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December 16, 2009

Los Condenados, 2009

condenados.gifThe delineation between reality and mythology, ideal and application also provides the catalyst for Isaki Lacuesta's first fiction film, Los Condenados (The Condemned). The rupture is prefigured in the opening image of a gaunt, Argentinean expatriate, Martín (Daniel Fanego) undergoing a CT scan at a Spanish hospital, the implication of cancer suggesting a hidden, indefinable turmoil that continues to haunt the consciousness. For Martín, the sickness resurfaces in a message from longtime friend and former guerilla fighter, Raúl (Arturo Goetz), inviting him to an excavation of mass graves under the ruse of a university-sponsored archaeological dig in the remote countryside to search for the desaparecidos, in particular, a comrade named Ezequiel who went missing after being kidnapped by the state some thirty years earlier during the "dirty war". With Ezequiel's widow, Andrea (Leonor Manso) and mother, Luisa (Juana Hidalgo) in tow, Raúl has also enlisted the aid of Vicky (María Fiorentino), a dissident who, like Martín, had been held captive in a network of undisclosed jungle prisons. Idolized by the younger generation, especially Vicky's son Pablo (Nazareno Casero), Martín's complacency and distraction proves a stark contrast to his reputation as elusive rebel leader and ideological godfather - a friction that forces them to re-evaluate their own imperfect memories over their mutual, buried past. In its elliptical, organic structure and images of the jungle as a metaphor for interiority, Los Condenados suggests kinship with Lisandro Alonso's Los Muertos and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Moreover, inasmuch as Vargas's homecoming reframes the intrigue of his past into the banal in Los Muertos, Martín's journey also represents a demythification. Curiously, it is this dismantling of the heroic myth that also resolves the mystery of the disappearances, confronting the romanticism of failed revolution and, in the process, reconciling the hidden spaces between history and memory.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 16, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Spanish Cinema Now

December 15, 2009

Torero, 1956

torero.gifRefining the theme of documented reality and reconstructed history introduced in his earlier film, Moroccan Romance, Carlos Velo's reflective and ecstatic Torero is equally an autobiography on charismatic Mexican bullfighter, Luis Procuna, and an unvarnished examination of bullfighting culture. Presented as an extended interior monologue as an anxious Procuna prepares to return to the ring after a prolonged absence caused by injury, as well as the unexpected death of cerebral, renowned Spanish bullfighter and admired contemporary, Manolete, the film seamlessly interweaves past and present, archival footage and re-enactment. Chronicling Procuna's rise from abject poverty (underscoring the correlation between bullfighting and escapism that also runs through Llorenç Soler's 52 Sundays), makeshift training, inauspicious debut, and personal and professional milestones, Velo incisively captures the ambivalent, often contradictory nature of the collective spectacle, where the relationship between the bullfighter and the audience proves to be as fickle and mercurial as the bulls themselves. Velo illustrates this ephemerality through two near real-time sequences that figuratively bookend Procuna's career - first, as a third-billed performer who emerges from the shadows after injuries cut short the main attraction, then subsequently, as a famous bullfighter nearing the end of his career who is goaded into returning to the ring, only to be jeered when his performance proves to be cautious. Juxtaposed against images of Procuna's humble aspirations - his childhood home, his mother's memorial, his loving family - Velo presents as thoughtful allegory for the fragile, often arbitrary delineation between humanity and mythology, where transcendence, like truth, lies in the inconstant eye of the beholder.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 15, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Carlos Velo, Spanish Cinema Now

