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

Update, August 2017: This post has been moved to my new blog, apart from the clip below (which I've been unable to transfer) - the post can now be found here.


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.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Preview: Spanish cinema at the 28th Leeds International Film Festival

El verdugo / The Executioner (Luis García Berlanga, 1964)
   The 28th Leeds International Film Festival begins this week, running between 5th - 20th November, and an unusually high number of Spanish films are screening there.
   As I mentioned in my previous post, Sobre la marxa / The Creator of the Jungle (Jordi Morató, 2014) will be showing, but there are also two Spanish retrospectives: one combining the early films of Luis García Berlanga and Juan Antonio Bardem with a few of their cinematic descendants (with films by Víctor Erice, Carlos Saura, and Pedro Almodóvar), and the other featuring the mayhem of Álex de la Iglesia (playing as part of the Fanomenon strand). Full details of screening times for all of the Spanish films can be found here.
   I'll be reviewing the Spanish films - and others - for Eye for Film and Take One. My intention is to put up a post here for each of the two retrospectives with a brief overview and collate the links to the relevant reviews. Sobre la marxa will get its own post because it fits with my current documentary focus, and the screening of Cría cuervos / Raise Ravens means that the Carlos Saura Challenge will restart (as I'll be reviewing the film as well, that extended post may not appear until the week after the festival).

Friday, 31 October 2014

Visual XIV Cine Novísimo at Márgenes (1 - 10th November)

Cenizas (Carlos Balbuena, 2013)

Until 10th November, Márgenes is hosting 7 of the films from the official selection of the 14th edition of the festival VISUAL Cine Novísimo (which ran between 18th to 24th October). The festival has always focussed on newer talents, but since 2012 has concentrated on óperas primas (directorial debuts). This year two films shared the Best Film prize: Slimane (José A. Alayón, 2013) - which is among the films available at Márgenes - and Sobre la marxa / Creator of the Jungle (Jordi Morató, 2014), which I'll be seeing at the Leeds Film Festival in just over a week.
The seven films (which include fiction and documentary) available to view for free are:

The only one I've seen so far (just this evening) is Cenizas. Produced by Pere Portabella's 59Films, it is a starkly beautiful (the crisp black and white cinematography by Carlos Balbuena and Marta Ayuso is stunning) and almost wordless film, which follows a man as he returns to his home town (seemingly after a death in the family - the film opens with a funeral) and explores the surrounding landscapes. The gear shift about 8 minutes from the end didn't entirely work for me (although seeing Portabella's name in the credits contextualised it somewhat), but I'll be interested to see what Balbuena does next because he definitely has an eye for framing strong visual compositions.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Edificio España / The Building (Víctor Moreno, 2013)

'[I]f the myth states that Madrid has the highest "national" significance, then a critique of the "nation" as the myth conceives it becomes possible through a critical reading of Madrid.' (Resina 2001: 69)

