her charming even when she’s actively derailing a blues performer’s final song in a late-night bar.

Michael Pattison is a freelance film critic based in Gateshead, UK. He blogs at idFilm and Tweets @m_pattison.