Speaking Truth About Power: Documentary, Censorship, and Rocío (Fernando Ruiz Vergara, 1980)

This is the last of the older pieces that I’m intending to reprint on this new(er) blog, but it differs from the others: this wasn’t originally published on the old blog but at Mediático, an academic media and film studies blog focused on Iberian and Latin American media cultures. At the time, I described the film as a rabbit hole that I fell down – I haven’t experienced many instances (before or since) where a film gets so completely stuck in my head, or where my deconstruction of a film (working out how it works) feels genuinely exciting. In the post I wrote on the old blog by way of introduction to the subject (linking to the article), I said:

I’m someone who thinks through writing (anyone who has spoken to me immediately after a film viewing will know that I’m rarely coherent in my thoughts at that stage), but it’s not often that I write due to a sense of compulsion – Rocío is, however, one of those instances. I wrote because the film was stuck in my head, because I couldn’t find anything written about it in English (beyond a New York Times story about the trial), because in the emphasis placed on the censorship of the film people seem to have avoided writing about it as a film (which is a shame because it is an incredibly rich, and visually distinctive, piece of filmmaking), and because it tapped into the sheer enjoyment I get from properly delving into an unfamiliar film and working out how it ‘functions’. I decided to focus on the two aspects that pulled me down the rabbit hole – the story of the injustice suffered by Fernando Ruiz Vergara and Rocío, and the visual components of the film itself.

Of all the writing I’ve done since finishing my PhD and stepping out of academia, this is the piece that I am happiest with  – my thanks to Catherine Grant at Mediático for saying that I was free to republish it on my own site.

 

I’m currently researching contemporary Spanish documentary as part of my interest in ‘el otro cine español’, but I’ve become sidetracked by a documentary from a completely different era. My interest started with a book review of El caso Rocío: La historia de una película secuestrada por la transición [The Rocío Case: The story of a film hijacked by the Transition] in Caimán Cuadernos de Cine (May 2014): intrigued by the title and the fact that the book came with two DVDs (one the uncensored version of Rocío (Fernando Ruiz Vergara, 1980), the other a documentary (El caso Rocío (José Luis Tirado, 2013)) about the making of the film and the legal repercussions), I ordered it. Then I watched Rocío, and promptly fell down a rabbit hole.

The most straightforward way to approach the matter is probably to start from the outside and work my way in – to outline the cause of Rocío‘s notoriety before discussing the film itself. Rocío is about the annual pilgrimage to the Virgin of Rocío in the region of Huelva (Andalusia) but, in focussing on the history of the specific locale of Almonte (a hive of activity in relation to the pilgrimage), Fernando Ruiz Vergara also uncovered and recorded oral testimony of repressions suffered in the aftermath of the military coup in 1936. It was this latter aspect – specifically the naming of names, as the facts (ninety-nine men and one woman were killed in Almonte in the months following the coup) were not disputed – that was the cause of the film’s hijacking by the Spanish judiciary. The descendants of the man ‘named’ (in an act of self-censorship the filmmakers had actually cut the sound at the moment his name was said and presented an image of him that was partially obscured) as the ringleader of the repressions (José María Reales Carrasco, former mayor of Almonte) presented a criminal complaint to the courts in Seville in 1981. They accused director Fernando Ruiz Vergara, screenwriter Ana Vila, and the onscreen witness Pedro Clavijo of injuring the reputation of their father (who was deceased), deriding the Catholic religion, and publicly insulting the ceremonies held in honour of the Virgin of Rocío. The judge ordered the removal of all copies of the film from the public domain at the time of the complaint, and by the time the case reached the court the following year the complainants were seeking prison sentences for all three defendants on the charge of slander, in addition to a fine for the ‘injuries’.[1]

The slander charge would be dropped. In the documentary El caso Rocío, Francisco Baena Bocanegra (the lawyer who represented Ruiz Vergara and Vila) says that if the slander charge had stayed then the defendants would have won because they could meet the requirements of proof, and this was precisely why that charge was dropped but the more difficult to defend ‘injury’ stayed (take a moment to think about the Kafkaesque nature of that set of circumstances). By this stage the frightened 73-year old Clavijo denied making his onscreen statements (a clearly desperate measure, since it obviously was him onscreen) – in response, and of their own volition, seventeen of the older residents of Almonte travelled to Seville to back up their neighbour’s statements for the court but the judge did not allow their evidence to be admitted. After this development Fernando Ruiz Vergara insisted on taking full responsibility for film, which meant that the charges against Vila and Clavijo were dropped: the director was sentenced to two months and a day and ordered to pay a fine of 50,000 pesetas (today, 300€ plus inflation) and compensation of 10,000,000 pesetas (today, 60,000€ plus inflation), ‘in civic responsibility’, for the injury done to José María Reales Carrasco. As part of the sentence the film was also prohibited from being distributed or shown within Spain unless the two sections that referred to Reales Carrasco were removed. Ruiz Vergara refused to let the distributor cut the film, but in 1984 when the sentence was confirmed by the Supreme Tribunal, the cuts were made – the director fought to have intertitle cards inserted to indicate when a sequence had been censored. The film was shown in Spain in that form after 1984 (José Luis Tirado has uploaded that version to Youtube with English subtitles – UPDATE Aug 2017: it has been taken down), but the version that appeared on Spanish television in the 1990s lacked the intertitle cards or any acknowledgement of the censorship. Meanwhile Fernando Ruiz Vergara moved to Portugal in self-exile and would not direct another film (Tirado interviewed him shortly before his death in 2011).

What makes the case even more jaw-dropping is that it took place post-Franco, after 1977 and the end of official censorship, and towards the end of Spain’s transition to democracy: the decisions by the court span both the Transition and democracy. The judge, Luis Vivas Marzal, would later say in relation to Rocío that:

‘es indispensable inhumar y olvidar si se quiere que los sobrevivientes y las generaciones posteriores a la contienda, convivan pacífica, armónica y conciliadamente, no siendo atinado avivar los rescoldos de esa lucha para despertar rencores, odios y resentimientos adormecidos por el paso del tiempo’ [it is essential to bury and forget if one wants survivors and subsequent generations to the dispute, to coexist peacefully, harmoniously and conciliatorily, it not being wise to stoke the embers of that struggle to revive resentment, hatred and resentment numbed by the passage of time (my translation)] (Espinosa Maestre 2013: 38).

This was the prevailing attitude, commonly referred to as ‘the pact of silence’, of the Spanish Establishment during the Transition – let sleeping dogs lie. The problem is that is while the victors of the Civil War had almost forty years in which to commemorate their dead, the losers were condemned to silence during the dictatorship, unable to publicly mourn their dead and indeed often not knowing exactly where their dead were buried – they were now being told to move on and not reopen old wounds. As historian Pura Sánchez says in Tirado’s film, what the Rocío case highlights is that while the pact of silence is presented as a consensus, it was actually an imposed consensus because the sides involved were not equal.

There is one notorious instance of a drama (representing historical events) falling foul of censorship during the Transition: Pilar Miró, despite being a civilian, was hauled before a military tribunal because of what her film El crimen de Cuenca (1981) depicted of the Civil Guard. But documentary films, specifically those that addressed things the Establishment wanted off limits (which is why the slander charge was dropped in the Rocío case – because the evidence presented by the defence would have very publicly opened a can of worms), bore the brunt of ‘unofficial’ censorship or officious obstructiveness (which could take the form of withholding or blocking funding, or threatened legal sanctions): the more famous examples are El proceso de Burgos (Imanol Uribe, 1979) and Después de… (Cecilia Bartolomé and Juan José Bartolomé, 1981). Alejandro Alvarado argues that the obstacles placed in front of such films – whether during production, distribution, or exhibition – further marginalised the documentary in Spain and was partly responsible for the near disappearance of the form for more than two decades after the early 1980s (2013: 67). But even within this context, Rocío seems to be a case apart because of how long the censorship has endured. In 2005 an attempt was made to screen the original version of the film as part of a conference on ‘historical memory’, but the Reales family resurfaced and amazingly (given the momentum behind the historical memory ‘movement’ since the millennium) managed to stop the screening (the intertitled version was shown instead). In 2014, it was still illegal to exhibit Rocío uncut in Spain. The uncut DVD that comes with the book has a label stating ‘edición limitada como documento para El caso Rocío‘ [limited edition as a document for The Rocío Case]: the classification of the documentary as a document rather than a film would appear to be how they have got around the legal issue in this instance.

