[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?

Ordinary Boys (Chico normales, Spain, 2008)

Typical lads

Typical lads

The premise of this film is fascinating: it’s set in a Moroccan village where the Madrid bombers originated and looks at the ordinary lives of its residents. It doesn’t quite work for me but there was much that was engaging.

The film attempts to look at the social context – poverty – that leads individuals to become terrorists (the film’s careful to distinguish the Madrid bombing terrorism from the Palestinian resistance which, it rightly says, is justified). Focusing on  two ‘ordinary boys’, and female Law graduate Rabia, the film portrays the lack of opportunity for the young and the rather fatalistic attitude of the older. Whilst one lad gets mixed up with a drug dealing gang, the other thinks going (illegally) to Spain will solve his problems. However we never get to see the ‘fundamentalists’ who persuaded the bombers – their meeting place has ‘closed down’. I think this is problematic but probably a function of the documentary style, the cast are non actors + locations shooting, of the film

The position of women in Muslim society is also dealt with through Rabia who rejects becoming at the ‘beck and call’ of a man and desires equality. Throughout the film she rejects wearing the hijab, saying she’ll wear it when she wants. At the film’s close she decides to do but this isn’t explained.

Although Spanish in origin Ordinary Boys is, in effect, a Moroccan film and so is a fascinating, if flawed, glimpse into another world not so far away (from the west).

Sex and Lucia (Sexo y Lucia (Spain-France, 2001)

Postmodern tragedy

Postmodern tragedy

Director – Julio Medem
Producer – Fernand Bovaira, Enrique Lopez Lavigne
Script – Julio Medem
Art Direction – Montse Sanz
Cinematography – Kiko de la Rica
Music – Alberto Iglesias
Cast – Paz Vega, Tristan Ulloa, Najwa Nimri, Daniel Freire
Running time 128 mins.

Narrative, and shifting identities, are themes that run through Medem’s films which, along with his striking visual style, have contributed to him being seen as an arthouse auteur. Indeed, it is tempting to go the whole auteur hog and use biographical details of Medem’s life to try and make sense of his films. Although he is a Basque filmmaker he had not made films specifically about the region until his most recent film the documentary La Pelota vasca. La piel contra la piedra (Basque Pelota. Skin Against Stone, Spain, 2003). His films have, however, have dealt with the Civil War (eg Vacas, (Cows),1991) so it is worth noting that his father was German; a particularly important nationality in Lovers of the Arctic Circle (1998). But as our perspective on narrative we shall focus on the postmodern narrative of the film.

Postmodern films, amongst a plethora of other things, highlight their own existence as a medium, not in the modernist (or Brechtian) purpose of alienating audiences from the text, as in Vivre sa Vie, but in order to question the notion that anything can have definitive meaning. The title sequence of Sex and Lucia (in Spanish the title, Lucia y El Sexo, draws attention to the character before the libido), appears as if it is being typed – using traditional typewriter font – on a word processor, and a central character is a novelist, the fabricated nature of the film is immediately emphasised.

In mainstream cinema we expect the narrative world (diegesis) presented to be logical, in its own terms. The cause-effect chain of narrative is crucial in creating a convincing canvas on which events are acted out. In Sex and Lucia it soon becomes clear (?!) that the events we are seeing may be a fabrication – a dramatisation of Lorenzo’s novel. Or, it could be that Lorenzo is writing a novel based on his experiences, which we are shown in flashback. In addition, of course, we are aware that we are watching a fictional film peopled by characters. Whether the film is simply an example of postmodern frippery or a profound statement about the human condition (or somewhere in between) is for the audience to decide:

Medem may have disrobed most of the cast, leaving their bodies exposed, but the plot remains as guarded as a virgin with a chastity belt. That’s why Sex and Lucía is so alluring. (Marta Barber Miami Herald, Friday, August 9, 2002 – http://www.rottentomatoes.com/click/movie-1115429/reviews.php?critic=columns&sortby=default&page=1&rid=753034)

Or:

