Marshland (La isla mínima, Spain, 2014)

In the quagmire

Between the victory for socialists in the 1982 election and Franco’s death, seven years earlier, Spain was in the quagmire of transition (La Transición) between a fascist dictatorship and democracy. Alberto Rodriquez’s (he co-wrote and directed) police procedural serial killer thriller uses this time to investigate what is was like to be stuck between the two worlds. 

The film starts with a particular time, 20 September 1980, when Eta (the Basque nationalist organisation) had killed four civil guards; TV footage shows us a crowd making fascist salutes. No doubt those who ‘did all right’ under Franco, and were without moral compunction, did not want change; particularly if they actively supported repressive policies. Mismatched cops Juan (Javier Gutiérrez), an ex-fascist, and Pedro (Raúl Arévalo), a democrat unhappy with rate of progress away from Francoism, are thrown together in an Andalucian backwater to investigate the crimes. The extraordinary aerial shots (see above) of the title sequence give an other worldly feel to the place which, the cops soon find, works to its own rules. However Pedro notes it’s the same everywhere, meaning the forces of reaction are very strong.

If the narrative is sometimes creaky, the grotesquerie of the serial killings is never explained, the performances and cinematography more than make up for any failings. Although female characters are mostly victims, that was surely true to the time when machismo meant women was firmly planted in their ‘place’. Indeed, the murdered young women all had dreams of leaving the stagnant backwater.

After the death of Franco, Spain institutionalised ‘forgetting’ about the civil war as a way of forcing reconciliation (Hugo Blick’s brilliant TV serial Black Earth Rising, UK 2018, dealt with the same issue in Rwanda). When a socialist government comes to power this gets overturned in an attempt to confront the truth of the past before being revoked by the conservatives (what are they afraid of?). Currently, the past is being dug up (literally in the case of graves) again and films like Marshland are crucial in reminding us about the past so we can try to ensure mistakes are not repeated.

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Pan’s Labyrinth Guide (El laberinto del fauno, Spain-Mexico-USA, 2006)

I’ve just published a new study guide (buy it here). Here’s the introduction: 

Pan’s Labyrinth  is set in 1944, five years after the end of the Spanish civil war, when the last of the resistance to the fascist forces of General Franco were being crushed. However the inspiration for the film was the 11thSeptember 2001 terrorist attacks on America. In his illuminating ‘Director’s commentary’ Guillermo del Toro states his perception of “brutality, innocence and war” changed after the destruction of the ‘two towers’ in New York. He saw that the response in America to the attacks was one of fear and obedience to a national authoritarian mandate. An example of this was when the American press failed to challenge President George W. Bush’s insistence that Iraq had to be invaded because Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of ‘mass destruction’. This proved to be a lie and although the military intervention deposed the dictator it resulted increased conflict in the region. More recently the authoritarian instincts of President Trump have further tarnished America’s reputation in the world.

In his commentary del Toro was emphasising that the film is not specifically about Spain in 1944, although it has much to tell us about the psychology of fascists. By using the tropes of the fairy tale the film juxtaposes the worldview of an 11-year-old girl, who is open to new experiences, with the restricted mind-set of her fascist stepfather. By mixing the ‘innocent’ world of the pre-pubescent girl with grim realities of Franco’s repressive Spain, del Toro shows that the brutality inherent in the authoritarian mind-set has no place in civilised society.

Del Toro’s film blurs the boundaries between reality and fantasy and illustrates how close-mindedness and self-interest corrupt the human spirit. There is a feeling of doom hanging over the film because we know the resistance, who fought against the fascists, lost their battle and Spain suffered over 30 more years of Francoist rule. Because of this we may feel that Ofelia is better off dead as Princess Moana than alive in a corrupt world. Whether she is dead or actually transformed into a princess is a key question in the film. As we shall see for del Toro there’s no doubt that she survives but the film itself is more ambivalent.

Although the film isn’t about the Spanish civil war only it is helpful to understand the historical context.