El caso Rocío (subtitled trailer) questions whether Fernando Ruiz Vergara was truly aware of what he was getting himself into by including the contentious sections. But given that he and Ana Vila were threatened during the filming (and the subsequent self-censorship), he must have known that trouble lay ahead. For his part, he says in Tirado’s film that once he had seen their faces there was no possibility of leaving out that part of the town’s history (he also points to the need that people had to talk about what had happened). While the various historians interviewed by Tirado emphasise Rocío‘s importance as a social document, both as a celebration of Andalusian identity, and as a nascent example of what would become the movement to reclaim historical memory in Spain, two of the other participants – Isidoro Moreno, an anthropologist who was one of the talking heads in Rocío, and Vitor Estevâo, who was DoP and one of the camera operators – argue that Ruiz Vergara could have concentrated solely on the religious pilgrimage and still have made more or less the same film (that is how Moreno phrases it, but Estevâo is almost dismissive, saying that the director could have just made a ‘pretty’ film and saved himself a lot of trouble). Could he have left out the names of those involved in what took place in Almonte in 1936? Possibly, although I think Ruiz Vergara would have seen that as a betrayal of the trust placed in him by Pedro Clavijo, and it would have had a ripple effect through the rest of the film. The emphasis placed on the sequences relating to the incidents in 1936 (and the resulting censorship) in what has been written about Rocío makes it sound as if those elements were almost ‘tacked on’ to a documentary about religious pilgrimage. But they are tightly woven into the fabric of the film because Ruiz Vergara (who was also the editor) traces the history and roots of the religious tradition and how they are interlaced with (and mirror) the social hierarchies of the area – the families wielding economic and political power in the area are also at the centre of the hermandades de la Virgin del Rocío (‘brotherhoods’ – the local bodies who organise certain aspects of the celebrations for their members), and José María Reales Carrasco was one of the founders of the main hermandad in Almonte. The director constructs a mosaic in which all the pieces matter if you want to see the full picture.

The film starts with a potted history of Christianity in Spain, the arrival of the Berbers in 711 AD and resulting Islamisation of parts of the Iberian peninsula, followed by the Church’s eventual triumph and its mission to integrate itself into rural communities. In parallel, the cult of the Virgin began, the relative scarcity of women (who were more susceptible to the diseases of the time) conferring upon them a status that was reflected in the worshipping the Virgin. After this opening ten minutes, Fernando Ruiz Vergara and writer Ana Vila continuously weave back and forth between the region in the then-present (the footage of the romería (pilgrimage) was filmed in 1977 with additional material collected during the editing process the following year), the way in which the tradition had been shaped to suit both the Church and the more powerful local families,[2] and how politics and religion (i.e. the Second Republic as a secular State) connect to the repressions in the area in the aftermath of 1936.

However the next sequence is the first hint of the striking visual composition that will mark the footage of the veneration of the Virgin of Rocío, a.k.a. La Paloma Blanca (the White Dove). It starts with Jose Hernandez Diaz (then-Professor of Art at Seville University) explaining the evolution of the Virgin statues: the original statues were mutilated by the worshippers so as to better dress them in ostentatious finery, and eventually they were mounted onto a frame so as to make them the height of an actual woman. We then watch two nuns divest a Virgin statue of its finery and take it apart so as to reveal the ravaged body underneath.[3] In what is an intensely theatrical presentation, in a darkened room so as to highlight the white and gold of the statue and the white of the nuns’ habits, Ruiz Vergara keeps the camera close, sometimes with extreme close-ups of hands intimately unfastening and removing layers of clothing and appendages (first hands, then arms), but also regularly pulling back to show the statue in various stages of déshabillé and disintegration. The sequence stands as a metaphor for how Rocío functions as a whole: our attention will be drawn to specific elements of this religious tradition and their significance within this geographic area (exploring the social, economic, and political contexts at play), with the filmmaker and his team capturing close detail but also continually pulling back to show how these specifics interconnect and fit into the bigger picture (and in the process arguably revealing a fairly ugly framework in operation beneath the celebratory and often hauntingly-beautiful surface).

Filming in 16mm on a combination of five cameras, Fernando Ruiz Vergara and his team embedded themselves in the pilgrimage of 1977 – living and sleeping alongside the pilgrims – because the director (who was from Seville and had attended previously) knew that if they left for any amount of time, they would miss the emotion of the event and key occurrences. Camera operators could film whatever caught their attention but were also instructed to look out for certain things by Ruiz Vergara (for example, the small children forcibly being made to crowd-surf in order to touch the Virgin). The camera positioning and movement noticeably change as the romería progresses; this relates to who has ‘control’ at a given moment, the filming being more immersive when ‘the crowd’ (as opposed to those higher up the social hierarchy) takes over. During the initial procession, which is conducted on horseback and in horse and carts, the cameras stay further back, at one remove and observing from the outside. The voiceover (at this point, Isidoro Moreno) tells us that this opening stage is a reaffirmation of the pre-industrial values of an agrarian and aristocraticized society: participation in the procession is a demonstration of economic standing via the ownership of horses (but also being able to afford the necessary provisions and transport). When the procession arrive at their destination, the pedestrian crowd become evident, but at this point they are there as an audience to the equestrian class display rather than active participants.

When night falls and the revelry of the broader class base begins, the camera begins to move in closer, occasionally being jostled by the dancers, with the image often coloured by the flares and lights in the crowd. People are aware of being filmed and look openly into the camera – one man spots the camera and puts his arm around the woman next to him, only for her to realise that they are being filmed and shrug his arm off her shoulder, looking askance at him. At the open air Mass the following morning, the camera withdraws to a distance again – surreptitiously capturing people yawning and otherwise looking the worse for wear after their nocturnal activities – but once the more formal ceremony is over the camera again moves amongst the masses, in ever closer proximity. Ruiz Vergara continues to overlay the footage with voiceovers explaining how historical, political, and social contexts have shaped the romería, and it is between the footage of the Mass and the next stage that the censored sections appear. The sequence explains that the hermandades started in the 17th century, but a significant concentration of them were founded after 1931 and the start of the (secular) Second Republic. Ruiz Vergara connects this with the increased ‘promotion’ of the Virgin of Rocío in the period and parallel tensions stemming from the requirement to remove religious symbols from official institutions, in line with a secular State – the killing of the ninety-nine men and one woman (people who supported the Republic) in 1936 is presented (with support from Pedro Clavijo’s testimony) as a settling of scores. After that sombre sequence the film presents some of its most stunning (and stunningly-strange) imagery. During the next part of the romería, the participants (by this point almost exclusively male) are in pursuit of a frenetic state of possession – or a kind of religious fervour – that begins at daybreak with the ‘seizing of the saint’.

With the camera handheld and in a low position, this initially plays out like the start of a riot with men pushing to clamber over barriers and the mass of people breaking out of containment to climb onto (and fall from) platforms within the Church. The cameras are so close to the action that they put us in amongst it and the confusion intensifies – are the men working together or against each other? what are they actually doing? (there is no voiceover during this footage). A series of overhead shots then show the densely-packed (male) bodies swarming around the Virgin, the framework of her pedestal swaying as the crowd staggers forward almost fighting each other to get closer to the statue, screams audible on the soundtrack. The heat is palpable and the sudden cut to outside, the sky finally visible, is like a gulp of fresh air in this heady atmosphere.

Ruiz Vergara then alternates between shots from in amongst the crowd, jostled, and looking up at either the Virgin or people and children riding on the shoulders of others, or a vantage point slightly above the crowd (as if the camera operator were being carried, which Estevâo says often happened because the crowd lifted them up to give the camera a better view) surveying the participants, some of whom appear almost punch drunk, overcome by emotion or the heat – flushed faces with shining eyes stare into the camera. The camera slowly pulls out to a wide shot revealing the size of the gathering, with the Virgin the serene eye of the human storm (we have already seen this shot – it is briefly inserted into the sequence where the nuns undress the statue). As the swirling mass carry her back into the Church, there are close-ups of the faces of those crushed around the bottom of the pedestal and of hands grasping the poles at the four corners, all emphasising the physical experience of participation and generating a sensation of airless claustrophobia in the viewer. An aggressive human chain forms (as much elbowing each other out of the way as joining together) to half pull, half bounce, the statue back into the intended position. The heat, sweat, and dust are tangible in the hazily steamed-up images captured by the cameras, once again immersing the viewer into the crowd’s experience; the camera style and editing of the sequence is shaped by, and aestheticises, the breathless giddiness of the crowd.

Every seven years, a second procession is held in August (the annual event is held in the Spring) in which the Virgin (this time dressed as a shepherdess) is carried from the sanctuary in Almonte to the hills some fifteen kilometres away. Although just as crowded, this is less frenzied; the camerawork is steadier, and takes a more observational position in comparison to the seizing of the saint. The episode takes on characteristics of a semi-mystical event – for example, via the non-diagetic music on the soundtrack (quite distinct from other sequences), and the way the statue is filmed from inside the Church as it exits, causing it to be backlit and momentarily look like a mirage in the shimmering heat – with greater emphasis given to the pagan over the formally-religious. Once night falls and the procession travels through dusty darkness, the cameras move in closer again (and in contrast to the earlier night sequence, seemingly provide the only light source apart from fire) to capture human chains eerily emerging out of the darkness, families walking side-by-side, and a cape-clad (and fully-covered) Virgin looming over the participants once more. In an echo of what happens in the Church when the Virgin returns, the crowd lift and heave her up onto a platform in the darkness (the camera by now again observing from a distance), in preparation for her to be unveiled as the first rays of sun of the new day illuminate her face. As an undulating mass of dust-streaked bodies then commence moving the Virgin for the return journey, I was put in mind of a behind-the-scenes image from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a sea of arms all reaching up to the female form. The last sequence of the film (accompanied by Salvador Távora singing ‘Herramientas’ [Tools], a paean to labour and labourers) is a montage of mainly previously-unseen footage, emphasising the workers, the land, and community participation in the romería – notably omitting images of priests or formal religious markers – and ends on a freeze frame of a cluster of hands gripping together. These final images (in combination with the shepherdess procession), stress community unity from the perspective of the working classes, and a shared regional identity, but also effectively give the festival back to the people (as opposed to its historical co-opting by the religious authorities).

