Spain has always been known as a land of poverty, piety and cruelty, with a dark, fatalistic streak. The great break came with the Movida of the late 1970s – the counter-cultural awakening that followed the death of Franco. In the cinema the figurehead for this movement was Pedro Almodóvar, who has gone on to be the most celebrated Spanish director since Luis Bunuel.
To get a sense of the upheaval that took place in Spanish cinema one need only compare Almodóvar’s anarchic early features such as Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980), with a film such as Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). Erice’s subtle masterpiece addressed the spiritual desolation of the Franco years in an oblique, poetic manner, but still managed to attract the anger of right-wing critics. Seven years later, Almodóvar could cram the screen with sex, drugs, punk music and cross-dressing, and become a cult hero.
In many ways Almodóvar’s early films are trashy provocations. The true mark of his ability has been the way he has matured as a film-maker, leading to productions such as All About My Mother (1999), or The Skin I Live In (2011). Nevertheless, one couldn’t claim that Almodóvar’s films are anything but dark, especially when they are at their most comical. The same might be said about the very different oeuvre of another great director, Carlos Saura, whose career staddles the Franco and post-Franco eras. One need only focus on quintessentially Spanish motifs such as Flamenco, or the bullfight, and it’s impossible to avoid those perennial themes of sex and death.
Get ready for the Spanish invasion. Not only does this month see the opening of a landmark exhibition of works from the Prado at the Queensland Art Gallery, the 15th Spanish Film Festival will be seen in five capital cities.
While Spain’s economy may be in melt-down, there is nothing lacking in terms of culture – or football for that matter.
Natalia Ortiz, who has been director of the festival from the very beginning, is alert to all the Spanish stereotypes and aims every year to put together a program that has something for everyone. There is, however, a black thread that seems to run through even the most up-tempo films.
I have yet to see two of the most high-profile offerings in the 2012 line-up: As Luck Would Have It (La Chispa de la Vida), a ferocious satire on the media, starring the gorgeous Salma Hayek; and No Rest for the Wicked (No Habra Paz Para Los Malvados), a thriller, with Jose Coronado as that ever-popular character, the disenchanted, alcoholic police inspector with a thirst for justice.
The five films I’ve sampled so far provide a clear demonstration of Ortiz’s desire to provide a cross-section of genres. Two are not even Spanish. The Bad Intentions (Las Malas Intenciones), is a drama from Peru, while Chinese Take-Away (Un Cuento Chino) is an Argentinian production that defies classification.
Among the others, Wrinkles (Arrugas) is an animated feature for adults; Cousinhood (Primos), a romantic comedy; and Sleep Tight (Mientras Duermes), a psychological chiller.
Cousinhood, directed by Daniel Sánchez Arévalo, is the lightest fare on the menu. It tells the story of Diego (Quim Gutiérrez), who is left at the altar by his bride-to-be. Accompanied by his two loyal cousins – the loudmouth Julian (Raúl Arévalo) and timid, neurasthenic Jose Miguel (Adrián Lasta), he returns to his home town to try to rekindle the affections of his childhood sweetheart, Martina (Inma Cuesta). Each of the cousins gets embroiled in a different adventure that makes them question the lives they have been leading.
If this sounds like one of those ‘feelgood’ affairs, I’m unable to dispell that suspicion. Cousinhood is a slickly made film with some entertaining moments, but altogether too formulaic. There have been umpteen American movies with a similar theme, and the role of Diego is tailor-made for Matthew McConaughey, or another of Hollywood’s standard male leads.
More impressive is Wrinkles, a study of old age that should be seen by those who are still too young to understand this depressing state. I’m not sure I could recommend it to anyone on the far side of 70.
When Emilio begins to become a burden on his son’s family they put him in a retirement home – a kind of benign prison camp where he is surrounded by decaying relics of humanity who snooze all day, or act out their senile delusions. The outstanding exception is his room mate, Miguel, a crafty old lag who specialises in extracting money from his fellow inmates. It takes Emilio time to feel at home in these surroundings, but as his faculties fade he is in danger of being sent to join the incurables upstairs. Miguel sets out to preserve him from this fate, fighting an impossible battle against the corrosive force of time.
Ignacio Ferras has made a mature, compassionate film that has such good dialogue it never feels like a cartoon. The personalities and scenarios are psychologically convincing, and the director’s eye for detail is superb. The only drawback is a creeping sadness that slowly envelopes both the characters and the viewer.
Chinese Take-Away features the popular Argentinian actor, Ricardo Darin, who starred in the Oscar winning film, The Secret in Their Eyes (2009). He plays Roberto, the terminally grumpy owner of a small hardware shop, whose only pleasure comes from clipping newspaper stories of unlikely disasters and tragedies. But Ricardo is a study in contradictions. He had a spontaneous fling with Mari (Muriel Santa Ana), a neighbour’s sister, whom he now avoids. She recognises him as a kind, courageous man with a sense of justice, but he does not covet such a reputation.
Everything changes for Ricardo when he encounters Ju (Ignacio Huang), a young Chinese emigre, who speaks no Spanish and has come to Buenos Aires in search of his uncle. Against his better judgement, Ricardo takes in Ju as a lodger and tries to help him find his relative. In the process the façade he has built against the world begins to crumble.
Written and directed by Sebastián Borensztein, Chinese Take-Away owes a lot to Darin’s subtle performance. The story is rather predictable: a man undergoes a process of self-discovery by opening himself to the experience of an other. It may sound obvious, but – as proved by Australia’s ongoing wrangle about asylum seekers – it is a lesson worth repeating.
There is no redeeming morality in Sleep Tight, a film about César (Luis Tosar) the psychopathic concierge of an apartment block, who would like the whole world to be as miserable as himself. The special object of his antipathy is Clara (Marta Etura), an attractive young woman who is always bright and cheerful.
César’s solution to this problem is to conceal himself in Clara’s apartment, and render her unconscious with ether. He returns night after night, having his way with the sleeping girl, who knows nothing of his attentions. Events gradually spiral out of control as the suspense is stretched progressively tighter.
Jaume Balagueró is a director who has specialised in horror, and Sleep Tight is a strange, creepy, frankly sadistic film that will leave some viewers feeling queasy. It is a portrait of a deranged personality who pushes his luck as far as it will go, treating the apartment block as his personal empire. It’s no coincidence he is called César. If some films fail for being too cosy, this one goes to the opposite extreme.
The stand-out feature from my group of five was The Bad Intentions, which stars Fatima Buntinx as Catayena, an eight-year-old girl with an imaginary life filled with fantasies of death and martyrdom. She feels alienated from her pill-popping mother, who has separated from her hedonistic father and married a man Catayena finds mediocre. When she learns her mother is pregnant she adopts Simon Bolivar’s famous motto: “Two suns cannot shine in one sky”. If the baby lives, she is sure she will die.
This may sound bleak, but The Bad Intentions, the debut feature by Peruvian director, Rosario Garcia-Montero, is the closest thing in this selection to a true work of art. It is dark but also very funny. The drama is all in the mind of Catayena, but her imagination is fuelled by the unstable atmosphere of Lima, where a thin veneer of social order is threatened by the constant presence of Maoist terrorists.
This is not an exercise in Latin American ‘magical realism’, but a story, in the director’s words of “a beautiful and painful childhood”. It is entirely characteristic of the best Spanish-language cinema that audiences should be unable to draw a line between those two terms.
15th Spanish Film Festival,
Sydney 4-15 July; Melbourne 5-15 July; Brisbane 11-22 July; Adelaide 12-22 July; Perth 19-26 July
Published by the Australian Financial Review, June 07, 2012