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)

Stranger 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.

[REC] (Spain, 2007)

Naughty girl

While there might be nothing original about this zombie movie – the girl above originates from Night of the Living Dead (1968) – there’s plenty of thrills to be derived from the ‘it’s all being recorded as it happens’; also seen in The Blair Witch Project (1998), Day of the Dead (also 2007) and predating Cloverfield (2008). There’s much to admire about the use of location in this low budget shocker (there’s just enough gore) as it makes a virtue of the restricted locations and is short enough not to outstay its welcome. The audio’s excellent too, never has the sound of panic been so vividly rendered as it has in the film’s climactic scene.

Timecrimes (Los cronocrímenes, Spain, 2007)

Seeing the future... or is it the past?

This is a nicely constructed low tech science fiction time travel story that entwines itself with horror and a horrific moral dilemma. For those familiar with time travel paradox stories, Timecrimes often seems to be treading well trodden water but then twists the narrative in interesting ways.

No spoilers here but I do wonder if it was necessary for the main female character to be naked. It’s not an exploitation movie, though the iconography of the pink-hooded maniac comes from the genre. I think first time writer-director Nacho Vigalondo could have made more of the fact that the protagonist, excellently played by Karra Elejalde, is straying from the path when he spies the topless woman in the woods. However, while the genre elements are satisfying present, the moral aspect is under-played so maybe we’re meant to deduce that Hector’s dilemma(s) are a result of his sexual attention wandering.

What is it with the groceries on the driveway?