In El caso Rocío, Salvador Távora suggests that Rocío‘s impact stems not simply from showing the full historical, social, and political context of the event, but that it does so through beauty. It is a shame that so little attention has been paid to the film as a film – I’ve tried to readdress that here – but Fernando Ruiz Vergara constructed such a richly interconnecting text that it is quite difficult to separate the various elements in its composition. The fallout from Rocío finished the director’s career, but he matter-of-factly says in José Luis Tirado’s film: “lo unico que pretendo es contar cosas que no se conocen, que además son importantes en todo caso por la propia historia de cualquier historia […] Y si las cosas que pasaron están aquí – pasaron – ahí está” [All I want is to tell things that aren’t known, and that are important at any rate in the history of any story […] And if the things that happened are here – they happened – well, there it is].[4] I would argue that Rocío‘s importance as a documentary goes beyond its status as a social document of the time (both in terms of what it depicts onscreen and in the subsequent treatment of the film), and a precursor of the historical memory movement, to the actual standard it set in terms of documentary as a cinematic form – it is both visually striking and a brave and incisive examination of power and its abuses in a microcosm for the wider situation in contemporaneous Spain.

 

Notes –
[1] The factual information regarding the trial is taken from El caso Rocío (book and film) and Alvarado (2010). (Go back)
[2] Both had economic interests in common stemming from land ownership, while the hermandades (usually headed by those same families) are profitable lay organisations with obvious religious connections. Ruiz Vergara researched parish records for the financial information, including details of profits, relating to the romería of 1975. (Go back)
[3] The role of women is very restricted in relation to the romería – the dressing of the Virgin is one of the few roles of importance that they are shown enacting in Rocío. See Sánchez (2013) for further details. (Go back)
[4] It seems unlikely that a film about the subject would be treated the same way today (although, that said, it is still illegal to exhibit the full version of Rocío), but freedom of expression is apparently still vulnerable to curtailment by the powerful in Spain: Banco Santander suppressed Víctor Moreno’s documentary Edificio España (about the renovation of that iconic building, owned by the bank) for fifteen months until the director went to the press and the resulting outcry led to the injunction being lifted in early 2014 (video interview with Moreno). (Go back)

 

References –
Alvarado, A. (2010) – ‘Maldita Rocío: la película más prohibida, la que algunos quisieran ignorar‘, Blogs&Docs, accessed 19th August 2014.
Alvarado, A. (2013) – ‘Un lobo con piel de cordero: La censura en el cine documental después de Franco’, in del Río Sánchez et al., pp.67-78.
del Río Sánchez, A., F. Espinosa Maestre, and J.L. Tirado (ed.s) (2013) – El caso Rocío: La historia de una película secuestrada por la transición, Seville: Aconcagua Libros. (ISBN: 9788496178847).
Espinosa Maestre, F. (2013) – ‘Algunas claves ocultas de Rocío: Los sucesos del 32 en Almonte y la “cuestión agraria”‘, in del Río Sánchez et al., pp.19-46.
Sánchez, P. (2013) – ‘Así en la tierra como en el cielo: Reflexiones sobre las mujeres en los ritos festivos, a propósito de Rocío‘, in del Río Sánchez et al., pp.89-98.

Advertisements

Reprint: Edificio España / The Building (Víctor Moreno, 2013)

This piece was originally posted on the old blog in October 2014 (how the film came to my attention is explained within the piece) – I have only edited it for clarity (some of my sentences are too long in the original version) and so that any dates referred to make sense. All of the images included below are from the film’s Facebook page, rather than my normal habit of creating screenshots (the DVD hadn’t been released at this point – when I contacted him to ask about possible ways of seeing the film, Víctor Moreno kindly gave me access to an online screener). The film pays attention to two themes that I find myself drawn to: processes of work; and marked absences in architectural spaces.

 

‘[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, 3,500 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, filmmaker Víctor Moreno quickly applied for permission to film the transformation of this architectural landmark.

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.

Once the story broke about the bank’s suppression of the film, the resulting outcry – 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 had its UK premiere in October 2014 at the Barbican as part of Spain (NOW)! 2014.

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 (he explains how the project evolved in this interview), 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 a tour 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 because 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, 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 its labyrinthine nature. 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 outset – an Escher-like loop of narrow, confined spaces – but the sense of déjà vu increases as the building is gutted and the spaces are anonymised, 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 toil done with very little mechanical aid. We see diggers and large pneumatic drills 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. Parquet flooring is dug up, carpets ripped up, and walls knocked down in cramped, dark spaces made even smaller by what is being removed quickly piling up in the vicinity. 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. Initially they look indirectly at the camera in sideways glances (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) where he silently observes someone trying to get a massive boulder into the back of their truck]), 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. 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 the 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 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. Everything has been 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.

Edificio España is available to buy on DVD with optional English subtitles.

This is the last of the pieces that I am reprinting from the old blog. There will be one more piece in the Reprint series (next week), but it’s an article that was first published elsewhere.

Reprint: A Collective Impulse

This piece was originally published on the old blog in April 2015; it was a culmination of my investigations into ‘el otro cine español’ thus far, and also a form of preparation for attending the D’A Festival later that month. An earlier post – this one – explains why I was looking at this particular set of films. When I first started this new blog, I wrote a post outlining where I was up to with my ‘otro cine español’ project but not much has happened since (although if you click on the ‘otro cine español’ tag at the foot of this post, you will be able to see other connected pieces). My trip to the D’A Festival in April 2015 mainly stemmed from a realisation that if I wanted to see these films (and their newer incarnations), then I would need to travel to festivals because it is difficult to cross paths with them otherwise. But I’ve had to accept that I don’t currently have the resources for festival trips, and have put the project to one side for the time being – although I keep an eye on the various Spanish online platforms that might host such films. For now, this piece and the one written specifically for this blog are a summation of the project.

I haven’t attempted to update the main part of the text (I haven’t stayed up to date with the saga of Spanish film finance, although I don’t expect that the situation has improved at all – if anything, it’s likely to have got worse) but I am rejigging the postscript because the availability status of several of the films has changed (so that info is current as of August 2017).

 

Un impulso colectivo

Marginal cinemas – or cinema being made on the margins, outside the norms of a given industrial context – are nearly always present, if not always widely visible. In the past few years in Spain, specific actions by the Rajoy government (for example, dismantling the existing film finance infrastructure without putting anything in its place, and in September 2012 raising the IVA [VAT] on entertainment (including cinema tickets) from 8% to 21%), in combination with the dire economic situation, have thrown film production in Spain into disarray and further undermined confidence in the Spanish film industry – an industry that was already habitually said to be in near-perpetual crisis. These circumstances have exacerbated the financial precariousness of those filmmakers already operating on the margins; the current reliance on self-funding and / or crowdfunding is not sustainable in the long term, and nor does it afford people a secure way of making a living. At the same time, the visibility of these films on the margins has increased because their success at film festivals abroad has raised their profiles at home. This international recognition is often presented by the press as a fillip for a beleaguered industry that these filmmakers nonetheless remain outside of.

From an outsider’s perspective (i.e. mine), there seem to be two events that crystallised the growing attention directed at goings-on on the margins: the September 2013 issue of Caimán Cuadernos de Cine, which was dedicated to ‘el otro cine español’ (the first time I had seen these films presented as being related to each other, despite their disparities), and the ‘Un impulso colectivo’ [A Collective Impulse] section (which takes its name from programmer Carlos Losilla’s Caimán article) at the D’A – Festival Internacional de Cinema D’Autor de Barcelona in April 2014. That’s not to say that these types of films weren’t being supported and championed elsewhere – many screened abroad and / or at festivals such as San Sebastián and Seville prior to these two events – but Caimán and the D’A Festival drew attention to the films and filmmakers as a group in a way that seems important to me because cinema is not created in a vacuum, and the idea of a group (however nebulous) foregrounds that these films are not isolated or unrelated occurrences.

A brief outline of each of the 14 films in ‘Un impulso colectivo’ can be found here. In this post I am going to consider the films as a group in order to highlight some areas of commonality across the programme.

Form follows content –
The ‘Un impulso colectivo’ programme offered a panorama of marginal cinema(s) in Spain, encompassing a range of financial models (including self-financing, crowdfunding, local grants and subsidies) and diverse genres and styles (a deadpan sci-fi, a musical-comedy, essay films, documentaries, and social dramas among them). The films collectively demonstrate that lack of money does not equate with a lack of ambition or signify a lower standard of visual or technical competence. For example, in El triste olor de la carne (dir. Cristóbal Arteaga) the use of one continuous take in conjunction with recurring diegetic sound (Mariano Rajoy’s 2013 national address plays on radios in cars and on the bus, making the architect of Spanish austerity almost omniscient within the narrative) reflects the way in which financial disaster pursues, and is closing in on, Alfredo (Alfredo Rodríguez); the visual and the aural are combined to position the viewer inescapably alongside Alfredo throughout his ordeal, and create an emotionally draining experience.

