Monday, 29 December 2014

IV Festival Márgenes - free to view online (13th - 31st December)

    Until the last day of 2014, the online platform Márgenes is making the twelve films that played in competition at its 4th Festival (and one that played outside of the official line-up) available to view for free. The online side of the festival started on the 13th December, but I didn't get a chance to take a look until I finished work for Christmas - I've only managed to watch a handful of the films so far, but I thought I should point it out on here before it ends.
    The festival started as an exclusively online event but now organises screenings in Madrid, Córdoba, Barcelona, Montevideo, México DF, Monterrey and Bogotá, before putting the films online. The point of the festival is to highlight those films that have not had a commercial release or that otherwise fall outside of the normal distribution circuit. To be eligible, they need to be more than 40 minutes in duration and originate from Spain, Latin America, or Portugal (the countries included are: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, México, Nicaragua, Panamá, Paraguay, Perú, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Spain, Uruguay and Venezuela) - you can see the full list of criteria here. Many of the films in the 2014 edition have played at other festivals and won multiple prizes - but the list of winners for the IV Festival Márgenes have also now been announced.
    The official selection of films streaming for free encompass documentary and narrative fiction (links take you to the film - I've indicated which ones have English subtitles):

    I've watched four so far - El gran vuelo, All the Things That Are Not There, Las altas presiones (which won the Nuevas olas / New Waves section at the Seville European Film Festival last month), and África 815 - but will hopefully manage to watch a couple more before they disappear (having watched Pablo Larraín's No last year, I'd like to see Propaganda, which is about the 2013 Chilean elections). A common thread across the ones I've seen is 'absence' or the past being retraced through fragments - although in Las altas presiones this is manifested in how the protagonist's (Andrés Gertrúdix) return home heightens his sense of having lost who he really is - and judging by the synopses of the other films that theme unites many of them. Both El gran vuelo and África 815 (my favourite of the four) use a combination of photographs with diaries / memoirs and letters to explore (real) lives hidden from view on the surface. 

El gran vuelo

    El gran vuelo is the story of Clara Pueyo Jornet, and examines her clandestine existence from the Civil War years up to the point when - sentenced to death (she was an active militant for the Communist Party) - she escaped from Les Corts prison in Barcelona in the early 1940s by walking out of the front door (the great flight of the title) and was never seen again. Jornet was constrained by the times she lived in. There was no accepted space for political women in that era - the danger of Jornet's situation is indicated in her coded private correspondence with friends, and she seems to have lived in perpetual flight for years - and even once underground she rejected the rigidity the Communist Party; she had been due to leave the safehouse where she lived with three other women (to set out on her own), the day after the house was raided by the police (the film suggests that this timing may not have been entirely coincidental). She was the only one of the four sentenced to death, her letters proving incendiary in the eyes of the authorities. Through Jornet's own words (copies of her letters are seen on screen and read as a voiceover) and a series of photographs (including several group shots taken inside the prison), Carolina Astudillo manages to fleetingly reconstruct a woman who was forced into absence, and seemingly long forgotten.

África 815

    Flight also occurs in África 815 - Pilar Monsell's father, Manuel, made a bid for freedom via enlistment in 1964, leaving Madrid and heading to the exotic Saharan Spanish colony to carry out his military service. Reading aloud from her father's diaries (which he has since reconfigured as a three-volume memoir) and looking at his photo archive, Monsell compassionately explores her father's hidden life. Black and white stills change to moving colour images in conjunction with the collapse of Manuel's attempts at self denial - he got married in order to have a family - and his return to Morocco in the 1980s in a hopeful (but ultimately unsuccessful) quest to find his true Prince Charming. His sadness and loneliness (as recorded in his diary) as he realises that one man after another merely sees him as an escape route to Europe is palpable even all these years later and when read at one remove by his daughter. Perhaps someone less close to the subject would have asked more probing questions (this is straightforwardly her father's story - her mother is briefly seen in holiday film footage but not mentioned), but this melancholy film was made with love and acceptance - and it also feels like the director was genuinely interested in finding out more about her father. [The film's official website]

    The sadly-defunct Blogs&Docs has been resurrected for a special issue on the films included in the festival (and their archive is well worth exploring too).

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

My Favourite Spanish Films of 2014, Part Two: New

The first part of my 2014 round-up - 'Old, but new to me' - can be found here.

With my end of year lists on here I count the current year and the previous as 'new' (so in this instance - 2013 and 2014) because I generally see Spanish films on DVD (the year following their initial release in Spain). Unusually this year I'm able to include several films that I've seen in a cinema because I started attending film festivals - two of them (Viva in Manchester and the new Edinburgh Spanish Film Festival) specialise in Spanish cinema, but three others (Bradford, Edinburgh, and Leeds) also included Spanish films in their programme. I've not seen any Spanish films on general release in the UK in 2014. Obviously in terms of films released in Spain in 2014, I've only seen a few - I'm particularly looking forward to catching up with Magical Girl (dir. Carlos Vermut), La Isla Mínima / Marshland (dir. Alberto Rodríguez), Carmina y amén (dir. Paco León), Hermosa juventud / Beautiful Youth (dir. Jaime Rosales), Negociador / Negotiator (dir. Borja Cobeaga), and No todo es vigilia / Not All Is Vigil (dir. Hermes Paralluelo) in 2015.

