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.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Not-Entirely-Within-the-Remit-of-this-Blog Viewing: Pablo Larraín edition

     This blog is supposed to focus on cinema 'made in Spain', rather than 'cinema in Spanish', but having recently viewed Larraín's Chilean trilogy of films I thought I would stretch my remit a bit and write about them here. I saw No (2012) in the cinema earlier this year and even at the time I realised that its undercurrent of 'alegría' marked it as distinct within Larraín's trilogy given that all three relate to Chile under Pinochet; No is like the gulp of air taken after you've been held under water for too long.
     And life under water is shown to have been a grim and dark place. Tony Manero (2008), the first of the films, is set in the darkest period of the dictatorship in around 1977-78. In part the choice of year seems to have been shaped by the fact that Saturday Night Fever was in cinemas at that point - both the extras on the DVD and interviews contemporaneous to the film's release reveal that the starting point was a photo of a man, which inspired in Larraín the idea of a killer who just wants to dance. In the Q&A on the DVD, Alfredo Castro (who plays Raúl, who wants to be 'the Chilean Tony Manero' in a TV dance contest) says that when they realised that the Travolta film was released in Chile in that period, they saw that they could draw some interesting parallels between the character's behaviour and that of the State. In essence, operating in a general atmosphere of fear and the absence of morality, Raúl doesn't see why he shouldn't always get his own way - so he kills in order to fulfil his dancing dream (arguably there's also a parallel being made between the dysfunctional State and the sexual dysfunction of the individual). Abhorrent as Raúl is, and despite the absurdity of his behaviour being in pursuit of the chance to win a TV lookalike / dance contest (Jonathan Romney talks of the first two films' 'grotesque absurdism' (2013: 28)), the film's occasional jet-black humour (not so much the banality of evil as the mundanity that underpins Raúl's singleminded attention to detail in his quest to 'be' Tony Manero - "Two buttons?") is undercut by the intrusion of the dangerous reality (police raids and a background undercurrent of the simmering threat of violence). 

Alfredo Castro, with less resemblance to Travolta and more 'a scrofulous-looking Al Pacino'
     Alfredo Castro is really the reason I wanted to write about the films because he turns in extraordinary and completely transformative performances both in Tony Manero and Post Mortem (he takes a supporting role in No). I don't know why, having habitually focussed on actors in my research for the last ten years, but I am still surprised when an actor turns out to be completely unlike how he appears onscreen in a given film. Castro appears in the DVD Q&A, looking not just younger and more animated, but positively rejuvenated in comparison to his appearance as the pasty and almost-jaundiced Raúl. I've been trying to decide whether he should be described as vulpine or vulture-like (he is frequently shown in profile, drawing attention to a prominent nose) - Raúl both scents danger (he often surreptitiously observes acts of violence being carried out by others) and also circles around in the aftermath (whether relieving an unconscious man of his watch and jewellery or faking a good samaritan act with an old lady). Castro's performance is a composition of costume (the suit) and body language, alternating between the peacock-like strut on the dancefloor and scurrying rat-like run with which Raúl makes his way around the city (he has an in-built sensor for the approach of bigger animals - he's frequently seen hiding in doorways or behind mounds of rubble as either the military or the police patrol the area). I found it interesting that his focus is on Tony Manero, the character, rather than John Travolta, the actor (he walks out of a screening of Grease with a look of incomprehension). Castro says in the Q&A that although they knew the character would be a dancer, they wanted to avoid the 'perfect' style of American musicals. The dancing in Saturday Night Fever is athletic rather than elegant, and perhaps more importantly is also relatable to Raúl's social class and to the street. The restraint of Castro's performance is made clear in the two instances when emotion floods Raúl's face: being moved to tears in the cinema, watching Saturday Night Fever; and when he is applauded after his TV performance (his reaction here doesn't happen after the applause at the earlier lodging-house show). On both occasions he is transformed before our eyes.