There are distinct forms and structures in operation across the programme. For example, Vidaextra (dir. Ramiro Ledo) and Une histoire seule (dir. Xurxo Chirro & Aguinaldo Fructuoso) create dialogues with other texts (Peter Weiss’s The Aesthetics of Resistance and the work of Jean-Luc Godard respectively) in order to expand on a worldview or explore the filmmakers’ own experiences. In other films, the actual process of telling a story becomes central to the form they take: in different ways, Uranes (dir. Chema García Ibarra), Árboles (dir. Colectivo Los Hijos [Javier Fernández Vázquez, Luis López Carrasco, Natalia Marín Sancho]), Ilusión (dir. Daniel Castro), Los primeros días (dir. Juan Rayos), and Sobre la marxa (dir. Jordi Morató) all make storytelling, or the play of artistic creation, part of their structure and exploration of broader themes. In Los primeros días, the rehearsals are interwoven with cast interviews and footage of later performances; we see the text take on new meaning for the children as they live the experience, but the juxtapositions in the structure also reinforce the theme of life’s transient nature. Filmmakers also utilise Spain’s past (in the form of Spanish colonialism and the Transition) to draw parallels and highlight connections with events in contemporary Spain in Árboles, Ilusión, and El Futuro (dir. Luis López Carrasco).

‘The crisis’ and human connections –
The economic crisis and its fallout is perhaps unsurprisingly the most persistent theme, and is manifested in various guises. Most straightforwardly, Edificio España (dir. Víctor Moreno) inadvertently captures the moments leading up to the construction bubble bursting and the subsequent sense of paralysis, while El triste olor de la carne takes up the economic theme on the level of personal devastation. In a more comedic mode, Ilusión shows economic circumstances impinging on the personal (pursuing an artistic dream) and the industrial (the film industry’s unwillingness to take a financial risk) in Daniel’s quixotic quest to make a musical about the political pacts that formed Spain’s democracy. The crisis also plays out via generational discontent, as seen in Las aventuras de Lily ojos de gato (dir. Yonay Boix) and Vidaextra where people in their late-twenties / early-thirties are stuck in a kind of arrested development, unable to fulfil the expectations of adulthood, at least in part because of social precarity and the impossibility of reliably supporting themselves. There is an undercurrent of frustration and anger – and in some cases the sad weariness of defeat – in many of the representations of contemporary social circumstances.

While several of the films – Uranes, Cenizas (dir. Carlos Balbuena), Sobre la marxa – focus on individuals in solitude (whether by preference or otherwise), the majority show informal communities held together by either friendship or shared experience. Several of these – for example, Edificio España and Paradiso (dir. Omar A. Razzak) – centre on a specific locations, and spaces in danger of desertion; the observed absences in those spaces serve to highlight the connections between those still present. But in the films where these communities represent support networks, there is an emphasis on physicality and the tactility of human interactions – whether the young immigrants playing football and larking about in Slimane (dir. José A. Alayón), the children throwing and dancing each other around the stage in Los primeros días, or the alcohol-induced flirtations and bonhomie in Las aventuras de Lily ojos de gato. Similarly, the conversation at the centre of Vidaextra explores the need for a sense of belonging, to feel part of something bigger than yourself, but also for the society you live in to in some way reflect your values and ideals. Most of the films in ‘Un impulso colectivo’ are rooted in a specific social context – with varying degrees of explicitness, they say something about Spain today – but in the parallels drawn between past and present, many of the filmmakers also suggest the possibility of (or more pointedly, the need for) change and a collective resistance to a continuation of the status quo.

I’ve only skimmed the surface, but taken together these films underline that the richness of cinema is to be found in its plurality; ‘Un impulso colectivo’ gave a taste of a multitude of styles and voices (although notably few women) standing together in the current ‘otro cine español’.

 

Availability

As far as I can tell, ÁrbolesUne histoire seule, and Vidaextra are not currently available in any format. Back in 2015 most of these films were tricky to access, so I’d like to repeat my thanks to the following people for allowing me access to their work: Luis López Carrasco (twice over), Xurxo Chirro, Ramiro Ledo, Víctor Moreno (for giving me access to Edificio España before the DVD was available), Juan Rayos, Lourdes Pérez at Producción El Viaje (and Jonay García at Digital 104 for passing that request along), and Deica audiovisual.

DVD: Edificio España, Ilusión (no subtitles), Paradiso, Sobre la marxa. [the links take you to the most straightforward way to buy them if you’re in the UK, but they may be available elsewhere as well]

Filmin: CenizasEl FuturoEl triste olor de la carne, Los primeros díasSlimane, Sobre la marxa. [although Filmin can be viewed from anywhere, it will only allow you to purchase a subscription if you are in Spain – either do as I do (buy the subscription while visiting Spain), or find a friendly Spaniard to purchase on your behalf]

Márgenes: their VOD catalogue is currently down for maintenance, so I can’t link to specific films, but they have previously had Edificio EspañaEl triste olor de la carne, and Slimane. When their catalogue is back up, I will look for links.

Vimeo: Las aventuras de Lily ojos de gato (no subtitles), Paradiso (with subtitles), Uranes (with subtitles).

Reprint: Arrebato / Rapture (Iván Zulueta, 1980)

I’ve recently had cause to consider Iván Zulueta’s underground classic on two occasions – someone emailed me to ask whether I had any information on the availability of the film (this is the subtitled version I directed them towards), and I happened to spot that it will be screening in Manchester at ¡Viva! Spanish and Latin American Festival in April as part of their focus on films from the Transition. These two things led me to read over what I’d written about Arrebato on the old blog – it was one of my favourites of the films I wrote about there – and as a result I thought that I’d briefly suspend my break from blogging in order to revisit it here within my Reprint series.
The original post (my 200th on the old blog) was written in December 2014 as my contribution to Shadowplay‘s annual event – The Late Show: Late Movie Blogathon – which focuses on films from the twilight of people’s careers. What follows below is a revised version of that piece. (Update, August 2017: where I’ve reprinted something here, I’ve decided to remove the contents of the original on the old blog and instead leave a link there to the new site (it doesn’t make much sense to have the pieces appear in two places) – however, in this instance, I have left the original to host the clip referred to further below because I have no way of transferring it).

Iván Zulueta’s career as a filmmaker was short – he made only two feature films – but if he is little-known outside of Spain, his influence is nonetheless far-reaching within subsequent generations of Spanish filmmakers. He had spent time in London and New York during the 1960s and 70s, and was strongly influenced by both the Carnaby Street vibe and psychedelia of the former and the underground filmmaking (specifically Warhol) and grubby aesthetic of the latter. His first feature – Un, dos, tres, al escondite inglés (1970) – was a pop musical about a group of music fans attempting to boycott a song contest (one that sounds similar to Eurovision), and is often described as taking inspiration from Richard Lester’s films with The Beatles. He made a multitude of abstract and experimental Super 8 films during the 1960s and 70s: a large proportion of them were either confiscated or lost, but several can be found online (they are all dialogue free – Frank Stein (1972), Masaje (1972), Aquarium (1975), En la ciudad (1976-77), A Malgam A (1976), and Leo es pardo (1976)). From the 1970s onwards he was also a film poster designer for a range of Spanish directors including José Luis Borau (his mentor), Manuel Gutiérrez Aragon, Luis Buñuel (Zulueta’s poster for Viridiana (1961) – a film the Franco regime declared didn’t exist – can be seen on the wall of José’s apartment in Arrebato) and Pedro Almodóvar (including one of my favourites, Entre tinieblas / Dark Habits), and also for the San Sebastián Film Festival (Zulueta’s father had been the Festival Director between 1957 and 1960). Zulueta made two further shorts – some ten years after Arrebato – but when he died in 2009 (at the age of 66), he had spent years in the wilderness in thrall to heroin addiction and a self-imposed exile in San Sebastián (his home city).
Given the emphasis placed on his visual focus by those interviewed in tribute programmes made after his death (almost everyone describes him as incredibly knowledgeable about all aspects of art and design, but someone who never read books), it is perhaps appropriate that my first experience of watching Arrebato was a copy with no subtitles and murky sound (one of El País‘s collection of DVDs): I clung to the images like a life raft.
To summarise the plot: In the present (Madrid in the late 1970s), film director José Sirgado (Eusebio Poncela) returns home to find that his actress ex-girlfriend Ana (Cecilia Roth) – a heroin addict like himself – has returned to his apartment after several weeks of absence. In between arguing with Ana and sliding into a drugged oblivion, José starts listening to a recording – and eventually watching a film – sent by an old acquaintance, Pedro (Will More), a younger man who is obsessed with shooting film. A lot of the film plays out in flashback as the recording causes José to remember his first strange encounter with Pedro, and also their second meeting a year ago (when Ana was also present). In the last section of the film, José goes to Pedro’s apartment to try to solve the mystery contained within the recording and accompanying film.
I can usually get by without subtitles but here I think I would have struggled even with clearer sound because the script is full of gnomic utterances, and More’s delivery is deliberately strange (Pedro’s voice is usually exaggeratedly deep, but rises when he becomes excited or ‘enraptured’ and increasingly childlike) with large parts of the film conveyed via his voiceover. The desire to lose yourself in something (or someone) is a common enough impulse but in Arrebato this ecstasy is tinged with horror, suggesting that both cinema and drugs (the chosen routes into the sublime) are vampiric forces. The film is full of moments of beguiling but unsettling beauty (cinema as enchantment) in conjunction with a building sense of claustrophobia. The latter is generated via the film’s limited locations (José’s apartment during the course of that one night, the country house where he first meets Pedro, or the bedroom of Pedro’s Madrid apartment), the action frequently taking place in the shadows (faces usually illuminated by the flickering lights of projectors), and aurally through certain repetitive elements on the soundtrack (a recurring theme features the sound of children’s toys in an uneasy lullaby, but there’s also the insistent clicking of the timer on Pedro’s camera).
The film’s title refers to a state of being that the central trio – or at least the two men – are seeking. As Pedro explains it, what they are pursuing is that sense of being enraptured in something that we have as a child, when we could spend hours focussed on one thing and in our own little world. That an object is involved is important because for Pedro this state relies upon the act of looking, but all three of them also use drugs as their gateway into rapture. Zulueta described these symbolic items as “an object that condenses a whole series of things that have shaped you” [I’m assuming that this quote comes from one of the documentaries on the subtitled DVD – I didn’t note the source in the original post]. Pedro tests the (rare) people he meets by trying to find a) their special object, and b) how susceptible they are to being enraptured.