December 14, 2009

Almadrabas, 1934

Carlos Velo and Fernando G. Mantilla's quietly observed documentary, Almadrabas loosely prefigures Agnès Varda's La Pointe courte in capturing the rhythm and rituals of a small fishing village. Ostensibly titled after the Moorish word describing the structure of nets, the film follows the product cycle of canned tuna - from the fishermen who go out to sea to trawl the ocean, to the fishmongers who clean and dress the fish for curing and sale, to the cannery workers who cook, season, and package them in tins for export. As the title suggests, Almadrabas also illustrates the interconnectedness of the village, both as a close knit community and as workers contributing to the town's primary industry. In a way, Velo and Mantilla's idiosyncratic use of amplified ambient sounds, most notably in the cadence of water droplets and the undifferentiated white noise of machinery, anticipates Ritwik Ghatak's use of allusive sounds as a reflection of internal states. However, rather than imposing a psychological framework, Velo and Mantilla allude to an integrally sociopolitical context in their juxtaposition of village life and commerce, figuratively aligning the circumstances of the villagers with those of the hapless fish captured in their highly efficient nets, destined to feed the insatiable appetites of an anonymous, consumer-driven global economy.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 14, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Carlos Velo, Spanish Cinema Now

Moroccan Romance, 1939

moroccan.gifFilmed during the Spanish Civil War, Carlos Velo and Enrique Domínguez Rodiño's Moroccan Romance (Romancero marroquí) bears the imprint of Robert Flaherty's ethnographic documentaries in its distilled (if manipulated) images of a distant, exotic - and exoticized - culture. Part colonialist travelogue on aspects of life in contemporary Morocco (and implicitly, the benefits of imposed western culture on the native population in such areas as medicine and the local economy) and part recruitment propaganda extolling the virtues of a franquista revolution, the film reflects what author Marsha Kinder describes as the idiosyncrasies of Spanish documentary in its malleable fusion of real and constructed history. Composed of seemingly disparate segments - a panorama of Morrocan customs, a human interest story on a Moroccan farmer, Aalima, who volunteers to serve in Franco's army, a youth march in Spain - the film's fractured construction invariably reflects its complicated production history, specifically, Carlos Velo's precarious role as a leftist republican covertly working on a commissioned project that promotes a nationalist agenda. Forced to flee the protectorate before the editing of the film to avoid exposure (Velo would eventually live in exile in Mexico), Velo nevertheless asserts his unmistakable aesthetic in the spare compositions and textured landscapes that capture the quotidian, even as jingoistic sermons on colonialist unity, romanticized images of war, and a sobering epilogue depicting youth military exercises that trivialize warfare as a series of role-playing exercises undercut the film's essential, humanist tone.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 14, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Carlos Velo, Spanish Cinema Now

December 17, 2008

Casual Day, 2007

casual_day.gifSomething like a neutered cross between Dan Pita's bituminous satire on dysfunctional leadership, Orienteering, and Nicolas Klotz's exposition on corporate moral conscience (and amnesia) La Question humaine, Max Lemcke's Casual Day is a serviceable, if slight and pedestrian take on the inherent fallacy of team building exercises that serve only to reinforce institutionalized power structures and exploitive relationships. The idea of imbalanced, manipulative, and essentially artificial competition is implied in a prefacing conversation at a café (subsequently revealed to be at a bus terminal) between an emotionally insecure (and seemingly unhinged) young woman named Inés (Marta Etura) and her considerate friend, Marta (Estíbaliz Gabilondo) on her nagging suspicions over her new boyfriend, Ruy's (Javier Ríos) fidelity, comparing his romantic moves during his earlier flirtation with Marta over summer vacation to divine his level of commitment to their relationship. Boarding a charter bus for an overnight team building retreat in the country dubbed as "casual day" where neckties are shed by management and employees alike in a symbolic dismantling of the wall between them (or rather, the floor, given the company's hierarchical office building layout), the newly hired Ruy is visibly uncomfortable throughout the trip, dressed out of place in a suit and tie, and repeatedly approached by the company president - and Inés's father - José Antonio (Juan Diego) who offers periodic words of encouragement, not so subtly hinting that he is looking to groom him for a fast track management position on the presumption that he will marry his daughter. Meanwhile, the company psychologist (Alberto San Juan) has been reviewing questionnaires and believes he has spotted a weak link in one employee's candid responses, as well as an opportunity to put their training into practice by encouraging another employee to openly discuss a perceived slight with his supervisor, Cholo (Luis Tosar) over recognition for a successful project. Lacking the acerbic humor of Orienteering or integral passion of La Question humaine, Casual Day ultimately neither serves as a cautionary tale on personal integrity nor provides insight into the workings of soulless corporations, relying instead on well worn tropes to create an all-too-familiar glimpse of corrosive office politics.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 17, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Spanish Cinema Now