The Spanish Civil War

The Second Spanish Republic was formed in 1931 and in 1936 the Popular Front, a coalition of left wing organisations, won power in an election. Later that year a coup d’etat was thwarted however this led to the start of the civil war where right wing groups, led by the military, rebelled against the democratically elected administration. In Morocco, part of which was at the time a protectorate of Spain, General Franco emerged as the rebel’s leader and, supported by Hitler and Mussolini, was victorious after nearly three years of war. The Catholic Church, highly influential in Spain, supported the fascists.

Franco ruled Spain as a dictator until his death in 1975. Afterwards, the monarchy was restored and democracy returned though only at the cost of burying the past. The ‘Pact of Forgetting’, instituted during the transition to democracy, meant that there could be no recriminations for crimes committed during the Franco years but also that memorials to Franco were no longer maintained. It wasn’t until the Law of Historical Memory became law in 2007 that it became possible to officially exhume the past, both actually and metaphorically. Attempts were made to identify victims buried in mass graves and to acknowledge the crimes of the Franco era. However, when a conservative government was elected in 2011 support for the law was withdrawn. When, in 2018, the socialists regained power they proposed a ‘truth commission’ to ensure, amongst other things, those with criminal records for opposing Franco would have their names cleared.

Unsurprisingly a number of Spanish films from these years focused on the theme of coming to terms with the past and ghosts were often used as a metaphor:

Their here-but-not-here borderline existence, between the dead and the living, blurs the binary divide that constructs our perception of reality. Ghosts remind us that we need to confront our past if we want to move ahead and construct a better future. (Colmeiro 2011)

Del Toro was responsible for two of these: his third film as a director, The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del Diablo, Spain-Mexico-France-Argentina, 2001), and The Orphanage (El orfanato, Spain, 2007), which he produced. The blurred ‘binary divide’ between reality and fantasy is important in Pan’s Labyrinthtoo. This film reminds us of those who fought a losing battle against fascism to ensure, hopefully, we do not allow fascists to take power again. 

Although del Toro is Mexican, tens of thousands of Spaniards went into exile in his country so the war is also part of his heritage. This no doubt helped him represent a Spanish perspective on the war convincingly unlike Ken Loach whose Land and Freedom (UK-Spain-Germany-Italy-France, 1995), whilst a gripping film, is more obviously one made by an outsider.

Conclusion

Pan’s Labyrinth was a considerable box office success, even outside Spain. The hegemony of Hollywood in the west means that, generally, non-American films struggle to make an impact outside their home markets. Pan’s Labyrinth was successful because of the emotional engagement audiences had with Ofelia’s plight and the supreme craft of the film. It is a terrible state of affairs that his warning against the fascist mind set is even more relevant today than it was when the film was released. After the failure of ‘free market capitalism’, seen most obviously in the financial crash of 2008, right wing populism has made strides at the ballot box in many countries. Del Toro’s humanism is a potent antidote to this inward-looking politics and his film can be read as a warning, through Ofelia’s death, that we are in danger of giving in to the fear whipped up by demagogues.

The Olive Tree (El olivo, Spain-Germany, 2016)

Past and future

The filmmaking team (and spouses) of director Icíar Bollaín and scriptwriter Paul Laverty (who wrote I, Daniel Blake amongst others of Ken Loach’s films) made the brilliant Even the Rain and if The Olive Tree isn’t quite that good it’s still a film to relish.

I moaned a few posts back at being bored of man-centred storied so having a young woman, Alma (Anna Castillo), was a good start, particularly one who was fighting patriarchal bullshit that appears to be particularly influential in Spain. The narrative centres around the relationship with her grandfather, who’s declining into dementia, and the olive tree which represents past values. If that suggests a reactionary film, which would be typical of the politics of melodrama, then that would be wrong because the film has the present to rail against. The 2007-08 financial crash, municipal corruption and patriarchal values are shown for their destructive qualities against which tradition family values, represented by the 2000 year-old olive tree, are clearly superior.