José’s object is an album of collectible stickers depicting scenes from King Solomon’s Mines (Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton, 1950) (from Zulueta’s own childhood collection), for Ana it is a Betty Boop doll, but for Pedro it is (or will be) his own Super 8 films. His sharing of his film collection during José’s first visit becomes a performance of grimaces and pained squeals as he hasn’t managed to capture the precise (but ephemeral) thing he is after. By José’s second visit – between which times José has sent the younger man a timer for his camera so that he can record his time-lapse images with more precision – Pedro has accomplished his filmmaking intentions as far as he can at home, and in the aftermath of the visit will set out into the world to capture new images. Much like José and Ana he will slide into a world of sex and drugs (the latter eventually curtailing the former), but Pedro’s dissatisfaction with those experiences leads him back into his cinematic obsession with an even greater intensity. At the point at which he sends the recording and film to José, he has come to believe that his Super 8 camera has taken on a life of its own, and is vampirically taking his life force from him while simultaneously allowing him to reach an ever-heightened state of rapture.
Even during my somewhat incomprehensible first viewing, the charisma and chemistry of the central trio was plain to see. Eusebio Poncela – already associated with nonconformist roles at this point – was the most experienced of the three, with a certain amount of blurring between life and art given his participation in the movida (a cultural phenomena in post-dictatorship Madrid; some of its key figures, including Zulueta, appear in Pedro’s Super 8 film of a party). Despite José’s uncertain disintegration (the vampire film he has just directed is turning into a disaster, his relationship with Ana is mutually-destructive, and he’s in a downward spiral with drugs), Poncela’s stillness is the calm centre around which the more volatile other two circulate. In the reunion documentary (included on the subtitled DVD – filmed in 1998 and therefore doesn’t feature Zulueta, who was in self-exile at that point) both Poncela and Will More state that their character is Zulueta’s alter-ego – more likely the two represent different aspects of the director. More was also part of the same social crowd and had appeared in one of Zulueta’s Super 8 short films; the role of Pedro was written specifically for him. By turns childlike and sinister, More’s performance is unsettling with deliberately exaggerated vocal tics and gestures, and a breathily insinuating style of delivery on the recording. More so than José or Ana, Pedro is someone on the margins by inclination rather than social circumstances (in terms of class and money he seems comfortably off, and unlike the other two he doesn’t work). Arrebato would be More’s only significant role – he accompanied Zulueta into heroin addiction and cuts a ravaged figure in recent footage.

Although the film is undoubtedly ‘about’ the men, Cecilia Roth is nonetheless equally memorable in what was her first substantial film role. She says during the reunion documentary that as the youngest member of the team (she was 23 at the time of filming, whereas her co-stars and director were in their 30s) she was worried about playing a character older than herself – a woman “with a past” as she describes it, whereas she feels that Arrebato was “the beginning of my own past”. Roth (like Poncela) obviously went on to significant roles with Almodóvar, but arguably she has never been as incandescent as she is in the sequence in Arrebato where she dresses as Betty Boop and sings along to the record player. It is an overt and conscious performance by Ana – she stands in front of the projector screen, with the light of the projector acting as a spotlight – and an attempt to win José back (although undercut, as I noticed on my second viewing, by the fact that the song she sings is the one that plays in the scene where he introduces her to heroin). She is so alive that she jolts the camera into movement – in the only travelling shot of the film, and possessing a dynamism that is otherwise only seen in Pedro’s films, the camera follows her as she dances towards José (the original post has a clip of the sequence at this point – I no longer have the file and haven’t been able to replicate it because VLC isn’t working for me). It’s a genuine ‘a star is born’ kind of sequence, in someways at odds with the rest of the film but perhaps all the more effective for that.

Arrebato‘s reputation as a film maudit was established from the outset. It was turned down by both Berlin and Cannes on the basis of its pro-drugs attitude (although that is arguably a matter of perception given that those onscreen are devoured by their addictions) and it had a limited release in Spain, sinking more or less without a trace. In the documentary Iván Z (Andrés Duque, 2003)* – a series of conversations with Zulueta, who by then was on methadone and attempting to reenter the film business (without success) – he says that he was burnt out after Arrebato but had known while he was making it that it would likely be his only chance. He is animated when discussing cinema (and his admiration for David Lynch) and very candid about his addictions, but falters when talking about his then-current situation (he was back living with his mother in the house he was born in and likens it to The Exterminating Angel (Luis Buñuel, 1962) – the sensation of being stuck in the same place but not knowing how to get out). A sense of loss accumulates in the recurring assertions of his former colleagues that he was a genuinely exceptional talent, and a unique figure in Spanish cinema, who could have had an international career.
The influence of his second feature film however has had a far greater reach than one might suppose for a film that never had a proper theatrical release (and belies the ‘cult’ label that is often attached to it). Pedro Almodóvar is the most obvious (and possibly facile) example. He was a near contemporary (his voice appears in Arrebato – he dubbed Helena Fernán Gómez) and his 1980s films share certain aspects of Zulueta’s aesthetic style (and indeed most of Arrebato‘s cast). But there’s a freshness to Arrebato that survives, and its influence lives on more than thirty years later. My first viewing of the film was just a couple of weeks before I saw El Futuro (Luis López Carrasco, 2013) at the Bradford International Film Festival in April 2014, and it’s a clear point of reference for the latter (confirmed by the director in this interview).


Arguably Arrebato‘s current reputation within Spain means that it is now part of the acknowledged pantheon of Spanish cinema; in 2016, when the film magazine Caimán cuadernos de cine surveyed 350 film writers (critics, journalists, festival programmers, film historians, academics – no filmmakers were asked) to create a top 100 Spanish films, Arrebato occupied 5th place (ahead of it were Viridiana (Luis Buñuel, 1961), El espíritu de la colmena / The Spirit of the Beehive (Víctor Erice, 1973), El verdugo / The Executioner (Luis García Berlanga, 1963), and Plácido (Luis García Berlanga, 1961)). Writing in 2002, and arguing that the film deserved better than to be fetishised with the label ‘cult’, critic Ángel Fernández-Santos summarised Zulueta’s film thus:

Arrebato is a dark instance of pessimism. It is intricate cinema, unfathomable at some points of its crooked and tumultuous journey. And it is, above all, cinema in a raw state, disturbing, painful and great, that situates us with rare elegance in front of a vigorous and devastating image of the dissolution of conscience and the search for death. The film was conceived and built – in a long and bumpy creative process – by a complex and refined filmmaker, a one-off, gifted as few are to perceive and express feelings of desolation and despair. [my translation – the original is here]

So not exactly a laugh riot, and it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But it stayed with me for the seven months between my first viewing and when I tracked down a subtitled version in order to write about it for Shadowplay’s blogathon (the fact that I kept thinking about it was part of the reason I decided to write about it in that context). My second viewing – with the luxury of subtitles to clarify some things (but not everything) – elevated it further in my consideration, and underlined the sense that Zulueta’s subsequent disappearance was a loss for cinema. Arrebato is a haunting film, one that gets under your skin. If you get the opportunity to see it, whether on DVD or at a festival screening, take it.

* Iván Z is also included on the subtitled DVD, but can be found on YouTube with subtitles – I particularly recommend it because aside from showing Zulueta talking lucidly about himself, rather than his being filtered through other people, it also features examples of his paintings, illustrations and film posters (some of them are stunning).

Reprint: Tren de sombras / Train of Shadows (José Luis Guerin, 1997)

Tren de sombras_1

I originally wrote about Guerin’s Tren de sombras / Train of Shadows on the old blog in February 2014 (Update, August 2017: where I have reprinted something here, I have decided to remove the contents of the original on the old blog and instead leave a link there to the new site (it doesn’t make much sense to have the pieces appear in two places)). I am substantially revising that post for this entry in my Reprint series because I have partially rewatched the film this evening (I watched the opening 10 minutes or so and then the last 40 minutes) and subsequently reconsidered at least one element of my earlier piece.

I originally watched Guerin’s film because it had been mentioned multiple times in relation to El Futuro / The Future (Luis López Carrasco, 2013), in Spanish coverage at least, and having not seen the film I wasn’t sure what was being referenced. But it could also stand as a companion piece with Aita (José María de Orbe, 2010) – which I watched for the first time shortly before watching Tren de sombras – focusing as it does on a combination of (apparent) archival footage and a grand house. The connection to El Futuro is the recreation of an era, not simply representing the past but constructing a film that looks as if it was made in the era depicted. Guerin’s film is almost wordless and the only contextualisation for what we see are the opening intertitles explaining that in 1930, amateur filmmaker Gérard Fleury made a home movie in the grounds of his house, a film that would be his last as he died a few months later in mysterious circumstances while filming on a nearby lake. The intertitles also tell us that film had been in such a fragile condition that it was in no state be projected but that it has now been restored.