    Inaugurated in 1953 (works began in 1947), Edificio España is a colossus occupying an entire block in the heart of Madrid, where the Gran Vía meets Plaza de España. Designed by architect Julián Otamendi (also responsible for the neighbouring Torre de Madrid, which took over the title of the capital's tallest building in 1957), Edificio España - as its name suggests - was part of Franco's project to change Spain's image in the world, to build a symbol of prosperity to dispel the lingering image of an impoverished and extended postwar period. Deliberately American in style, this immense structure effectively contained a small city within it - the opening credits of Víctor Moreno's documentary outline its vast capacity: 28 floors, 200 dwellings, 400 offices, shopping arcades, various restaurants, and a luxury hotel - at its peak, 3500 people passed through its main foyer on a daily basis.
    Although it remains imposing, its grandeur and status as the centre of city life started to fade in the 1970s as other buildings came to prominence (given the political transition underway in that era, I wonder whether there was a question of it being tainted by association - the building allowed to remain a monument to the past while the country and its citizens strove to move on). No attempt was made to bring the structure up to date with the times (no doubt in part because of the scale of such an endeavour and the problems associated with listed buildings), although it retained an emblematic status through its sheer visibility. However in 2005, when the Spanish housing bubble was still expanding, the building was bought by Banco Santander with the intention of completely renovating it - only the listed elements (the façade, the shopping arcades, the main foyer, and the staircases) would remain the same. When works began in 2007, it piqued the interest of filmmaker Víctor Moreno who quickly applied for permission to film the transformation of this architectural landmark.
    In September I mentioned the film in a footnote to my piece on documentary and censorship in relation to Rocío (Fernando Ruiz Vergara, 1980). Edificio España came to my attention at the start of 2014 when Moreno and the team behind the film went to the press to reveal that for the previous fifteen months Banco Santander had been suppressing the documentary - and through threat of legal action had forbidden them from talking about it - by invoking a clause in the contract Moreno signed when he was given permission to film inside the building. The clause said that they had the right to block the film if it conflicted with the commercial interests of the property / company - they did not explain to the director what damage they believed the film could do to their investment (it had already screened at two festivals before they invoked the veto). In fact the bank is never mentioned within the film (the opening credits state that an 'investment fund' bought the building for renovation, but at no point is it identified by name), which in any case is more interested in the process - work - of transformation than any possible end result. It was not Moreno's intention to make an allegory for the current state of Spain - it was supposed to be (and is) grounded in a specific physical location and set of spaces, and records the disappearance of those spaces - but he also inadvertently captured the bursting of the housing bubble, and humanises the economic situation via the hundreds of workers of various nationalities who were part of the initial stage of the renovation. Edificio España once again stands for the nation, but now as a monumental metaphor for Spain's present economic crisis.
    The resulting outcry once the story broke of the bank's suppression of the film - the Spanish are unsurprisingly vigilant about the infringement of their freedom of expression (what was hard won, will be defended) - led to the bank lifting its injunction in early February and the film is now allowed to be screened in its original form. The film has its UK premiere today at the Barbican as part of Spain (NOW)! 2014, a season of contemporary art and culture from Spain taking place in London in October and November.

All images are taken from the film's Facebook page
    As stated above, the opening credits detail the scale of the structure that we can see before us in the vertiginous opening shot (which I'm guessing was filmed from the Torre de Madrid given the angle), but the filmmaking itself was almost as mammoth a task. Filming over the course of a year - with a coda filmed two years later in 2009 - Moreno collected 200 hours of footage (which he didn't watch while he was shooting - he stresses in this interview that Edificio España was an unplanned project, and that when he found out about the renovation he simply wanted to record what happened to the building), with the style of the film (handheld and observational, without voiceover or score) dictated by what was going on and the need to be able to move around quickly and freely. Although Moreno doesn't impose a narrative on the film - we see and hear various people working on the building but there is no voiceover and the protagonist is Edificio España itself - there was arguably a shift in his focus as shooting progressed. He starts out interested in the empty and abandoned spaces - you can hear the work underway but we don't initially see many people - but although Moreno remains an unobtrusive presence, as the film progresses he gets closer to people and they get to know each other, before the workers disappear when the renovation stalls. This is mirrored in the order in which we encounter the three security guards and their respective relationships with the building: first is Franco, an exiled Armenian, who seems relatively new to the building at least in so far as he asks questions about what it was like in its heyday; next is Herminio, who has worked there for two years and almost acts as an historical guide to the building and its legends; and finally José, whose life has been touched by the building - he spent his wedding night in the hotel thirty years ago - but he sees this as immaterial (he's surprised when Moreno asks if he went to look at the room he stayed in before it was gutted - "No. What for?"). It's the progression of an outsider coming in, becoming immersed in the place, but ultimately only being left with memories and recollections as the physical spaces disappear around them.