“Sex and Lucia” is a beautifully made piece of unwatchable drivel. (Ian Waldron-Mantgani http://www.rottentomatoes.com/click/movie-1115429/reviews.php?critic=columns&sortby=default&page=1&rid=318987, accessed, October 2003)

Those who are unconvinced by the contrivance of narrative can, at least, enjoy the craftsmanship of the filmmaking and the performances of the cast. In addition pleasure can be gained from the film’s use of the  symbolic code:

•    The moon (the daughter is called Luna), representing female sexuality, is graphically matched (via editing) with a light (Lucia) and a pregnancy test
•    The phallic lighthouse is juxtaposed with a hole that both Lucia and Carlos/Antonio fall into (Lorenzo starts the film by telling Lucia he’s ‘in a hole’); this hole is also at the end of Lorenzo’s story where it takes us back to the middle of the narrative
•    Lucia’s orgasm is followed by Elena giving birth

The postmodern aesthetic is also present in the film’s form as Medem explains:

the movie was shot using CineAlta Hi-Definition 24p. It was incredible. This was the third movie in the world using this format. Since Lucia was escaping from a tragedy, she escapes that beautiful island that she steps on. And suddenly those characters have the right to do with that island whatever they want; for example, with the light. Also, when I went to the island with the camera, I forced the light. This overexposed light that almost blinds you, it’s like the characters erasing themselves and starting from zero, so they can start again. That’s the idea I had when I was shooting with my small camera when I first went to the island…

Every story, in a sense, is a search. You’re searching for the reason for that story to exist. There’s always a destiny. (http://www.indiewire.com/people/int_Medem_Julio_020711.html, accessed October 2003)

Although the film claims, at its conclusion, that stories can change halfway, this obviously isn’t the case with film. The elusiveness of the narrative virtually requires a second viewing but it may remain an enigma, or a chimera according to taste, even after close study.

The Butterfly’s Tongue (La Lengua de las mariposas, Spain, 1999)

The death of life

The death of life

SPOILERS: DON’T READ THIS UNTIL YOU’VE SEEN THIS WONDERFUL FILM.

This is an extraordinary film; the bulk of it is the coming of age story of the asthmatic Moncho (a performance by Manuel Lozano to rival Ana Torrent in Spirit of the Beehive) and then, in the final 10 minutes, the Civil War starts. The beautifully presented scenes of a young boy growing up end abruptly; I can’t recall another film that suddenly, and unflinchingly, switches tone so precipitously at the climax. It is an immensely powerful transition, portraying the horrendous nature of Civil War and fascism.

Fernando Fernán Gómez, who plays the teacher who mentors Moncho, played the father in Beehive and so links the films. His performance, like those of all the principals, is brilliant; he sensitively conveys the feelings of a teacher at the end of his career who loves introducing children to the vagaries of life. New German Cinema dealt with W.Germany coming to terms with its Nazi past; Spanish cinema is coming to terms with the country’s fascist history.

The Spirit of the Beehive (El Espíritu de la colmena, Spain, 1973)

Ana shares with the 'monster'

Ana shares with the monster

“Now without bitterness nor contempt

now without fear of changes;

only thirst…a thirst

of a little something that kills me.

Rivers of life, where do you run?

Air! it’s air I need.

What do you see in the dark depths?

What is it that makes you tremble and fall silent?

I can’t see! I look on like

a blindman face to face with the sun.

I’m going to fall in the place where

they who fall can never get up.”

This poem is recited by a primary school child directly to the camera (text quoted from http://www.xtheunknown.com/Reviews/SpiritBeehiveN) and is a plea for enlightenment, a state impossible in a fascist society. Set during the Civil War (1936-9) The Spirit of the Beehive is a poetic meditation on childhood innocence and the reality of fascist hatred. Its poetic, tangential, take on repression was necessary because it was made whilst the victor of the Civil War, Franco, was still in power. This was just over 30 years ago. 25% of Austrians voted for neo-fascists in their recent election and even the British National Party is attractive to some! The problem is still with us.

The attraction of fascism is in some people’s need for a strong leader and others need to dominate. Neither psychological state is healthy but may be intrinsic to human personality so it is something we should be ready to fight.