Back in 2014, I thought that I had misunderstood the French intertitles (there were no English subtitles on the format that I watched) precisely because I initially thought that they had managed to reassemble the 1930s family film when in actual fact Guerin recreated it (something that becomes apparent as the film progresses – so after a certain point I thought that I had confused ‘restored’ and ‘recreated’). As it happens, my French was better than I thought and the opening intertitles are a deliberate piece of misdirection on Guerin’s part. Conceived when the centenary of cinema was approaching, Tren de sombras was a manifestation of Guerin’s desire to explore the origins of filmmaking and a kind of cinematic immersion. The film’s title is a reference to a line from Maxim Gorky’s essay ‘The Kingdom of Shadows’ about his experience of watching moving pictures (by the Lumière brothers) for the first time in 1896 (there is an English translation of that text, here). It might be more accurate to say that Guerin created – as opposed to recreated (because I’m not sure that there is any Fleury family film other than the one shot by Guerin) – a realistic representation of 1930s filmmaking. It’s a testament to the quality of this reconstruction that it is perfectly believable as a 1930s film – indeed a number of reviewers have taken it at face value and refer to the film as making use of ‘found footage’.
The film opens with this 20 minute ‘home movie’, showing Fleury’s extended family at play in the grounds of their home and the surrounding countryside in the summer of 1930. We then switch to ‘the present’ and the nearby town (now in colour), before moving into the grounds of the Fleury home and then the house itself (the interior of which is not seen in the 1930s segment). It is at this point that Guerin’s film foreshadows aspects of Aita; although this house is evidently inhabited, the attention to textures, patterns, reflections – as well as the use of doorways and mirrors to frame our view and the ‘layering’ of the image (by which I mean that the depth of field alters, allowing us deeper into an image) – reminded me of the later film. This sequence is extraordinarily lush with rich colours and patterns in the interior of the house and verdant greenery outside – in conjunction with the music on the soundtrack, it put me in mind of the kind of magical otherness that I associate with Powell and Pressburger productions. The detailed layering and framing hints at what is yet to come, as Guerin and his camera turn detective and revisit the 1930s footage to peel away its layers and reveal secrets within.

Tren de sombras_2

In almost a cross between Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) and the kind of analysis that the Zapruder film has been subjected to, Guerin slows, replays, freeze frames, and enlarges different sequences of the film to follow the sightlines of those on camera. This gives new emphasis to the play of shadow and light at the back of the image and brings hidden connections and relationships to the surface. Guerin effectively plays with the language and form of cinema on the screen. The film is broken down to its constituent parts and then put back together with the grain of the image acting as a ‘witness’ to the supposed veracity of what we’re presented with, when in fact it is another layer of the show constructed by the director (the film was degraded by hand during the post-production and editing stages). The sequences that ‘reveal’ the most (shadows of simmering passions and traces of a possible love triangle) are then performed in front of us anew in colour, which is quite jarring. The use of colour in the recreation is the point at which the fakery seems apparent – I am slightly confused that those reviewers who take the 1930s footage as genuine don’t notice that it is the same actors (namely Juliette Gautier and Ivon Orvain) who appear in colour, although with some deliberately exaggerated elements of costume and make-up. In the colour section the camera moves between the different fields of view within the image, illustrating the layering of the image (and again demonstrating the importance of depth of field). As with Aita, at the end of the film I felt like I had just watched a magic show.

Tren de sombras_3

There is a French boxset (this one) containing Guerin’s Innisfree (1990), Tren de sombras, and Unos fotos en la cuidad de Sylvia / Some Photos in the City of Sylvia (2007) with optional English subtitles on all of the films.

Reprint: Pablo Larraín’s ‘Chile under Pinochet’ trilogy

This post was originally published on the old blog in November 2013 (Update, August 2017: where I have reprinted something here, I have decided to remove the contents of the original on the old blog and instead leave a link there to the new site (it doesn’t make much sense to have the pieces appear in two places)). Pablo Larraín’s new film, The Club, is released in the UK today (although apparently it’s not reaching my part of the country until the middle of April) – so I thought it was worth revisiting his previous films. The post has mainly been edited so that references to dates make sense but I’ve also simplified a couple of sentences.

I saw No (2012) in the cinema in early 2013. Although I hadn’t yet seen the two earlier films, I realised that No‘s undercurrent of alegría marked it as distinct within Larraín’s trilogy given that all three relate to Chile under Pinochet; No is like the gulp of air taken after you’ve been held under water for too long.
And life under water is shown to have been a grim and dark place. The first film – Tony Manero (2008) – is set in the darkest period of the dictatorship, in around 1977-78. The choice of year seems to have been partly shaped by the fact that Saturday Night Fever was in cinemas at that point – both the extras on the DVD and interviews contemporaneous to the film’s release reveal that the starting point was a photo of a man, which inspired in Larraín the idea of a killer who just wants to dance. In the Q&A on the DVD, Alfredo Castro (who plays Raúl, the man who wants to be ‘the Chilean Tony Manero’ in a TV dance contest) says that when they realised that the Travolta film was released in Chile in that period, they saw that they could draw some interesting parallels between the character’s behaviour and that of the State. Operating in a general atmosphere of fear and the absence of morality, Raúl doesn’t see why he shouldn’t always get his own way – so he kills in order to fulfil his dancing dream. Abhorrent as Raúl is, and despite the absurdity of his behaviour being in pursuit of the chance to win a TV lookalike / dance contest (Jonathan Romney talks of the first two films’ ‘grotesque absurdism’ (2013: 28)), the film’s occasional jet-black humour (not so much the banality of evil as the mundanity that underpins Raúl’s singleminded attention to detail in his quest to ‘be’ Tony Manero – “Two buttons?”) is undercut by the intrusion of the dangerous reality (police raids and a background undercurrent of the simmering threat of violence).

Tony Manero

Alfredo Castro is the reason I wanted to write about the films because he turns in extraordinary and completely transformative performances both in Tony Manero and Post Mortem (he takes a supporting role in No). I don’t know why – having focussed on actors for a long time in my research – but I am still surprised when an actor turns out to be completely unlike how he appears onscreen in a given film. Castro appears in the DVD Q&A, looking not just younger and more animated, but positively rejuvenated in comparison to his appearance as the pasty and almost-jaundiced Raúl. I’ve been trying to decide whether he should be described as vulpine or vulture-like (he is frequently shown in profile, drawing attention to a prominent nose) – Raúl both scents danger (he often surreptitiously observes acts of violence being carried out by others) and also circles around in the aftermath (whether relieving an unconscious man of his watch and jewellery or faking a good samaritan act with an old lady). Castro’s performance is a composition of costume (the suit) and body language, alternating between the peacock-like strut on the dancefloor and scurrying rat-like run with which Raúl makes his way around the city (he has an in-built sensor for the approach of bigger animals – he’s frequently seen hiding in doorways or behind mounds of rubble as either the military or the police patrol the area). I found it interesting that his focus is on Tony Manero, the character, rather than John Travolta, the actor (Raúl walks out of a screening of Grease with a look of incomprehension). Castro says in the Q&A that although they knew the character would be a dancer, they wanted to avoid the ‘perfect’ style of American musicals. The dancing in Saturday Night Fever is athletic rather than elegant, and perhaps more importantly is also relatable to Raúl’s social class and to the street. The restraint of Castro’s performance is made clear in the two instances when emotion floods Raúl’s face: being moved to tears in the cinema, watching Saturday Night Fever; and when he is applauded after his TV performance (his reaction here doesn’t happen after the applause at the earlier lodging-house show). On both occasions he is transformed before our eyes.