    The film starts in a series of abandoned spaces, with captions detailing the floor and zone (apartments, offices) of the building they are located in. 'Abandoned' is the best way to describe them as they resemble the aftermath of an apocalyptic event - people appear to have left in a hurry. You might expect to see traces of the lives lived within these walls, but parts of their lives have been left behind - clothes litter the floor, children's drawings are still stuck on walls, family photographs are scattered around, and kitchenware is stacked on worktops. A sporting trophy - or is it an urn? - is later discovered behind a radiator cover as one of the apartments is stripped, the labourer who discovers it stopping momentarily to read the inscription before balancing it haphazardly on the removed cover and it falls to the floor, another addition to the detritus. In the office spaces, office furniture is everywhere, the desks overflow with paperwork, and the stubbed-out ends of two cigarettes sit in an ashtray as if the smoker(s) left mid smoke. The lack of voiceover gives us no context for these images and an air of unreality develops - the building is stuck in a timeless limbo. As workers clear cupboards, lockers, and filing cabinets out of the building, the walls are patterned by absences - a faded patchwork of spaces no longer occupied. 
    Edificio España resembles a comb - the front façade is the straight edge with the 'teeth' tucked behind, a series of light wells that jut out the length of the building and contribute to the labyrinthine nature of the building. Getting lost is a recurring theme - an increasingly irate José, muttering curses under his breath, gets lost going to the canteen (camera in tow), frustratingly finding himself the wrong side of a wall and doorway that are no longer passable - and even the planners are unable to work out where they are on their architectural plans (they have to open a window to orient themselves). Corridors, stairwells, and lifts are interchangeable from the get-go - an Escher-like loop of narrow, confined spaces - but the sense of deja vu increases as the building is gutted and the spaces are anonymised and homogenised, and stripped of what personality they had (although that personality is represented via the objects left behind - including a number of framed photographs of the building and its staff).

    It is this stripping and gutting - actions that require effort, and that sound slightly violent - that Moreno is drawn to ('work' is a common theme in those of his films I have seen so far, and this one stands as a valorisation of work(ers)), both in terms of the transformation of a defined space (captions usually tell us where we are - although not when people get lost) but also the physical work that that transformation entails. This is manual labour in its truest sense, a physically exhausting itinerary of backbreaking work done with very little mechanical aid. We see diggers and large pneumatic drills in use in the underground levels but there's no way to get them higher up the building - the temperamental lifts (which frequently take people to somewhere other than they have requested) are tiny, only holding a few workers at a time. And so this building is stripped by hand, sledgehammer, and pickaxe, with parquet flooring dug up, carpets ripped up, and walls knocked down in cramped, dark spaces made even smaller by what is being removed quickly piling up around them. The sound of the physical thuds of sledgehammers along with the recurring scrape of shovels against concrete as rubble is chucked into wheelbarrows develops into a percussive rhythm as the workers fall into unified motions that are occasionally interrupted by hi-jinx (certain people play to the camera) or a collective winding-up of the overseeing foreman (who implores them to work "con alegría").

    Moreno is a largely unobtrusive presence, sometimes simply observing from the sidelines in the larger spaces (as on the floors that have already been knocked through into one open plan space) or navigating the narrow confines of apartments in the process of being deconstructed, trying to keep out of the way of those who make up a human conveyor belt removing extraneous materials. The various 'segments' or strands of the film - the abandoned spaces, the workers, process of transformation, the security guards, the foremen, the planners / real estate people - are interwoven / edited in what seems to be a loosely chronological order. Just as the conversations with security guards mirror Moreno's progress into Edificio España, his relationship with the labourers also develops over the year. They initially look indirectly at the camera in sideways glances (part uncertainty about the camera but also perhaps wondering why he isn't helping them - "The man only films, eh?" asks one Russian [this questioning look (for assistance) reappears in Moreno's La piedra / The Stone (2013) when he silently observes someone trying to get a massive boulder into the back of their truck]), although some of the more gregarious ones excitedly play to the camera, but as time passes they get used to his presence and openly engage with him (explaining what they're doing or just continuing their conversations regardless of the camera).
    The building becomes a modern Tower of Babel, Spanish labourers working alongside immigrant workers from a multitude of countries, and although Spanish predominates as the lingua franca of the building, not everyone speaks it and not all cultural references are shared (one Spaniard is incredulous that an Ecuadorian and a Russian don't know of Mickey Mouse or Heidi respectively). The clash of cultures is perhaps most apparent at mealtimes - a crowded and noisy break room incorporates cuisines and conversations of distinct cultural origins (for example, there is a priceless exchange of glances between two Spaniards while they listen to an explanation as to why having two or three wives at the same time is considered advantageous in other cultures). Aside from two instances where the audio from news broadcasts plays on the soundtrack - the first is a positive economic forecast delivered by then-Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, on 4th October 2007 if the audio matches the date we see concurrently on the security camera footage, the second is a report indicating that the economic storm has come into view - it is only in the interactions between workers in in-between times and spaces that the economic crisis that Spain is hurtling towards is hinted at. The planners spinning their spiel about how many units they will fit into the building are almost in a bubble of their own (they reminded me of parts of Mercedes Álvarez's Mercado de futuros / Futures Market (2011) - real estate fantasies removed from reality), with their plans being adjusted due to planning requirements rather than belt-tightening. In contrast, the cost of living is a recurring theme to the conversations between workers ("We're going up like prices...Then we'll go down like salaries" observes one man sardonically to another in a lift) and the imminent bursting of the housing bubble can be found in one man saying that he has to find another apartment because his landlord's daughter needs to move into his current one as she can't afford the house she lives in ("Why move to a house if you know you can't pay for it?" - need vs. want).