1. Costa da Morte / Coast of Death (Lois Patiño, 2013)
I saw Patiño's feature debut at the Bradford International Film Festival in April (I reviewed it here - it's the only film I've given 5 stars to this year - and also wrote about it over at Mediático in the context of the other Spanish films shown in Bradford) and it is my overall favourite film of the year (with or without the 'Spanish' qualifier*). Part of its impact on me was definitely due to the context in which I saw it - on the Media Museum's IMAX screen (although not in IMAX format), sat on my own and approximately level with the centre of the image. It felt a bit like I was suspended over this immense landscape (and seascape). It is one of the most absorbing and visually overwhelming films I have seen in a cinema, and eight months later some of the images - a tree falling through the fog, the smoke from an extinguished fire blooming across the screen - are still flittering through my mind. I actually like it so much that I'm not sure I would watch it again unless I could see it on the big screen - so I may have to be content with having seen it once (not least because it isn't currently available). Bonus: I recently found this interview with Patiño about the film at Cinema Scope.

2. El Futuro / The Future (Luis López Carrasco, 2013)
Another film seen at the Bradford Film Festival (and included in the Mediático essay). A house party in the aftermath of the 1982 Socialist victory, before the dream went sour, with the generation who mistook the 1982 election for an end in and of itself rather than the start of something. The film is a mood piece rather than a narrative, and utilises the discombobulating effect of unsynchronised sound (so what you see is not what you're listening to) to put the viewer in amongst the hustle and bustle of the party. It also has one of the most earworm-tastic soundtracks of the year - I still had this one reverberating through my head more than a week later (the 1st thing I wrote down when I came out of the cinema was "Deserted ruins and beautiful swimming pools/ Dried out women with vampiric voices") - with the lyrics (which unusually are subtitled) lingering in the mind for far longer than the disjointed conversations we eavesdrop on. The director's thoughts on his choice of soundtrack (and videos of the songs themselves) can be found here. Another one that hasn't been released in home viewing form.

3. Todos están muertos / They're All Dead (Beatriz Sanchís, 2014)
One half of 1980s sibling pop duo Groenlandia [Greenland], Lupe (Elena Anaya) nows lives as a recluse in suburban Madrid and is reliant on her mother Paquita (Angélica Aragón) to bring up the teenage son (Pancho - played by Cristian Bernal) who quietly despises her. The superstitious Paquita finally resorts to desperate measures to try to restore her daughter to something of her former self - she takes the opportunity of the Mexican Day of the Dead to try to invoke the absent member of their family, seemingly to no avail. But unbeknownst to everyone else, Lupe can now see her missing other half - her brother Diego (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) who died fifteen years earlier. That sounds like the set up for a comedy (and the film does have its moments of humour with the ghostly situation), but it is a drama centring on an astounding performance by Elena Anaya. Lupe is a woman who seems to have no form of psychological protection, as if her nerve endings are exposed and every bit of social interaction is physically painful - it's a role that could become a catalogue of tics, but (without wishing to sound too wankerish) Anaya's performance is about being rather than doing: Lupe's fragility is made tangible with great subtlety, and Anaya walks the high wire without a safety net and in a state of grace. The Spanish DVD has optional English subs.

4. La distancia / The Distance (Sergio Caballero, 2014)
Telepathic Russian dwarves + a haiku reciting bucket (in love with a nearby chimney) = enjoyably bonkers. A team of three Russian dwarves receive mysterious instructions requesting their presence at an old Soviet power plant in Siberia where a performance artist (mathematics and dead rabbits seem to be the tools of his trade) is imprisoned in the plant warehouse according to the wishes of the now-dead power magnate who 'bought' him. The mcguffin is that the artist wants them to steal 'La distancia' - an unspecified object - from the abandoned power plant next door. What follows is the planning of the heist over the course of a week, complete with telekinesis, teleportation, more dead rabbits, and some kinky goings-on. This is laced with the same daft and absurd humour as Caballero's Finisterrae - although this film feels more polished, with a sophisticatedly layered soundscape and starkly beautiful widescreen visuals - and has an ending so WTF-abrupt that it made me laugh out loud. The Spanish DVD/Blu Dual Pack (the only format it's available in - the dual packs are something of an unfortunate trend in the Spanish market at the moment) has optional English subs (which you will no doubt need, given that the film is in Russian).

5. 10,000 Km (Carlos Marques-Marcet, 2014)
A simple two-hander with the complication that the two leads are not in the same geographical space after the opening sequence - for most of the running time, each actor (Natalia Tena and David Verdaguer) is effectively delivering a series of dramatic monologues (they are talking to a computer screen but it is often delivered straight to camera, as if talking to the viewer), and yet a palpable connection is made and maintained between the couple. A moving - and in at least one scene, excruciatingly embarrassing (deliberately) - rendering of a long distance relationship, with the possibility that sometimes you are never further apart than when you're in the same room with someone. I reviewed it here. The Spanish DVD has optional English subs.

6. Edificio España / The Building (Víctor Moreno, 2013)
By chance Víctor Moreno captured not just the deconstruction of an iconic Madrid landmark (and Francoist symbol), but also the moments leading up to the housing / property bubble bursting - effectively the opening of an economic sinkhole that Spain has yet to climb back out of. But Edificio España (an interesting space quite apart from its iconicity) and its suspended renovation are more than a metaphor for the current times, and the director finds a human side (the collateral damage in the banks' games) both in the meeting with its last resident and the multitude of nationalities doing the back-breaking labour. I wrote quite a long post about it in October. Available on VOD in Spain (at Filmin) but not currently available in other formats. UPDATE (13/03/15): it is now available on DVD (with optional English subs) in Spain. 