I felt slightly anxious throughout that the film would veer to much toward the feel-good. I’m not against feeling good but that, through catharsis, is the political project of mainstream cinema so we momentarily forget our ills. A political film should enrage the audience to action. As noted, melodrama is not ideal for this, because it focuses on individuals rather than people acting together, however it is an excellent vehicle for raising awareness if not stimulating change. That is especially true for a well-told tale that, with sympathetic performances, the The Olive Tree offers.

Room in Rome (Habitación en Roma, Spain, 2010)

Stranger in lu(s)v(t)

Strangers in lu(s)v(t)

As far as I know Room in Rome didn’t get a cinema release in Britain, somewhat surprising as it written and directed by Julio Medem, whose films like Sex and Lucia and Lovers of the Arctic Circle (Spain-France, 1998) made some impact. Add the highly marketable bodies of Elena Anaya (a Medem and Almodovar regular) and Natasha Yarovenko, who spend virtually the whole film in states of undress, it’s even more surprising that no distributor would take the risk. Medem said it was his most successfully pre-sold film after Sex and Lucia. The film is  mostly in English, presumably for commercial reasons. Fortunately I stumbled across it on Amazon Instant Video (not comfortable with giving that company a plug) and thoroughly enjoyed the ‘strangers spend a night together’ narrative.

As a heterosexual male I would have to admit that the women’s bodies were part of the attraction but Medem’s fluid visual style, even though it’s virtually wholly set in a hotel room, and the beautiful cinematography (Alex Catalán) make this a visual feast. For much of the film the women, only one of whom is a lesbian (Anaya’s Alba), about their lives; Medem’s (he scripted, loosely based on  In Bed (En la came, Chile, 2005)) postmodern playfulness is in evidence in these tales, but not excessively so. In the original the couple are heterosexual. I don’t know why Medem switched the gender of one of the lovers, though he does favour female protagonists, but the characters’ sexuality seemed incidental.; they are two strangers who connect for one night.

The central question of the film is ‘can strangers fall in love ‘at first sight’ or is it lust that is driving them?’ To succeed in engaging an audience (other than those who only want to feast on the pornographic elements) for nearly two hours requires powerful performances and both the leads are brilliant. Anaya is a great actor but Yarovenko was new to me and she matches the Spaniard’s performance; they are both entirely convincing. It could be good to see more of her in film.

Beyond the performances, it is Medem’s direction, where the camera will drift off to admire the paintings in the room (Cupid appears several times), that gives the film weight for me; I’m not sure why that is the case. Others found it pretentious in part and Jocelyn Pook’s soundtrack also divided opinion: I loved it.

 

The Impossible (Spain, 2012)

Wish I weren't here

Wish I weren’t here

In the first film post of the year I talked about international cinema and The Impossible is another good example. For many people the only clue that the film is Spanish would come if they stayed to watch the end credits where the, actors apart, names are indubitably from the Iberian peninsula. Why would anyone think it was Spanish? After all the film is in English, focuses upon an English family and has enough spectacle for a Hollywood film. The clue that it’s not Hollywood is in the dearth of American characters; the most prominent of which, though briefly seen, are portrayed as bossy and selfish. Despite the film’s brilliance, its struggling to make an impact in America, though it is still on a limited release there.

The film recounts the true story (if it weren’t true we wouldn’t believe it I expect) of a Spanish family caught by the tsunami in Thailand, in 2004. Aussie Watts and Scot McGregor are playing English characters though in recognition that this will give the film more commercial prospects. In other words, if they hadn’t had their nationalities transposed the 30m Euro budget wouldn’t have been available. Only 30m?! It looked a lot more, the tsunami is brilliantly shown as is the devastation afterwards. JA Bayona’s febrile direction captures the fraught circumstances of the survivors, both physically and psychologically, as their first thoughts are for their missing members of their families.

It is in this that the film really triumphs; its portrayal of the survivors’ desperation to find their loved ones is truly moving. I doubt I’ll see a more lachrymose movie this year. The cast is exemplary particularly Lucas, the elder son, (Tom Holland) who is the focus of much of the narrative.