December 16, 2008

Los Años Desnudos (The Naked Years: Rated-R), 2008

RatedR.gifThe liberalization of Spain in the aftermath of Franco's death provides the chaotic framework for Dunia Ayaso and Félix Sabroso caustic seriocomedy Rated-R, a deconstruction of the cine del destape (literally, "uncovered films") wave of risqué, low budget comedies that sought to push the envelope of social mores and dismantle taboos reinforced during Franco's repressive government (usually involving religion or sexuality) within the thinly veiled guise of creating film art. Shot from the perspective of three actresses discovered by a second-rate independent filmmaker and aspiring auteur named Manuel (Antonio de la Torre) - a struggling stage performer, Sandra (Candela Peña) who sees the advent of 'S-films' as a potential foot in the door towards a more legitimate career in the mainstream movie industry, a street savvy hustler, Lina (Goya Toledo) whose interest in the films lies in the easy money she earns using minimal skills to turn out interchangeable performances (often, not even memorizing her lines in favor of reciting random numbers, knowing that the dialogue will be dubbed anyway), and Eva (Mar Flores), a young woman who moved from the country in order to break free from an abusive home and start a new life in Madrid - Rated-R illustrates the ingrained patriarchal systems and cycles of exploitation that continue to exist beneath the euphoria of newfound freedom and self-expression. Reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights in its de-eroticized search for intimacy and connection and Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother in the idea of performance as a conduit for empowerment, the film is a provocative, if overripe portrait of a society at a moral crossroads, where liberation itself can be a form of repression in its naïvete and disorientation.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 16, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Spanish Cinema Now

December 15, 2008

The Sixth Sense, 1929

sixth_sense.gifOn the surface, Filmoteca Española's classification of Nemesio M. Sobrevila and Eusebio Fernández Ardavĺn's romantic comedy The Sixth Sense as an avant-garde film seems like a tenuous designation, loosely supported by an episode in which abstract forms and flicker images momentarily appear in the cueing of a film reel. But The Sixth Sense also functions as a metafilm, a self-contained reality conjured by Professor Kamus (Ricardo Baroja) who, as the film begins, has just discovered a "sixth sense" in the camera's all seeing eye that enables him to see the objective truth. This everyday truth is reflected in the affection displayed by the gregarious Carlos (Enrique Durán) and his chorus girl fiancée Carmen (Antonia Fernández) during a picnic in the country with his perennially morose friend Léon (Eusebio Fernández Ardavín), and Léon's demure girlfriend Luisa (Gertrudis Pajares). In an attempt to change his friend's sullen disposition, Carlos persuades Léon to pay a visit to Kamus whose film therapy sessions have successfully liberated patients from their own repressed states - an experimental treatment that has proven effective for Kamus's own fanciful young assistant (Felipe Pérez) against his domineering mother. However, when Léon catches a glimpse of Carmen in a seemingly compromising position during dance hall rehearsals, the footage only serves to sow further doubt in his mind on the possibility of finding peace of mind, and threatens to derail his friend's happiness as well. While the inclusion of abstract elements found in avant-garde films do reinforce Sobrevila and Ardavĺn's penchant for unconventional imagery, the underlying nature of their experimentation is perhaps more accurately exemplified by the film's prescient themes of surveillance and subjective reality that prefigure Harun Farocki's cinema - exploring the nature of the film image and the camera as apparatus for the human eye in its disjunction between cognition and recognition, reality and truth.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 15, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Spanish Cinema Now