7. Los ilusos / The Wishful Thinkers (Jonás Trueba, 2013)
Seen at the inaugural Edinburgh Spanish Film Festival in early October (trailer here), my initial reaction to Jonás Trueba's second film was that it was a bit too clever for its own good. The audience I saw it with resisted it for at least the first twenty minutes (to the extent that I sat there wondering whether it might have been preferable to watch it at home undistracted by other people fidgeting - it was (and I discovered last night, still is) available on Curzon on Demand) - the visible filmmaking (e.g. clapperboards, visible crew, actors having to repeat dialogue for sound recording clarity) and occasionally unsynchronised sound proving hard going for some, but it picks up momentum to carry you along, and it has grown on me as I've thought about it in the time since. If I have time, I intend to rewatch it over Christmas. This black and white (filmed on 16mm), breezily romantic film about twenty-somethings in Madrid (the central character is screenwriter Leon (Francesco Carril), and we also meet his actor flatmate Bruno (Vito Sanz), friend Lilian (Isabelle Stoffel), and romantic interest Sofia (Aura Garrido)) pursing cinematic dreams and living in the in-between spaces of the city, also has several sequences that made me laugh out loud - a shaggy dog-like tale (possibly half imagined) about Bruno pursuing the director Javier Rebollo that becomes increasingly hysteria-inducing through repetition, and Leon interrupting a date at the cinema in order to question a projectionist about the quality of the print ("It's Blu-Ray" he's told to his considerable consternation) being cases in point. It is radically different to Trueba's first film (Todos las canciones hablan de mí / All the Songs Are About Me (2010) - which I really liked), so I'm interested to see where he goes with his third - Los exiliados románticos / The Romantic Exiles (which again stars Sanz, Carril, and Stoffel, and seems to be in post-production).

8. La plaga / The Plague Year (Neus Ballús, 2013)
Nominated in the Best New Director category at this year's Goya Awards (she lost to Fernando Franco (La herida / Wounded)), Neus Ballús made her feature debut with a film that falls between narrative fiction and documentary - she had spent a number of years talking to inhabitants in the area depicted, getting to know them and their stories, and the people onscreen are playing a version of themselves (they are all non-professionals). The visuals are Instagram-like (which I found challenging for the first ten minutes or so - although the faded look suits the parched heat of the location) but there is something more interesting going on in the hardscrabble existences of those trying to live and work in this in-between space (on the outskirts of Barcelona). These are people pushed to the edges of their endurance in order to survive in the current economic climate, and who can fall through the cracks without a trace (immigrants - some of whom are unable to find the permanent work required to obtain residency - the elderly, the struggling small rural businesses, and the just generally struggling). The Spanish DVD has optional English subs.

9. En tierra extraña / In a Foreign Land (Icíar Bollaín, 2014)
I wrote about it here. I find certain aspects of Bollaín's documentary - namely the glove thing - slightly twee but she gives a voice to people currently without one in their own country (because of their absence due to the economic situation), and it's an admirably angry film (and someone needs to be). I saw it at the Edinburgh Filmhouse as part of the Edinburgh Spanish Film Festival in an audience that was at least 80% Spanish - the majority of whom presumably in similar circumstances to those interviewed onscreen - which made it a participatory event: boos, hisses and catcalls greeted news footage of wilfully disingenuous Spanish politicians, gasps were audible as certain stories were relayed, and laughter was shared over the collective dismay at the Scottish weather. As I said in my previous post, given the poisonous invective on immigration that is currently being regurgitated with little challenge in the UK, Bollaín's film should be shown far and wide. Not currently available in the UK although it is on various VOD platforms in Spain (including Filmin) and has received several further cinema screenings in Scotland.  

10. Stella cadente / Falling Star (Lluís Miñarro, 2014)
Another film seen in Edinburgh, but this one was at the Edinburgh Film Festival back in June. I wasn't bowled over by it at the time - I felt it was just too much of everything - but would like to see it again, not least because I was unwell on the day I saw it. It is a visually ravishing and enjoyably theatrical film with a spritely sense of humour and a wonderful central performance by Àlex Brendemühl. It has made my top 10 - despite receiving a lower star rating than some of the other films I've reviewed this year (included in the 'honourable mention' section) - because "Set these rabbits free!" is my favourite subtitle of the year. I reviewed it here. The Spanish DVD has optional English subs.

Honourable mentions (alphabetical) [links take you to what I've written about them]:
Arraianos (Eloy Enciso, 2013), Cenizas (Carlos Balbuena, 2013), Con la pata quebrada / Barefoot and in the Kitchen (Diego Galán, 2013), Ocho apellidos vascos / Spanish Affair (Emilio Martínez Lazáro, 2014), Todas las mujeres / All the Women (Mariano Barroso, 2013), Tots volem el millor per a ella / We All Want What's Best For Her (Mar Coll, 2013) Un ramo de cactus / A Bouquet of Cactus (Pablo Llorca, 2013).