The invisible observer, Mario, in Post Mortem
     Post Mortem (2010), the second film, moves further back in time to September 1973 and the military coup. It is a quietly unsettling film, and very different stylistically to the other two films. The theme (or sense) of surveillance runs through all three films - the handheld camera work in Tony Manero suggests a city under constant watch, while in No it evokes the intimidation of the security forces. Post Mortem's very elegant and stylised framing is closer to voyeurism, indicated in our introduction to Mario (Castro) where he is standing in front of his main window, waiting for his showgirl neighbour Nancy (Antonia Zegers - luminously fragile but also playing Nancy as narcissistic and flaky enough to truly be a danger to others) to arrive home. The idea of a window is maintained by the letterbox framing throughout the film, which also suggests a restricted view: things frequently happen just out of shot (I had headphones on when I was watching it and the sound is also frequently positioned to the side or somewhere behind you), below the frame. One example is the way that Mario (and the viewer) misses the raid on Nancy's house (we hear explosions and shouting) because Mario is looking away from the window while he is in the shower and the camera stays on him (observing him through the window). But this is also possibly a comment on people deliberately not looking - averting their eyes to an unpalatable reality (and trying to avoid being seen themselves). 
     Mario is a grey creature, Castro's wolfishness from Tony Manero completely gone, his face hidden behind a curtain of light grey hair, and much like one of the cadavers whose post-mortems he records for the pathologist; he is one of the walking dead. But he is also attempting to be invisible, to get along, and not draw attention to himself - something that his apparently already deadened nature helps him with. In contrast, his female colleague (Sandra - Amparo Noguera, who played Raúl's girlfriend in Tony Manero), although presented in an equally pallid palette of colours (costume, but also her complexion) cannot inure herself to the piles of corpses that start to stack up as the military coup unfolds; I didn't take this to be a representation of the 'hysterical female', but rather someone who is fervently trying to cling to what she believes in and what she 'knows' in the face of obstruction, obfuscation, and denial. One gets the sense early on that this story is not going to end well, and the final wordless sequence silently foretells the horrors that were still to come for Chile in the aftermath of the coup.
     Many of the same actors (Castro, Zegers, Noguera, and others) appear in all three films, but in No Gael García Bernal comes centre stage as advertising whizz-kid René Saavedra, the strategist behind the 'No' campaign in the referendum that would finally oust Pinochet. The choice of lead perhaps speaks to the representation of a younger generation, hope and alegría on the way, but the Mexican actor also brings with him a measure of ambiguity that suits the character; we are never really sure whether René believes in the 'No' cause or simply likes a challenge and views democracy as another product to sell (something suggested by his using the same lines when he introduces the first referendum piece as when he introduces the advertising promos for a soft drink (at the start of the film) or a new telenovela (at the end of the film)). Either way, his youthfulness fits with the aesthetic of the film - utilising U-matic film so as to be able to seamlessly blend archival footage into the film (about 30% of the film is archival footage according to a Larraín interview on the DVD - they called up the people who appeared in the original 'No' campaign and use them to play themselves, so that on the monitors the original footage shows their younger selves while they appear within the film itself as they are now, 24 years on, 'history [...] written on their bodies' in Larraín's words) - the video 'feel' of the footage and naturalistic lighting (lens flares and all) suggesting youthful adventure and moments caught on the hoof (not unlike the way the 'No' campaign itself was shot). 
Former exile René (Gael García Bernal) is also frequently positioned as an outside observer
    Alfredo Castro again transforms himself, here playing René's lizard-like employer, an advertising executive who sides with the 'Yes' campaign (eventually taking it over in response to what the 'No' team manage to pull together) but who nonetheless recognises talent and engages in a cat-and-mouse provocation with the younger man. The back-and-forth between Lucho (Castro) and René, an almost affectionate bickering that has an undercurrent of real threat to it, and Lucho's private talks with the Prime Minister (Jaime Vadell, who played the main pathologist in Post Mortem), provide much of the film's humour (in addition to some of the absurdities of the world of advertising, and small touches such as the cleaner at the 'Yes' headquarters frequently whistling the 'No' campaign's jingle); the lighthearted tone of the film mirrors the 'No' campaign's 'Happiness is coming' sunny representations, in sharp contrast to the earlier two films. The film does however still highlight the darkness beyond the sunniness, whether in witness testimony about the disappeared, the State's surveillance and attempted intimidation of the 'No' participants, or the cacophonous range of political opinions among the opposition, including René's radical estranged wife (Zegers) who tells him that in taking up the challenge, he is playing by Pinochet's rules and by extension validating what many on the Left thought would be a rigged outcome. Although the end of No is ambiguous (Larraín is quite pragmatic about the limitations of what was achieved and what Pinochet's lasting legacy for his country was - see the interviews on the DVD), my lasting memory of the film from my first viewing was of sunshine. The trilogy goes out on a euphoric high.