November 24, 2008

Fiction, 2006

fiction.gifIn an early episode in Cesc Gay's thoughtful and slow brewing film, Fiction, married, thirty-something, Barcelona-based filmmaker, Alex (Eduard Fernández), having retreated to the cabin of his globetrotting friend, Santi (Javier Cámara) in the scenic country in order to work on the screenplay for his next film, watches a video from Santi's recent cowboy adventure with dinner companions, Sílvia (Àgata Roca) and Monica (Montse Germán). In a way, the image of a calf's birth in the video also foreshadows the figurative birth of Alex and Monica's romantic awakening. Trying to work out his writer's block by immersing himself in Santi's idyllic environment (and perhaps, tapping into his bohemian impulses second-hand), Alex soon realizes that even his usually carefree friend has been re-evaluating his own aimless life in the face of mortality, prompted by Sílvia's recent health scare. Unable to find motivation in his self-imposed exile to finish his work, Alex decides to return home early, and agrees to join Santi and the others on a final camping trip to the Pyrenees in a show of solidarity for their ailing friend before heading back to the city. However, when Alex and Monica become hopelessly lost after hiking on the wrong mountain on their way back to the base of the trail, the two find themselves drawn even further together by their shared misadventure. Something of a cross between Alain Tanner's Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 and Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love, Fiction weaves through the uneasy terrain of idealism and desire in its understated portrait of connection and missed opportunity. Similar to the unmotivated, 39 year old protagonist of his latest film, Alex, too, faces a daunting blank page, vacillating between the commercial demands of his profession and integrity of his creative vision, youthful liberation and middle-aged inhibition. Closing to the shot of the unrequited lovers parting to their separate ways on the side of a mountain, the image reflects both the intranscendable distance of their mutual separation and the unresolved nature of their intimacy. And like his unfinished script, their brief encounter, too, remains an unwritten fiction charged with imagined possibility and resigned regret.

Fiction screens on 12/22 at 2:00 p.m. and 12/23 at 8:15 p.m. as part of Spanish Cinema Now.

Posted by acquarello on Nov 24, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Spanish Cinema Now

Pudor, 2007

pudor.gifBased on the novel by Peruvian author Santiago Roncagliolo, David Ulloa and Tristán Ulloa's Pudor, is prefaced with a tongue-in-cheek anecdote on the etymology of the eponymous title. Derived from the Latin word pudoris for honesty, modesty and reserve, a slight variation in spelling to putoris alters its definition to a stench. The idea that a subtle shift in text can drastically alter connotation and lead to new, unintended meanings also shapes the fragile relationships with family, lovers, and friends in the film as well. This fragility is foreshadowed in the opening sequence of young Sergio (Marcos Ruiz) waiting in the geriatric wing of a hospital for what would turn out to be his grandmother's death watch. Left unattended by his older sister (who dismisses him for being adopted), Sergio sneaks into his grandmother's hospital room, fiddles with the controls of her life support equipment, and unwittingly hastens her death. Seemingly abandoned by his sister, mother, and now his grandmother at the hospital, Sergio finds communion in the company of ghosts. In a sense, Sergio's family has also become ghosts. His mother Julia (Elvira Minguez), overwhelmed with too many responsibilities in the absence of her distracted, workaholic husband, has retreated into her own private hell, perversely finding validation in erotic messages that have been left around her environment. His father Alfredo (Nancho Novo), unable to find the right moment to discuss his own health crisis with his family, begins to find a kindred spirit (or rather, an alter-ego) in his headstrong, outspoken secretary, Gloria (Carolina Román). Sergio's older sister, Marisa (Natalia Rodriguez) is too consumed by her own struggles with body image and sexuality to provide guidance, resorting instead to telling nightmarish bedtime stories that only serve to further confuse his sense of reality. And even his newly widowed, elderly grandfather (Celso Bugallo) proves to be a fickle companion when he begins to wander the streets in search of an invalid woman. Similar to Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata, the nuclear family in Pudor is also on the verge of fission, where the ritual of family dinner serves to reinforce a hollow structure that has already crumbled under the weight of everyday distractions and personal insecurities. Ironically, as in Kurosawa's film, an accident also brings the family together towards a separate peace, where re-connection is found in a leap of faith and the naïve courage to confront one's own phantoms.