Favourite performances:
Elena Anaya (Todos están muertos)
Àlex Brendemühl (Stella cadente
Alberto San Juan (En tierra extraña)
Nora Navas (Tots volem el millor per a ella
Natalia Tena and David Verdaguer (10,000 Km
Eduard Fernández (Todas las mujeres)

*For the record (and to give a bit of context), my overall 11 favourite films seen in a cinema this year: 
1. Costa da Morte (dir. Lois Patiño) 
2. Blue Ruin (dir. Jeremy Saulnier) 
3. Ida (dir. Pawel Pawlikowski)
4. Winter Sleep (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
5. Journey to the West (dir. Tsai Ming-liang)
6. The Grand Budapest Hotel (dir. Wes Anderson)
7. El Futuro (dir. Luis López Carrasco)
8. Starred Up (dir. David Mackenzie)
9. Mr Turner (dir. Mike Leigh)
= Refugiado (dir. Diego Lerman)
= Stray Dogs (dir. Tsai Ming-liang)

Saturday, 20 December 2014

My Favourite Spanish Films of 2014, Part One: Old, but new to me

I've watched a wider range of older Spanish films this year, so for that reason I'm dividing my 'favourites of 2014' choices into 'old' (anything before 2013) and 'new' (2013/2014 - which will appear later this week as Part Two). I've only listed films that I hadn't seen before this year, otherwise the likes of Muerte de un ciclista, El verdugo, and El día de la bestia would be included.

1. Poetes catalans / Catalan Poets (Pere Portabella, 1970)
I dutifully worked my way through Intermedio's boxset of Pere Portabella's complete works fully intending to write about the set as a whole but - as is so often the case - it simply took too long for me to finish the set. I should have started writing about them as I went along. With the exception of his two political documentaries - El sopar / The Dinner (1974) and the three-hour epic that is Informe general sobre algunas cuestiones de interés para una proyección pública (1976) - I preferred Portabella's short films over his feature-length ones. 
Poetes catalans is my favourite from the set overall, a thirty minute underground film of an illegal gathering - the First Popular Festival of Catalan Poetry (the speaking of Catalan in public was banned during the Franco dictatorship) in Barcelona 25th May 1970, in solidarity with political prisoners. Shooting in black and white Portabella frames the event almost like a boxing match, the raised stage resembling a boxing ring and the poets (Agustí Bartra, Joan Oliver (Pere IV), Salvador Espriu, Joan Brossa, Francesc Vallverdú and Gabriel Ferrater) not pulling any punches in their attacks on the State and its forces. But it's the reaction of the crowd that makes it so electrifying - the cry of 'Libertad! Libertad!' [Liberty! Liberty!] (and later 'Amnestia!' [Amnesty!]) that sporadically breaks out in response to the poetry made my hair stand on end. Sadly it doesn't seem to be online anywhere and the films aren't for sale individually (although the boxset is fully subtitled).

2. Rocío (Fernando Ruiz Vergara, 1980)
a.k.a. The film I lost August to - I wrote a long essay (here) about the injustices that befell the documentary and its director after its release, but also tried to write about it as a cinematic text because although the censorship tends to be the main topic of discussion in relation to Rocío, it is a visually distinctive - and hauntingly beautiful - piece of filmmaking. I still can't really explain the strange spell the film cast over me. I may return to it at some point because I initially wanted to look at how the power relations / social hierarchies within the region it depicts are reflected in the editing, but that was too large a topic for the essay I had started writing (and I felt it would require more research than I had time for at that point). The censored version is available with English subtitles on YouTube (the excised sections are indicated by a black screen with a timer showing the duration), and the uncensored version is included with this book (as is a documentary about the legal battle) but without subtitles.

3. Mapa (Elías León Siminiani, 2012)
Winner of the European Documentary Award at the Seville Film Festival in 2012, León Siminiani's film is part travelogue, part diary, part confessional, and part embittered love letter. In the aftermath of the break-up of a long term relationship - swiftly followed by the loss of his job as a director of children's TV series - the director decided to return to his first love (cinema) and try to make a film as a way of fighting incipient depression. He decides to head to India in search of his film...but realises that instead of searching, he's actually fleeing something else. He returns to Madrid, but things don't get any easier there as he tries to work out what he is really looking for (and also finish the film). I often find diary films irritating but León Siminiani's dry humour and a good measure of self-awareness (his voiceover - as is explained within the film itself - was recorded months later, allowing him the benefit of hindsight as he assembled the film and caught sight of his fluctuating state of mind) mean that he avoids self-indulgence - what instead emerges is a sincere and introspective quest and an eventual realisation that you have to tell your own story (rather than somebody else's).

4. Tren de sombras / Train of Shadows (Jose Luis Guerin, 1997)
A magic trick, a sleight of hand made all the more potent due to my misreading an untranslated cue card (although the fact that it worked even with this misunderstanding is a testament to the quality of Guerin's game), and a playful dissection of film language and form. I wrote about it here.

5. Montaña en sombra / Mountain in Shadow (Lois Patiño, 2012)
This screened directly before Costa da Morte (which - it will come as no surprise - features in the  second instalment of this list) at the Bradford Film Festival but it merits its own entry. It starts out almost like an ink painting in motion, with the abstract shadows and contours eventually revealed as a snow-covered mountain complete with ant-like skiers making their way up and down. Fourteen minutes of spectral and ephemeral beauty.