Post Mortem

The second film, Post Mortem (2010), moves further back in time to September 1973 and the military coup. It is a quietly unsettling film, and very different stylistically to the other two films. The theme (or sense) of surveillance runs through all three films – the handheld camera work in Tony Manero suggests a city under constant watch, while in No it evokes the intimidation of the security forces. Post Mortem‘s very elegant and formal framing is closer to voyeurism, indicated in our introduction to Mario (Castro) where he is standing in front of his main window, waiting for his showgirl neighbour Nancy (Antonia Zegers – luminously fragile but also playing Nancy as narcissistic and flaky enough to truly be a danger to others) to arrive home. The idea of a window is maintained by the letterbox framing throughout the film, which also suggests a restricted view: things frequently happen just out of shot (I had headphones on when I was watching it and the sound is also frequently positioned to the side or somewhere behind you), below the frame. One example is the way that Mario (and the viewer) misses the raid on Nancy’s house (we hear explosions and shouting) because Mario is looking away from the window while he is in the shower and the camera stays on him (observing him through the window). But this is also possibly a comment on people deliberately not looking – averting their eyes to an unpalatable reality (and trying to avoid being seen themselves).
Mario is a grey creature, Castro’s wolfishness from Tony Manero completely gone, his face hidden behind a curtain of light grey hair, and much like one of the cadavers whose post-mortems he records for the pathologist; he is one of the walking dead. But he is also attempting to be invisible, to get along, and not draw attention to himself – something that his apparently already deadened nature helps him with. In contrast, his female colleague (Sandra – Amparo Noguera, who played Raúl’s girlfriend in Tony Manero), although presented in an equally pallid palette of colours (costume, but also her complexion) cannot inure herself to the piles of corpses that start to stack up as the military coup unfolds; I didn’t take this to be a representation of the ‘hysterical female’, but rather someone who is fervently trying to cling to what she believes in and what she ‘knows’ in the face of obstruction, obfuscation, and denial. One gets the sense early on that this story is not going to end well, and the final wordless sequence silently foretells the horrors that were still to come for Chile in the aftermath of the coup.
Many of the same actors (Castro, Zegers, Noguera, and others) appear in all three films, but in No Gael García Bernal comes centre stage as advertising whizz-kid René Saavedra, the strategist behind the ‘No’ campaign in the referendum that would finally oust Pinochet. The choice of lead perhaps speaks to the representation of a younger generation, hope and alegría on the way, but the Mexican actor also brings with him a measure of ambiguity that suits the character; we are never really sure whether René believes in the ‘No’ cause or simply likes a challenge and views democracy as another product to sell (something suggested by his using the same lines when he introduces the first referendum piece as when he introduces the advertising promos for a soft drink (at the start of the film) or a new telenovela (at the end of the film)). Either way, his youthfulness fits with the aesthetic of the film – utilising U-matic film so as to be able to seamlessly blend archival footage into the film (about 30% of the film is archival footage according to a Larraín interview on the DVD – they called up the people who appeared in the original ‘No’ campaign and use them to play themselves, so that on the monitors the original footage shows their younger selves while they appear within the film itself as they are now, 24 years on, ‘history […] written on their bodies’ in Larraín’s words) – the video ‘feel’ of the footage and naturalistic lighting (lens flares and all) suggesting youthful adventure and moments caught on the hoof (not unlike the way the ‘No’ campaign itself was shot).

No

Alfredo Castro again transforms himself, here playing René’s lizard-like employer, an advertising executive who sides with the ‘Yes’ campaign (eventually taking it over in response to what the ‘No’ team manage to pull together) but who nonetheless recognises talent and engages in a cat-and-mouse provocation with the younger man. The back-and-forth between Lucho (Castro) and René, an almost affectionate bickering that has an undercurrent of real threat to it, and Lucho’s private talks with the Prime Minister (Jaime Vadell, who played the main pathologist in Post Mortem), provide much of the film’s humour (in addition to some of the absurdities of the world of advertising, and small touches such as the cleaner at the ‘Yes’ headquarters frequently whistling the ‘No’ campaign’s jingle); the lighthearted tone of the film mirrors the ‘No’ campaign’s ‘Happiness is coming’ sunny representations, in sharp contrast to the earlier two films. However the film still points to the darkness beyond that sunniness, whether in witness testimony about the disappeared, the State’s surveillance and attempted intimidation of the ‘No’ participants, or the cacophonous range of political opinions among the opposition. The latter includes René’s radical estranged wife (Zegers) who tells him that in taking up the challenge, he is playing by Pinochet’s rules and by extension validating what many on the Left thought would be a rigged outcome. Although the end of No is ambiguous (Larraín is quite pragmatic about the limitations of what was achieved and what Pinochet’s lasting legacy for his country was – see the interviews on the DVD), my lasting memory of the film from my first viewing was of sunshine. The trilogy goes out on a euphoric high.

 

Reprint: La madre muerta / The Dead Mother (Juanma Bajo Ulloa, 1993)

La madre muerta01

This is another in what will be a series of ‘reprints’ of posts that were on the old blog. I have edited / partially rewritten this one (and played around with the images) but the original from March 2011 can be found here (Update, August 2017: where I have reprinted something here, I have decided to remove the contents of the original on the old blog and instead leave a link there to the new site (it doesn’t make much sense to have the pieces appear in two places)). I wrote two posts about La madre muerta on the old blog, and the other one – an ‘anatomy of a scene’ post that looks very closely at a specific set piece from early in the film – is also likely to be revisited on here at some point.

Director: Juanma Bajo Ulloa
Screenplay: Juanma and Eduardo Bajo Ulloa
Cast: Karra Elejalde, Ana Álvarez, Lio, Silvia Marsó
Synopsis: During a burglary, Ismael (Elejalde) casually murders a woman and shoots her young daughter, Leire. Fifteen years later, Leire (Álvarez) is mute and has the mental age of a three-year-old. By chance Ismael sees Leire in the street and becomes convinced that she can recognise him. He decides to kidnap her…

‘La madre muerta is the story of a killer without scruples who steals chocolate from a little girl, and of how the little girl takes back the chocolate from her (now) victim years later’ –Juanma Bajo Ulloa (DVD booklet [my translation])

I first watched La madre muerta more than fifteen years ago on a Tartan Video VHS*. The scenes / aspects that I remembered most strongly before I revisited the film were: the prologue (the burglary); the scene in which Ismael tries to kidnap Leire and knocks himself out with the chloroform he has prepared for her grandmother (this is the set piece that forms the basis of the other post mentioned above); the ‘Aguadilu’ scene where Ismael pretends to be a clown to try to make Leire laugh; the intrepid investigating nurse hiding down the side of the wardrobe; and the image of Leire chained to the bed with a dog collar. Watching the DVD, I was surprised that I had no memory whatsoever of the early scene in the bar, which is incredibly violent and nasty (leaving us in no doubt, if we had any after the prologue, that Ismael is capable of anything). But perhaps the other scenes stuck in my mind because they are unsettling in a subtler fashion.

From the beginning of the film director Juanma Bajo Ulloa plays with both genre conventions and perspectives – i.e. the (physical) angle from which we view events is used to radically alter our perception of what we have seen – to continually wrongfoot the viewer. As Mark Allinson observes, the prologue has all the hallmarks of a thriller and the viewer’s ‘generic expectations’ (2003: 147) initially cause us to think that the woman we see being woken up by the intruder’s noise will be the protagonist of the film. But we barely have time to register the woman’s presence in the same room as the intruder – we hear her, rather than see her (she says “No hay dinero” [“There is no money”]) – before the intruder raises and fires the shotgun, and the woman (and mother of the title) drops to the floor (Ismael steps over her with barely a glance). Allinson suggests that our assumptions then turn to the possibilities of the investigative crime thriller, but that is also not to be – and the character who later thinks that she is in a detective film (Blanca – played by Silvia Marsó) does not triumph in her endeavours (Bajo Ulloa chirpily comments on the audio-commentary at the ‘end’ of that narrative strand that “in real life, the good don’t win” [my translation]).

La madre muerta_perspectives

In Sight & Sound, Leslie Felperin pointed out that ‘throughout the film, an edit or a camera angle obscures a view’ (1996: 46) with the intention of making events and motivations ambiguous; there are several sequences in the film where the camera takes on a character’s POV in such a way that the viewer is misled. The most infamous of these is the sequence where Blanca – the nurse who cares for Leire at the medical daycare clinic – breaks into the house to rescue Leire but then finds herself trapped. She hides down the side of the wardrobe in the room where Leire is chained to the bed. When Ismael enters the room, the camera continually returns to Blanca’s POV. Initially she cannot see him but leans forward when she hears a zip being undone and sees Ismael’s back as he stands alongside the bed, with Leire kneeling on the bed in front of him: from Blanca’s POV it looks as if Ismael is forcing Leire to perform oral sex on him. The camera then cuts to what is effectively Leire’s POV (in front of Ismael) and – in a darkly comic ‘reveal’ – the audience sees that he has been surreptitiously feeding her a bar of chocolate (both of them have a sweet tooth) that is hidden in the front of his jacket (the source of the zip noise). As Leire sits back on the bed and Ismael takes a seat, we then see a shot of Maite’s (Ismael’s girlfriend, played by Lio) eye at the doorframe – she is seeing the same scene in a mirror angle to Blanca (she is also behind Ismael but on his other side). Both women then clearly see Leire eating chocolate and come to the same conclusion as to what has transpired out of their line of sight (they take the chocolate to be a ‘reward’ – both mutter “hijo de puta”, although for slightly different reasons).

La madre muerta02

That sequence not only misleads the viewer for a comic payoff but also plays on the deep unease felt by the audience on account of the ambiguous ‘attraction’ that Leire holds for Ismael. When he goes in search of her (after his accidental sighting), his initial perspective is through a hedge and the above shot encapsulates how Ismael treats Leire as something to be looked at and watched – the framing through the gap in the hedge gives the image a peep show quality. Likewise, Maite also finds the manner in which Ismael watches Leire to be disquieting – she becomes increasingly jealous and questions Ismael’s feelings for the girl when she discovers him asleep in a chair opposite Leire’s bed. His excuse (he was worried Leire might escape) leads Maite to suggest chaining her up, which only increases the tension: as Nigel Floyd said in his review, ‘the fact that Leire, a helpless child trapped in a woman’s body, is fetishistically manacled to a bed lends a dangerous, almost perverse erotic edge to some scenes’. This comes to a head in the ‘Aguadilu’ scene where Ismael tries to make Leire laugh – he is preoccupied throughout the film by the fact that she does not smile or laugh – by putting on silly voices, making noises and painting his face like a clown. In a somewhat desperate final attempt, he decides to tickle her during which he grabs her breast, an action that was innocently intended (consciously, at least) but which visibly shocks him because he is confronted by the fact that Leire may have the mind of a child – and Álvarez’s performance of wide-eyed wonderment during the sequence is brilliantly observed – but she has the body of a woman. Although she has previously shocked him by returning his gaze – in a second sequence where he looks at her through the hedge at the clinic, a noise attracts her attention and she looks straight at him (in response, he runs off) – this scene is the first time that he acknowledges to himself that he views her as something more than a child (he furtively looks over his shoulder after he touches her breast, as if someone might catch him in the act – also an acknowledgement that what he’s doing is wrong) and also as something more than a hostage. He looks at her sadly, and then moves away from her: he is unable to look at his own reflection when he sits back down in his normal chair / observation post, and he slams the mirrored wardrobe door shut.