Pudor screens on 12/11 at 7:00 p.m. and 12/17 at 1:30 p.m. as part of Spanish Cinema Now.

Posted by acquarello on Nov 24, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Spanish Cinema Now

December 18, 2007

Shortmetraje, 2006-2007

libra.gifLibra, 2006. A beleaguered woman's plea for a two week adjustment elicits both poignancy and unexpected humor in Carlota Coronado's articulate slice-of-life portrait, Libra. As the woman provides an array of reasons from work-related commitments, to personal sacrifices that have already put a strain on her relationships with family and friends, to conflicting schedules with final examinations that, if missed, would not prevent her from graduating as planned, but also create a financial drain on her already limited resources that would likely cause her to abandon her studies altogether, the film's title serves as a wry, double entendre for the heroine's own quest to find balance in her life.

The Happy Man, 2007. The sound of a 24 hour news station broadcast reporting its usual program of international crises and economic downturns provides an insightful foil to Lucina Gil's The Happy Man, a tongue in cheek biography on a self-described "happy man" whose credentials are put to a test by a team of skeptical international researchers. As in Libra, the slice-of-life approach suits the film's structure well, reflecting the film's ideals of enduring love and uncomplicated living.

avant_petalos.gifAvant pétalos grillados, 2007. Idiosyncratically primitive in its surrealism and impenetrable in its fragmented logic, Velasco Broca's equally humorous and baffling Avant pétalos grillados invariably suffers from its decontextualization from its source, a trilogy entitled Echos der Buchrucken. Visually, the film loosely resembles a parodic, rough hewn, desexualized version of Frans Zwartjes's Pentimento in its clinical images of everyday life at a sanatorium (albeit this time, the clinic apparently doubles as a laundry service) crossed with the metamorphic insect people of Tsitsi Dangrembga's Mother's Day.

Said's Journey, 2007. Coke Riobóo cleverly incorporates the lyrical structure and vibrant palette of traditional animation to create a sobering and incisive gothic fairytale in Said's Journey. Chronicling a young Moroccan boy, Said's unexpected adventure across the Strait of Gibraltar to a Spanish fairground, where Said is soon confronted by the reality of his marginalized status as an immigrant and racial minority, Riobóo tersely, but lucidly exposes the myth of assimilation and cultural integration.

traumatology.gifTraumatology, 2007. When the family patriarch suffers a heart attack in the midst of his eldest son's wedding, the entire wedding party invariably follows him to the hospital, where the bride and groom soon express their second thoughts over their impending marriage, two brothers alternately vie for the affections of the maid of honor, and two younger brothers, lamenting their inability to find girlfriends, begin to question their sexuality. Daniel Sánchez Arevalo's Traumatology is a well rendered, character ensemble film that, despite its relatively short duration (22 minutes), manages to capture the complex texture, intimacy, and irrationality of human relationships.

You Can Walk Too. A writer's disposable comment that a worthwhile female composer is about as common as a dog walking on its hind legs serves as a rallying cry for Cristina Lucas's, You Can Walk Too. Assembling shots of hind leg-walking dogs as they make their way through town before proud owners and bemused onlookers, the film is idiosyncratic and pointedly humorous, but at ten minutes, seems belabored and overextended as a droll, protest piece.