6. Aita (José María de Orbe, 2010)
I'm jealous of anyone who got to see this in a cinema because I think its magic must reach full potential in the cavernous dark. An old uninhabited house reveals its layers and unexpectedly flickers into life at night with 'memories' of the region and its former owners playing out across its walls in the form of old films. Mystery and visual poetry in films can often feel like affectation - this feels organic and I found it genuinely enchanting. I wrote about it here.

7. Arrebato / Rapture (Iván Zulueta, 1980)
I wrote about the film last month as my contribution to the Late Film blogathon. Cinema as bewitchment combines with the desire to lose oneself in Zulueta's tale of addiction and vampiric cameras. A strangely mesmerising and disturbing film.

8. Plácido (Luis García Berlanga, 1961)
Reviewed here. I've seen relatively few of Berlanga's films because not very many of them are available with subtitles and I struggle with the audio on older films. In this case, I had the luxury of seeing it subtitled and on the big screen at the Leeds Film Festival as part of the Berlanga and Bardem retrospective (I saw it in a double bill with Muerte de un ciclista). I overheard a couple sitting behind me saying that they found Plácido too loud ("too shouty") but the 'cacophonous rabble' aspect of Berlanga's ensembles is one of my favourite things about his films (characters frequently talk over the top of each other in increasingly anarchic scenes as more and more of them join in the inevitable disagreements). This also deeply and darkly funny - sharply skewering the false charity of the well-to-do in the face of genuine need.

9. Petit Indi (Marc Recha, 2009)
Reviewed here. I've found watching some of Recha's other films as akin to watching paint dry, so this one took me by surprise from the slinky soundtrack of its opening titles onwards. It has one of the most genuinely upsetting sequences (near the end of the film) I've seen this year and is all the more powerful for feeling truthful - for being true to the social circumstances in which its young protagonist (an excellent performance by Marc Soto) finds himself rather than offering the false comfort of a happy ending.

10. Finisterrae (Sergio Caballero, 2010)
I like the DIY aesthetic (at odds with Eduard Grau's painterly cinematography) of Caballero's bizarre film, which involves Russian-speaking ghosts who are clearly 'made' out of white sheets, a trusty horse that occasionally becomes a somewhat ropey animatronic model, and trees with pink ears that look like they've escaped from a Mr Potatohead. Also contains reindeer. Surreal, sometimes baffling, but consistently funny.

Honourable mentions (alphabetical): 
Bertsolari (Asier Altuna, 2011), Los golfos (Carlos Saura, 1960), Libertarias (Vicente Aranda, 1996), Umbracle (Pere Portabella, 1972), Uno de los dos no puede estar equivocado (Pablo Llorca, 2007).

UPDATE: 'My Favourite Spanish Films of 2014, Part Two: New' can be found here.

Monday, 1 December 2014

The Late Show: Arrebato / Rapture (Iván Zulueta, 1980)

   Shadowplay's The Late Show: Late Movie Blogathon runs between 1st and 7th December - check out David Cairns's site to find links to other contributions. The aim is to focus on a film from late in a person's career - whether people go out on a high or not - but it doesn't have to be a recent film, or someone who has recently died. Learning from my mistake last year, I decided to find an interesting film as the starting point rather than the person whose 'late film' it is. So, having watched it for the first time earlier this year, my contribution (and my 200th post!) is on the influential underground classic Arrebato / Rapture (Iván Zulueta, 1980) and the stories around it.

Will More and Iván Zulueta on the set of Arrebato

   The plot: [I'm going to avoid giving too many specific details because this is a rare occasion where the film I'm writing about is actually available in an edition with English subtitles (details at the end of the post)] In the present (Madrid in the late 1970s), film director José Sirgado (Eusebio Poncela) returns home to find that his actress ex-girlfriend Ana (Cecilia Roth) - a heroin addict like himself - has returned to his apartment after several weeks of absence. In between arguing with Ana and sliding into a drugged oblivion, José starts listening to a recording - and eventually watching a film - sent by an old acquaintance, Pedro (Will More), a younger man who is obsessed with shooting film. A lot of the film plays out in flashback as the recording causes José to remember his first strange encounter with Pedro (the cousin of a old girlfriend (Marta Fernández Muro)) at a country house, and then his second visit a year ago with Ana in tow (not long after he had introduced her to heroin and she already shows signs of addiction). In the last section of the film José goes to Pedro's apartment to try to solve the mystery contained within the recording and accompanying film. 

Some of Zulueta's poster designs - more of his work can be found on his official website.

