Everybody Knows (Todos lo saben, Spain-France-Italy, 2018)

Not knowing

Asghar Farhadi is one of the few arthouse auteurs whose films are almost guaranteed to be distributed in the UK; possibly because he’s won two ‘best foreigner’ Oscars. Everybody Knows showcases his command of film language, his ability to bend genre and boasts a great cast including Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz and Ricardo Darín.

It also revisits About Elly (Darbareye Elly, Iran-France, 2009) that used the thriller genre trope of a missing person to unravel familial and societal mores of middle class Iranian society. Some reviewers have suggested that Everybody Knows isn’t quite as successful because Farhadi (he wrote and directed) is in a foreign landscape. I don’t know Spain well enough to comment though little of the milieux didn’t ring true and I got a clear sense of the traditional importance of ‘land’ to the locals. What didn’t quite convince me was the use of genre: readers of the blog will know I love melodrama but when a particularly ‘soapy’ narrative development occurs in the film I didn’t feel it worked. It was too generic because, whereas in About Elly we always knew we were in an ‘arthouse’ film, the development centralises melodrama as the defining discourse. That’s not to say the film isn’t gripping and interesting and that’s not simply because Cruz, Bardem and Darín are in the cast. In fact the whole ensemble, the narrative is built around a family wedding, are superb. The early scenes convey with vigour the excitement of a family get together as the camera and editing are almost a whirlwind as the numerous characters are introduced. It is bravura filmmaking.

Another reservation was the conclusion that felt rather abrupt. Sure, Farhadi makes clear the repercussions of the events of the film will continue after the last reel but the psychological trauma of ‘missing’ isn’t addressed. This could be Farhadi using genre to set up an expectation and then not delivering upon it. However, I don’t think my dissatisfaction was caused by its ‘failure’ as a genre film, but the ending didn’t ‘ring’ psychologically true.

I don’t want to end on a negative note because I thoroughly enjoyed the film. Apparently it has been in gestation for some time but Farhadi was waiting for Cruz and Bardem to be available. It was worth the wait and the film is worth seeing if only for the charismatic ease with which these two stars operate. Add Ricardo Darín, the great Argentinean actor who carries the weight of a less flashy role superbly, and you have an unmissable film.

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Sunday’s Illness (La enfermedad del domingo Spain, 2018)

An intense scrutiny of parenthood

Despite it’s terrible title (as far as I can tell it’s not an idiomatic expression in Spain) the film made a splash at last year’s Berlin festival and was picked up by Netflix which only released it in cinemas in Spain. Of course, no UK distributor may have picked it up anyway but it is a film that should be seen in a theatre as Ramón Salazar’s direction is quite exceptional. His composition of shots is exemplary aided by beautiful cinematography (Ricardo de Gracia) and brilliant production design (Sylvia Steinbrecht). Salazar also scripted this tale about the nature of parents’ responsibility toward their children. I hesitate to outline the plot in any more detail because Salazar slowly reveals what’s actually happening in a superbly developed exposition.

I’m seeing the director is being compared to Almodovar however whilst the latter leans toward the hysterical, Salazar actually takes a step back from the melodrama offering a cooler take on the emotions on show. This is done through the slow pacing, scenes seem to carry on a little too long, giving the audience time to contemplate what they are seeing. The mise en scene, most of the film is shot in the stunning Spain-France borderlands in winter, adds to the coolness as well as to the beauty of the mise en scene.

There’s a scene, on what appears to be a tourist bob sleigh type contraption, that manages, in a long take, to encapsulate the film’s theme. It is brilliantly staged. The acting is exemplary, Susi Sanchez(an Almodovar regular) and Bárbara Lennie are captivating as the leads; it is a film where men are almost completely marginalised.

Nico Casal’s score is sparingly used but adds greatly to the atmosphere. I would be surprised if this isn’t in my top ten films of 2019 and wouldn’t it be great to organise a festival of films Netflix won’t let you see in cinema so we can gorge and their big screen greatness?

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.

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.