What is the ‘spirit of the beehive’? The central character, in the benchmark performance by a child in cinema, is 6 year-old Ana (Ana Torrent) who cannot tell the difference between reality and film (the movie starts with a screening of Frankenstein in the village). Her sister tells her that the monster lives just outside the village so Ana seeks it only to find a wounded Republican (who opposed the fascist Nationalists). Her father devotes his life to studying bees – trying to understand their spirit – and her mother longs after a lost lover – presumably a victim of the War. Their house is itself shot as if it were a hive – honeycombed leading is on the windows – suggesting that the father is trying to understand the human spirit; how could it have succumbed to the fascists?

The film is not only poetic in its use of metaphor, the imagery is often breathtaking to observe. The director, Victor Erice, is not afraid of using the long take to allow audiences to think about what they are seeing. The Spirit of the Beehive is undoubtedly one of the greatest of films.

The Orphanage (El Orfanato, Spain, 2007)

 

Unknown

Boy or ghost?

WARNING: THIS IS FULL OF SPOILERS. This movie pinned me back in my seat in the cinema but, as it’s an example of the ‘fantastic’ – where everything might simply be a figment of the protagonist’s imagination – I wondered whether it would work on a second viewing: it does. The opening half hour, certainly, is less successful if you know the ending, but after that the sheer craft of the film is more than engaging.

The film uses many of the tropes of the ghost story (though, as my son noted, ‘thank god someone in a horror movie has turned the light on’) and so, although there’s nothing supernatural about the ‘ghosts’, it is a truly horrific story as we find that the mother, who loves her son deeply, has inadvertently killed him. The moment of realisation is one the most chilling moments in cinema.

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

261029-pans_labyrinth_image_2A brilliant fantasy combining the brutal realism of the Spanish Civil War with a young girl’s escapist (after a fashion) fantasies. There’s a brilliant line describing fascism (accepting orders unthinkingly) and Sergio Lopez plays evil brilliantly. Visually stunning (all on E15m apparently) and emotionally gripping. One of the movies of the year. (Pictureville) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0457430/

Update:

I’ve just seen the film for the fourth time and it gets better with viewing (and age). The protagonist, Ofelia, is ‘coming of age’ during the dying embers of the Civil War which, we know, Franco has not only won but will rule for another 30 years. Her escape into her fantasy world is entirely rational. I thought, when I first saw it, that the film might be dallying in the ‘fantastic’, where the fantasy may or may not be true; however, subsequently I’m convinced it’s not. In addition it becomes clearer that the story is as much about Cpt Vidal as Ofelia. The psychopathology of fascism is engraved in his pained expression and inability to relate to others, other than through violence. It is painful that such pathologies are starting to thrive in Europe, in Greece in particular, in response to economic austerity. Of course the response of the oppressed would better being of the ‘left’ than the ‘right’ but the Establishment prefers to deal with the latter, knowing it so well.

Ofelia’s is about becoming an adult, she has to complete the faun’s (or Pan’s) tasks before the full moon (of her first period). She is an active protagonist, unusual for a female, particularly a pre-pubscent one (unless we are in Miyazaki Hayao’s universe). Mercedes, who becomes a surrogate mother to her because her own is incapacitated by pregnancy, is also a dynamic character; particularly in the scene when she confronts Vidal. However I do wonder about the film’s sexual politics when we find Ofelia in the fairy tale world told to sit beside her father, who’s positioned highest in the mise en scene. Fairy tales are, of course, patriarchal; maybe that’s del Toro’s point.

Add a beautiful mise en scene, thrilling battle sequences, a villain to viscerally hate and an ending that… well just in case you haven’t seen it… you have a magnificent film.

2018 update: I’ve published a guide to the film, available here.

Talk to Her (Spain, 2002)

Is Almodovar the most popular arthouse director in the west? I’ve found this and Bad Education (2004) a disappointment and I’m not sure why. I enjoy daring cinema particularly with a sense of humour. Talk to Her delivers both but I guess I’m bored with the Almodovar formula. Nevertheless if you haven’t seen it do so. (DVD, 2). http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0287467/