   Zulueta only made two feature films. He died in 2009 at the age of 66 having spent years in the wilderness in thrall to heroin addiction and a self-imposed exile in San Sebastián (his home city). I've only seen clips of his first feature - Un, dos, tres, al escondite inglés (1970) - but the pop musical about a group of music fans attempting to boycott a song contest (one that sounds similar to Eurovision) is often described as taking inspiration from Richard Lester's films with The Beatles. He had spent time in London and New York during the 1960s and 70s and was strongly influenced by both the Carnaby Street vibe and psychedelia of the former and the underground filmmaking (specifically Warhol) and grubby aesthetic of the latter. He made a multitude of abstract and experimental Super 8 films during the 1960s and 70s: a large proportion of them were apparently either confiscated or lost, but several can be found online (they are all dialogue free - Frank Stein (1972), Masaje (1972), Aquarium (1975), En la ciudad (1976-77), A Malgam A (1976), and Leo es pardo (1976)) and Pedro's Super 8 films in Arrebato are fragments of Zulueta's own work. From the 1970s onwards he was also a film poster designer for a range of Spanish directors including José Luis Borau (his mentor), Manuel Gutiérrez Aragon, Luis Buñuel (Viridiana (1961) was banned in Spain - in fact the regime declared that it didn't exist - until 1977, and Zulueta's poster for it can be seen on the wall of José's apartment) and Pedro Almodóvar (including one of my favourites, Entre tinieblas / Dark Habits), and also for the San Sebastián Film Festival (Zulueta had a long relationship with the festival as his father was the Festival Director between 1957 and 1960). In TV tribute programmes made after his death (in fact some were made while he was still alive, but even there his friends talk about Zulueta in the past tense) and all of the interviewees stress that his cultural focus was exclusively visual (almost everyone describes him as incredibly knowledgeable about all aspects of art and design but someone who never read books) - in one he is described as 'an author but not a writer'.
   It is perhaps appropriate then that my first experience of watching Arrebato was a copy with no subtitles and murky sound (from El País's collection of DVDs - I'm starting to think that the existence of their series is the reason why many of the key Spanish films included are unavailable in better editions): I clung to the images like a life raft. I can usually get by without subtitles but here I think I would have struggled even with clearer sound because the script is full of gnomic utterances and Will More's delivery is deliberately strange (Pedro's voice is usually exaggeratedly deep, but rises when he becomes excited or 'enraptured' and increasingly childlike) and large parts of the film are conveyed via his voiceover (the recording that José is listening to). The desire to lose yourself in something (or someone) is a common enough impulse but in Arrebato this ecstasy is tinged with horror, suggesting that both cinema and drugs (the chosen routes into the sublime in this instance) are vampiric forces. The film is full of moments of beguiling but unsettling beauty (cinema as enchantment) in conjunction with a building sense of claustrophobia. The latter is generated via the film's limited locations (José's apartment during the course of that one night, the country house, or the bedroom of Pedro's Madrid apartment), the action frequently taking place in the shadows (their faces usually illuminated by the flickering lights of projectors), and aurally through certain repetitive elements on the soundtrack (a recurring theme features the sound of children's toys in a kind of uneasy lullaby, but there's also the insistent clicking of the timer on Pedro's camera).

   The title refers to a state of being that the central trio - or at least the two men - are seeking. As Pedro explains it, what they are pursuing is that sense of being enraptured in something (that an object is involved is important as for Pedro this state relies upon the act of looking, but all three of them also use drugs as their gateway into rapture) that we have as a child, when we could spend hours focussed on one thing and in our own little world. Zulueta described these symbolic items as "an object that condenses a whole series of things that have shaped you". Pedro tests the (rare) people he meets by trying to find a) their special object, and b) how susceptible they are to being enraptured. For José the item is an album of collectible stickers depicting scenes from King Solomon's Mines (Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton, 1950) (actually from Zulueta's own childhood collection), for Ana it is a Betty Boop doll, but for Pedro it is (or will be) his own Super 8 films - his sharing of them during José's first visit becomes a performance of grimaces and pained squeals as he hasn't managed to capture the precise (but ephemeral) thing he is after. By José's second visit - between which times José has sent the younger man a timer for his camera so that he can record his timelapse images with more precision - Pedro has accomplished his filmmaking intentions as far as he can at home, and in the aftermath of the visit will set out into the world to capture new images. Much like José and Ana he will slide into a world of sex and drugs (the latter eventually curtailing the former), but Pedro's dissatisfaction with those experiences leads him back into his cinematic obsession with an even greater intensity. At the point at which he sends the recording and film to José, he has come to believe that his Super 8 camera has taken on a life of its own, and is vampirically taking his life force from him while simultaneously allowing him to reach an ever heightened state of rapture.

Pedro's films are initially timelapse images of cloud formations, the light shifting as time passes, and elements of the natural world, but begin to include architectural features and masses of people after he leaves home.

   Even during my somewhat incomprehensible first viewing, the charisma and chemistry of the central trio was plain to see. Eusebio Poncela - already associated with nonconformist roles at this point - was the most experienced of the three, with a certain amount of blurring between life and art given his participation in the movida (a cultural phenomena in post-dictatorship Madrid, it's described in The A to Z of Spanish Cinema as 'expressed through sexual liberation, a hyperactive nightlife, the first taste of freedom of expression, and an interest in artistic manifestations that assimilated the lessons of various avant-gardes of the period, particularly punk and the Warhol Factory' (Mira 2010: 214) - some of its key figures appear in Pedro's Super 8 film of a party, including Zulueta himself). Despite José's uncertain disintegration (the vampire film he has just directed is turning into a disaster, his relationship with Ana is mutually-destructive, and he's in a downward spiral with drugs), Poncela's stillness is the calm centre around which the more volatile other two circulate. In the reunion documentary (filmed in 1998 and therefore not featuring Zulueta, who was in self-exile at that point) both Poncela and Will More state that their character is Zulueta's alter-ego - the truth is probably that the two both represent different aspects of the director. More was also part of the same social crowd and had appeared in one of Zulueta's Super 8 short films - the role of Pedro was written specifically for him. By turns childlike and sinister, More's performance is unsettling with deliberately exaggerated vocal tics and gestures, and a breathily insinuating style of delivery on the recording. More so than José or Ana, Pedro is someone on the margins by inclination rather than social circumstances (in terms of class and money he seems comfortably off, and unlike the other two he doesn't work). Arrebato would be More's only significant role - he accompanied Zulueta into heroin addiction and cuts a ravaged figure in recent footage.