La madre muerta04

That he is given a moment of self-awareness is an illustration of the film’s humane treatment of its characters; although Ismael is not allowed off the hook, he is offered the chance of redemption. The film has a fairytale quality – something that it shares with two of Bajo Ulloa’s other films (Alas de mariposa / Butterfly Wings (1991) and Frágil / Fragile (2004)) – but Ismael is allowed to be something other than just a monster. Karra Elejalde’s performance is central to this. In an introductory piece in the DVD booklet, director Nacho Vigalondo – who cast Elejalde in his directorial debut, Los cronocrímenes / Timecrimes (2007) – describes the actor and his performance as “creating a character that, like the rest of the film, is a balancing act between ‘costumbrismo’ [something very specifically local] and impossible cliché, summed up in the red painted face that is as much circus-like as it is demonic. Your father’s friend, and an extraterrestrial. At the same time” (my translation). Bajo Ulloa says on the audio-commentary that his main problem after writing the script was finding the right actors to play the two central roles. Álvarez is outstanding as Leire, and utterly believable as the child trapped in a woman’s body (you do not see her ‘acting’ at any point), but Elejalde has to walk a tightrope of charm and menace while also carrying off some darkly comic sequences. The film was not warmly received by Spanish critics (the El País review – here – is so scathing that it will make you wince), but the English reviews that I have found (in Sight & Sound [not available online – but in the March 1996 issue], Time Out and Empire) took a more positive view of the unsettling combination of the tender and the twisted that the film manages to pull together through plot, character, and performance.

*There is no UK DVD but the re-mastered 3-disc ‘edición coleccionista’ – released in Spain in 2008 – has optional English subtitles for the film.

Reprint: Aita (José María de Orbe, 2010)

As I mentioned last week, over the course of the next month or so I’m planning to (re)post some pieces that were written for the original Nobody Knows Anybody blog. It was only really in late 2013 that I started to be happier with my writing – almost all of the pieces that I’m planning to reuse were written in 2014 or later. I will be rewriting/editing some of them, but this one is actually untouched (it was originally published in February 2014 – Update, August 2017: where I have reprinted something here, I have decided to remove the contents of the original on the old blog and instead leave a link there to the new site (it doesn’t make much sense to have the pieces appear in two places)) apart from the fact that I’ve taken the opportunity to learn how to make GIFs and have replaced some of the original images accordingly. The only thing that I’ve changed my mind about in relation to Aita is in the penultimate paragraph – I don’t think that the bedroom within the footage is necessarily the room that the image is projected in, but because the way in which one image flickers over the top of the other that was how it seemed to me on first viewing.

The film relates to my recurring fascination with architectural spaces that are presented as repositories for memories, or that otherwise have their history written into the fabric of their construction (a theme that will reappear in a couple of the other posts that I’m planning to revisit), but its play of light and shadow also results in a magical and slightly otherworldly film (and one of my favourites that I’ve seen in the course of writing the blog).

 

Aita (José María de Orbe, 2010)

Aita_1

This film casts a spell as a once grand, still-impressive house is depicted as a repository of memories that sporadically flicker into life on its faded and peeling walls.
Aside from a group of schoolchildren being shown the house part way through the film, we learn little of its history or the specifics of the people who once lived within it. It is old and has been expanded at various junctures with different historical tastes and styles being integrated into what nonetheless feels like a coherent space. That said, we do not really gain a sense of the geography of the house; rooms are shown in isolation and it is difficult to work out where they are in relation to each other. Likewise, the film is made up of a series of windows, mirrors, and doorways that frame the interiors but reveal little: they frame what we see inside but offer no outer view (we only see the grounds from the outside, although they are sometimes half glimpsed through shutters or net curtains), and the sense grows of the house as an enclosed, hermetically-sealed, entity. The passing of time has marked its surface, as nature has reclaimed every nook and cranny, vines like veins that take life rather than sustain it (and add to the sense of the house being sealed); a scene where the caretaker (Luís Pescador) starts to remove them from the facade seems like it is breathing life into a suffocated surface even while bits of cement audibly crumble and fall away. Renewal and death. Death and renewal.

Aita_2

Little by little we work our way into the inner life of the house. The film starts outside with a discussion between two archaeological workers about the neglected state of the house and garden, which ends with the observation that there are signs of someone trying to take on nature and reclaim the house from its grasp. The rest of the film follows this caretaker as he commences a concerted effort to bring the house back to life (to what end, or why now, is not something we discover). It is a film with many textures as almost every wall we see is peeling or is in some way marked, the remnants of lives and previous incarnations left on the surface: the house is littered with tactile reminders of times past. Director José María de Orbe unfurls the house for the spectator, utilising layered spaces within single shots that are revealed or concealed by light and shadows (the use of light is beautiful) via the very deliberate opening and closing of doors and windows as the caretaker makes his way around the building.

Aita_windows

The film largely unfolds in silence apart from the diegetic sound of the local environment and the physical actions of those onscreen, and a series of short conversations between the caretaker and the local priest (Mikel Goenaga). Those conversations – about bones found in an archaeological dig in the grounds of the house (which is next door to the church), the senses that last longest after death, and a terrible white light (unseen by us) that starts to plague the caretaker – point to what the house will reveal as its layers are peeled back and raise the issue of whether some things are better left undisturbed. To begin with, it seems that ‘breathing life’ in to the house just involves repairs and sprucing it up, but about halfway through the running time something unexpected happens and the house becomes a living entity in and of itself, a repository of memories (of the house, its inhabitants, and the locale). As a storm lashes the house in the dark, and the rain running down the window ripples down a tiled wall in shadow form, making it seem as though the wall is trembling, the house suddenly flickers into life (the sound of the rain still on the soundtrack).

Aita_illusions

The images projected onto surfaces of the house – mainly the wall of the grand hallway and that of a small bedroom – are history of the house (which can be seen within the footage) and its locale. Blending archival footage of the Basque Country (which is where the house is although only the archaeologists at the start speak in Basque; the caretaker and the priest converse in Castilian Spanish) with film of the house and the eponymous Aita (the Basque word for ‘father’) (Pedro Mayor) shot in the same style, the deliberately degraded and manipulated film stock (Antoni Pinent has the credit ‘manipulación de 35mm’) recounts sadness, suppression and the hidden, and the forgotten ghosts that populate the interstices of history. In the booklet that accompanies the DVD, the director says that they wished to create a new dialogue between the fragments of archival film and the house. Images that you would expect from early cinema (people enjoying themselves – we see a beach and later men dancing) are interspersed with sights that have a sinister undertone (priests and men in white coats seeming to torment children and young people in different contexts) and those of destruction. Looking at the end credits, the sequence showing men consumed by smoke (which finds an echo of the sequence where the caretaker smokes the woodwork of a grand fireplace) as they vainly attempt to tackle an enormous fire, may be footage from the bombing of Guernica (the town is named but there is no date given – if the fragments are listed in the order in which they appear, then ‘Guernica’ matches this section); if it is footage of the aftermath of the bombing, the deliberate degradation of the celluloid (the warping of which ripples, tremulously, across the surface of the image), with the effect of seemingly layering fire over fire, obliterating the past, is an eloquent and elegant indictment of the act.

Aita_8

But the footage that specifically relates to the house is both mysterious (we are given no context) and threatening (the small bedroom, which already generates a sense of foreboding, is seen within the footage); the spectral beings that appear in those ‘memories’ seem to relate to the white light seen by the caretaker (who sleeps in that bedroom when he stays at the house). In one sequence the ‘light’ obscures a girl’s face, rendering her anonymous and denying her an identity (again, a suppression), but in the sequence relating to the bedroom, it passes from the spectre to the man in bed, engulfing his head (an attack). The lack of contextualisation lends the images an almost stream-of-consciousness poetry: vestiges of the past witnessed by the house are replayed on its walls without an obvious narrative structure. The related short film (50 minutes) Aita, carta al hijo (2011) is essentially a reworking of the feature but shorn of all conversation scenes and adding a voiceover (as well as some additional shots such as rooms viewed from a different angle and a few more inserts of archival footage). The voiceover (performed by the director himself) is that of the current owner of the house, who has been sent the papers found by the caretaker in the aftermath of a break-in, and takes the form of a letter written from a father (the father / aita we see in the fragmented archival footage?) to his son asking that he try to break from the cycle of violence and hate propagated in the region as if it is a tradition to be handed down through the generations. The lack of human interaction in the short (although it does include the footage of the atheist caretaker apparently finding some solace in listening to the harmonies of the church choir) adds an additional layer of melancholy.

But the mystery and melancholy are not affectation and neither is the poetry of the film. It is rare that a film feels utterly original, but that was how Aita felt to me. I recommend watching it in darkness because the play of light and shadow is magical.

Aita_9

Aita_10