    The human impact can also be seen in the only long-time occupant of Edificio España encountered by Moreno - Germán, who has held out against leaving the building for as long as possible. In the second half of the film we briefly see a front door with a paper sign taped to the wall saying 'occupied', on a floor that is otherwise already gutted (we see the shared internal wall with a spraypainted 'No' on it - one of many markers for the demolition workers, but also a sign of resistance in this instance) but it isn't until near the end of the film that we meet the occupier as he leaves his home of thirty years for the last time. In contrast to the abandoned spaces, Germán's apartment is light, clean and completely empty, all of his possessions removed - he opens each door in turn for Moreno to capture every room, shyly presenting his home ("Today I have many memories of my wife [who died in 2004] [...] because this is like destroying her work"). The camera doesn't follow him out of the building - he has fretted on the way down in the lift about being untidy without his tie or glasses - but watches him leave through the glass doors of the main foyer. He doesn't look back. The camera travels back up in the lift to witness the 'occupied' sign being removed and the subsequent destruction of the apartment. A sledgehammer smashes through the 'No' from within the last domesticated space in the building. Following the progress of Germán's front door and the resulting rubble, the camera moves outside of the building for the first time, going to the landfill site to watch the remains of a family home pounded to dust. The film then cuts back to the interior hallway, the space of the front door now bricked up and plastered over, with a close up showing the corners of the 'occupied' sign still sellotaped to the wall - more traces of absences, of unoccupied spaces. The camera cuts to the other side of the 180 degree line to show the reverse of that doorway - the internal walls are gone and all that remains is a nondescript concrete space. A caption appears: '23rd Floor. Germán's Home'.

    When Moreno briefly returned two years later, very few people were left - many had to return to their home countries due to lack of work, and one of the site managers tells him that most of the Spanish labourers are now on the dole. As he walks around the building, we see that it has been divested of its personality with everything stripped back to rough concrete, a series of identikit spaces that lack the magic over which Herminio enthused when he spoke of the legends and stories that develop around buildings when they endure for a certain amount of time. The renovations came to a complete halt in 2010, the building's still-impressive façade covering a bare structure within. This highly visible shell of a dictator's conscious image-making can be read in a number of ways. It remains a Francoist symbol of power, and an unmissable one due to its size and position. Does Moreno capture the demolition of this symbol (predominantly by immigrants), or its endurance (the film ends underground in the building's foundations - it is still standing, after all)? By extension the structure also represents another side of Franco's endeavour - as Herminio explains in relation to the artistic friezes in the foyer, "To put it plainly, it's in praise of capitalism" - and from that perspective the gutted Edificio España symbolises the failure of that system, of the banks, and the property market, on an immense scale that is impossible to ignore or obscure.

Hopefully Edificio España will travel on the festival circuit in the UK - I seem to have developed a bit of a thing for abandoned spaces and buildings on film this year, but I think that there is more to the film than simply recording of the demolition/renovation of an iconic building (by its very iconicity, it stands for something more than just itself). I don't often write longer pieces on here anymore - although, brace yourselves, the Carlos Saura Challenge will be resurrected soon - but I really liked the film and it's well worth seeking out if you get the opportunity (and many of Moreno's other films are online - follow the links within the piece). I hope to write further about Edificio España, in conjunction with some of the other contemporary Spanish documentaries I've been watching - I'm currently mulling over how to group or contrast them.