José (Eusebio Poncela) and Pedro (Will More) during their second encounter
Pedro in pursuit of rapture

   Although the film is undoubtedly 'about' the men, Cecilia Roth is nonetheless equally memorable in what was her first substantial film role. She says during the reunion documentary that as the youngest member of the team (she was 23 at the time of filming, whereas her co-stars and director were in their 30s) she was worried about playing a character older than herself - a woman "with a past" as she describes it, whereas she feels that Arrebato was "the beginning of [her] own past". Roth (like Poncela) obviously went on to significant roles with Almodóvar but arguably she has never been as incandescent as she is in the sequence in Arrebato where she dresses as Betty Boop and sings along to the record player. It is an overt and conscious performance by Ana - she stands in front of the screen José is about to project Pedro's film onto, with the light of the projector acting as a spotlight - and an attempt to win José back (although undercut, as I noticed on my second viewing, by the fact that the song she sings is the same one playing in the earlier scene where he introduces her to heroin). She is so alive that she jolts the camera into movement - in the only travelling shot of the film, and possessing a dynamism that is otherwise only seen in Pedro's films, the camera follows her as she dances towards José. It's a genuine 'a star is born' kind of sequence, in someways at odds with the rest of the film but perhaps all the more effective for that.


   Arrebato's reputation as a film maudit was established from the outset. It was turned down by both Berlin and Cannes on the basis of its pro-drugs attitude (although that is arguably a matter of perception given that those onscreen are devoured by their addictions) and it had a limited release in Spain, sinking more or less without a trace. In the documentary Iván Z (Andrés Duque, 2003) - a series of conversations with Zulueta who by then was on methadone and attempting to reenter the film business (without success) - he says that he was burnt out after Arrebato but had known while he was making it that it would likely be his only chance. He is animated when discussing cinema (and his admiration for David Lynch) and very candid about his addictions, but falters when talking about his then-current situation (he was back living with his mother in the house he was born in and likens it to The Exterminating Angel (Luis Buñuel, 1962) - the sensation of being stuck in the same place but not knowing how to get out). The recurring assertion in interviews with his former colleagues is that he was a genuinely exceptional talent and a unique figure in Spanish cinema who could have had an international career. The influence of his film however has had a far greater reach than one might suppose for a film that never had a proper theatrical release (and belies the 'cult' label that is often attached to the film). Pedro Almodóvar is the most obvious (and possibly facile) example to give. He was a near contemporary (his voice appears in Arrebato - he dubbed Helena Fernán Gómez - and he wrote this eulogy for his friend) and his 1980s films share certain aspects of Zulueta's aesthetic style (and indeed most of Arrebato's cast), but there's a lot of unnecessary snarking in the television profiles of Zulueta about how much of a debt Almodóvar owes him (Arrebato's producer rather acidly comments that Almodóvar would not have been considered as innovative if Zulueta had continued making films). I would argue that they had influences in common but that there's also a distinction between copying and paying homage (which Almodóvar does quite explicitly in several instances that I can think of) - and wherever he draws inspiration from, Almodóvar's films are nonetheless clearly his own. But there's a freshness to Arrebato that survives, and its influence lives on more than thirty years later - my first viewing of the film was just a couple of weeks before I saw El Futuro (Luis López Carrasco, 2013) at the Bradford International Film Festival in April, and it's a clear point of reference for the latter (confirmed by the director in this interview).

Images from Pedro's party film, one of the inspirations for El Futuro (Luis López Carrasco, 2013)

   Writing in 2002, and arguing that the film deserved better than to be fetishised with the label 'cult', critic Ángel Fernández-Santos summarised Arrebato thus:
'Arrebato is a dark instance of pessimism. It is intricate cinema, unfathomable at some points of its crooked and tumultuous journey. And it is, above all, cinema in a raw state, disturbing, painful and great, that situates us with rare elegance in front of a vigorous and devastating image of the dissolution of conscience and the search for death. The film was conceived and built - in a long and bumpy creative process - by a complex and refined filmmaker, a one-off, gifted as few are to perceive and express feelings of desolation and despair.' [my translation - the original is here]
So not exactly a laugh riot and it won't be everyone's cup of tea (if you're offended by nudity and depictions of drug usage or general debauchery, best give it a miss), but it has stayed with me the seven months since I first saw it and if anything my second viewing last week has elevated it further in my consideration. My second viewing also had the luxury of subtitles, so certain things (but not everything) became clearer. For some unexplained - but fortunate - reason, the German DVD of the film (this one) has optional English subtitles, and even more strangely so do the couple of hours of extras (the reunion documentary and Iván Z - I particularly recommend the latter because aside from showing Zulueta talking about himself rather than his being filtered through other people, it also features examples of his paintings, illustrations and film posters (some of them are stunning)). Arrebato is a haunting film - even without knowing how its tragedy carried over into the lives of those who worked on it - and one that gets under your skin.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Esto no es un juego: The serious mayhem of Álex de la Iglesia