The film has been criticised for, typically, turning a developing world tragedy into a drama focusing upon westerners. A well thought through piece on this can be accessed here. The argument does hold water though, as noted above, the economics of filmmaking are such that a story of a Thai family, or even Thailand, would not get made to this scale. The anonymous bloggers states:

‘When the tsunami subsides, the film’s dubious racial politics make an unwelcome reappearance. Maria is tended to by a villageful of kindly Thais, whose job seems to be rescuing white holidaymakers while not saying anything.’

This is a misrepresentation as one of the rescuers constants talks to Maria (Watts) albeit in the form of ‘jabbering’. But I don’t think this is a colonialist view of other languages but a representation from Maria’s perspective. I’ve no doubt that the man’s words (almost certainly encouraging) were perceived as ‘jabber’ in her painful and anxious state. In addition, the (silent it is true) locals who tend are shown to be wonderfully caring; but the film’s not their story. Later, at the hospital, the Thais are shown to be dealing with chaos both professionally and with care. That said, I would like to see a film that dealt with the appropriation of the fishermans’ devastated land to build tourist hotels in the aftermath – see Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’.

Mawkishness is often very near the lachrymose but this is a true story (more or less) and as a portrayal of human resilience and community (I was tearing up badly when Henry – McGregor – is offered mobile phone to complete a call home) I doubt this will be bettered this year.

Even the Rain (También la lluvia, Spain-Mexico-France, 2010)

Watching the movie

Watching the movie

Sacrificing the workers

Sacrificing the workers

It’s no surprise that this is a political film with regular Ken Loach collaborator, Paul Laverty, as scriptwriter; indeed the director, Icíar Bollaín (and Laverty’s wife) appeared in Loach’s Land and Freedom (1995). Gael Garcia Bernal adds his star wattage (so far unseduced by Hollywood though he’s slated to appear in a 20th Century Fox production Zorro Reborn) which, along with terrific Bolivian locations, offers a gripping investigation into the colonialism of Colombus and multinational companies.

One of the locations is Cochabamba and it uses the local indigenous Quechua population’s protests, in 2000, against the privatisation of water as a backdrop to the making of a film, Bernal is the director, about Columbus. The title is taken from a phrase that ‘even the rain’ is being privatised. Increasingly the backdrop is foregrounded as the filmmaker’s get embroiled in the state’s attempt to suppress the rebellion with force. It is this narrative overlap that, quite brilliantly, allows the film to interrogate its own role in exploiting the locals as extras. A dialectic is set up between the Europeans making the film and the original rapacious Portuguese. In this it reminded me of Under Fire (US, 1983), a brilliant indie film about America’s involvement in Nicaragua.

The performances are great, particularly Luis Tosar as the film’s producer who has to confront his own morality. I don’t understand how such an engaging film failed to find much of an audience. The narrative is utterly gripping as the insurrection gets bloodier and includes a ‘race against time’ conclusion that’s as crowd pleasing as any Hollywood chase. Well I like to think so.

Hierro (Spain, 2009)

Against the odds

This has a 5.6 user rating on imdb and I can only imagine that audiences, expecting a horror movie, were disappointed by the slow pace of this beautifully made film. Mostly shot on the desolate Canary island, Hierro, this Orphange-influenced mother-looking-for-son film is graced by fabulous direction by Gabe Ibanez (his first feature). Although the film retreads the brilliant Orphanage, there is plenty of mileage in the narrative. The film should be seen if only for the brilliantly constructed mise en scene which is complimented by an expressive use of framing.

Hierro is a rare film that grips from the first shot, a car being driven on an isolated road in the dark by an anxious mother with fidgety child. Generically we know there’s going to be a crash but Ibanez’s cutting to the boy’s toy car adds both foreboding and a ‘fantastic’ element to the scene (‘fantastic’ as in Todorov’s definition when it’s unclear whether events are supernatural or not).

The protagonist, Elena Anaya (familiar from Sex and Lucia) is a beguiling presence and if there are a few plot holes (why did the police let everyone off the ferry when there was a child missing?) it matters little when the direction is so riveting.