A devilish communication in El día de la bestia
   The Leeds International Film Festival 2014 has two Spanish cinema retrospectives. The first to get underway was the Berlanga and Bardem one, but this past weekend the Álex de la Iglesia retrospective began with El día de la bestia (my favourite of his films) screening to coincide with the Fanomenon Day of the Dead 8.
   Apart from El día de la bestia (1995), the retrospective is skewed towards de la Iglesia's more recent films. It's a shame that La comunidad / Common Wealth (2000) wasn't included, not least because it features Carmen Maura on top form, but the four films together capture various facets of the director's career. I have something of a mixed relationship with his films - I enjoy the dark humour, excessive mayhem, and cinematic brio, but find many of the representations of women problematic. Balada triste de trompeta is a case in point and the film manages to be both hypnotic and deeply unsettling at the same time. I think it's his most interesting film so far - if you've got the stomach for it (it's probably also his most violent film, which is saying something), it's well worth catching. I'm reviewing all four films for Take One (with an additional review of El día de la bestia for Eye for Film) and will add the links below as and when the reviews appear online.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Sobre la marxa / The Creator of the Jungle (Jordi Morató, 2014)

My review of Sobre la marxa - as seen at the Leeds International Film Festival last weekend - is up over at Eye for Film, here. I'll return to the film on here when I start pulling together my thoughts on the various Spanish documentaries I've been watching in the last few months.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Luis García Berlanga (1921 - 2010) and Juan Antonio Bardem (1922 - 2002)

Luis García Berlanga front left and Juan Antonio Bardem centre, on the set of Esa pareja feliz. Picture taken from the Berlanga Film Museum website
"[Spanish cinema] is politically ineffectual, socially false, intellectually poverty-stricken, aesthetically-void and industrially stunted" - Juan Antonio Bardem, 1955
"Berlanga is not a Communist, he is something much worse: he is a bad Spaniard" - Francisco Franco, allegedly (quoted in Marsh 2006: 122)  
   The 28th Leeds International Film Festival is currently offering a joint retrospective of the two directors - who trained at film school together - concentrating on the early stages of their careers (effectively their key films made during the dictatorship) but also including a few films made by later generations of directors who can be said to have cinematic links to Berlanga and Bardem - Víctor Erice's El espíritu de la colmena (1973), Carlos Saura's Cría cuervos (1976), and Pedro Almodóvar's Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto? (1984).
   Although he co-scripted Bienvenido Mr Marshall!, arguably Bardem is somewhat shortchanged by the selection of films - the absence of Calle Mayor / Main Street (Juan Antonio Bardem, 1956) seems a glaring omission. Perhaps Berlanga's films from the period have better withstood the passing of time, their sharpness not dulled one iota (I say this having seen very few of Bardem's films). But Bardem's public criticisms of the cinema made in Spain - and his political commitment (which saw him jailed during the dictatorship - he was a member of the Communist party) - are addressed and / or echoed in the form and content of films made by Erice and Saura. The surprise is perhaps how much Berlanga and Bardem got past the censors - although their films were censored, they still seem pretty blunt in their criticisms of the regime and the Establishment - although maybe the metaphorical style of Erice and Saura (with which I'm more familiar) was a case of filmmakers learning from the postwar generation and cloaking their critique in a layer of opacity (although they still had their fair share of battles with State censorship). 
   Another connection across the years is Fernando Fernán Gómez, represented here as an actor in Berlanga and Bardem's joint directorial debut Esa pareja feliz (made in 1951 but not released until 1953) and El espíritu de la colmena, but he also worked with Saura (Ana y los lobos / Ana and the Wolves (1973), Mama cumplé 100 años / Mama Turns 100 (1979), and Los zancos / The Stiltwalkers (1984)) and Almodóvar (Todo sobre mi madre / All About My Mother (1999)). He is little known beyond the Erice film in the UK, but he was a colossus of Spanish cinema (he died in 2007) with a long and varied career both in front of and behind the camera (he had 212 credits as an actor and 30 as a director (the majority of which were also written by him)) - should I ever finish the Carlos Saura Challenge (hahaha...), I wouldn't mind investigating the films he directed.
   Although his films satirise social issues and regularly skewer the Establishment (both during and after the dictatorship), Berlanga had a more complicated political background than Bardem - Berlanga's father was a Republican who was jailed after the Civil War, at which juncture the future director joined the División Azul (a volunteer regiment sent by Franco to fight alongside the Germans on the Russian Front during World War Two), but he would later officially become 'an enemy of the regime' after the gathering known as the Salamanca Conversations in 1955 (the occasion of Bardem's infamous statement at the top of this post).
   Almodóvar's films more obviously connect with those of Berlanga (although Bardem repeatedly returned to Almodóvar's favoured genre of melodrama) - while Berlanga's work often depicts a realistic social milieu, the humour taps in to Spanish traditions of costumbrismo (effectively a series of stereotypes relating to the rural and working classes, not to be taken as realistic, which took on an ironic edge from the 1950s) and esperpento (in which a distorted version of reality is utilised in order to critique it), which can also be discerned in some of the films by the man from La Mancha (and also those of the other Spanish director who has a retrospective at Leeds - Álex de la Iglesia (who I will write about next week)).
   Both Berlanga and Bardem had long careers - the former directed his last feature in 1999, the latter in 1998 - so there are plenty more of their films to explore if the retrospective piques your interest.

I will add links to the respective reviews of the films listed below as and when they go online.