Angel's Fire. A worthy companion piece to the first chapter of Javier Corcuera's The Back of the World on a young boy who makes a living by breaking rocks at a quarry in Peru, Marcelo Bukin's Angel's Fire chronicles a day in the life of eight year old Angel who works at a brick factory in Titicaca, Peru to help support his family. Broaching such fundamental human rights issues as child labor, abuse, and exploitation, the film is an articulate and impassioned portrait on the corrosive effects of poverty and marginalization.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 18, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Spanish Cinema Now

Chaotic Ana, 2007

chaotic_ana.gifJulio Medem's Chaotic Ana is an unclassifiable concoction, at once deeply personal and untenably ambitious, alternating between creating a strong statement and indulging in fanciful whimsy. Presented in eleven chapters that count down towards zero in the referential pattern of hypnotic regression, the bohemian artist, Ana (Manuela Vellés), not surprisingly, is first shown in a state of trance on the dance floor of an Ibiza nightclub. Ana's seeming perpetual state of waking dream is subsequently reflected in the images of her sheltered life with her father, Klaus (Matthias Habich), having lived an idyllic existence in a cave overlooking the coast throughout her youth until Justine (Charlotte Rampling), a patron of the arts from Paris, invites her to stay at an artist workshop where, for a few years, she can work in complete creative freedom. Finding immediate community with the workshop's eclectic residents, in particular, a video artist named Linda (Bebe), Ana immediately falls for the subject of Linda's latest installation, an enigmatic, resident artist named Saïd (Nicolas Cazalé). Drawing inspiration from his life in exile, Saïd's primitivist composition creates a violent reaction within Ana's subconscious. Suspecting that Ans's blackout is a psychological fugue that is connected to the resurfacing of traumas suffered during her past lives, Justine and Linda enlist the aid of an American hypnotist, Michael (Asier Newman) who gradually unravels the centuries of cross-cultural testimonies buried within Ana's subconscious, told by young women whose lives were all tragically cut short by the age of 22, that would bear witness to the hidden histories of inhumanity, violence, and oppression. Part loving tribute to his sister, Ana Medem, whose artwork is featured in the film (and who, as the postscript reveals, "left" at the age of 22), and part contemporary indictment of masculine aggression (and in particular, American aggression) that has led to a legacy of warfare, occupation, terrorism, and subjugation, Medem's fractured tale proves to be an unstable alchemy where moments of sobering reflection on the repercussions of a chronically shortsighted US policy are supplanted by two-dimensional caricatures that constantly shift the tone of the film from unflinching realism to bawdy farce (an awkward juxtaposition that proves especially flawed during a pivotal encounter at a Navajo bar, where Medem's trenchant parallel illustration of dispossession and institutional segregation between the Native American reservations in the US and the refugee camps of displaced Saharans in the Middle East - and by extension, the Iraqi occupation that has also resulted in geographic factionalism along ethnic and tribal lines - is undermined by the facile sight gag of a patron's inebriated uncoordination).

Posted by acquarello on Dec 18, 2007 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2007, Spanish Cinema Now

December 17, 2007

Barcelona (A Map), 2007

barcelona_map.gifBased on playwright Lluïsa Cunillé's Barcelona, Map of Shadows, Ventura Pons's richly textured nocturne, Barcelona (A Map) is an intimate and atmospheric rumination on urban architectures and shared spaces as integral projections of anonymous, emotional landscapes. Ostensibly capturing an evening in the life of an elderly couple, Rosa (Núria Espert) and her dying husband, a former opera house stagehand named Ramon (José María Pou) who have decided to evict their tenants in order to have the privacy of the entire house to face the final days of his terminal cancer, the film is an understated and insightful exposition into the nature of alienation, transformation, and passage. Composed of a series of encounters as Ramon and Rosa alternately pay a visit to each of the tenants in order to confirm the eviction during the coming week, the conversations serve as an illuminating reflection of the couple's own sense of irrelevance and isolation. A conversation between Ramon and a French language instructor, Lola (Rosa Maria Sardà) questions the practicality of cultivating proficiency for a culturally exclusive (if not outmoded) foreign language in a society that is increasingly homogenized, indistinct, and assimilated - a separateness that also reflects on the place of Catalan culture within the context of a Spanish national identity (and in particular, within Barcelona's multicultural landscape). The theme of obscurity and frailty is also suggested in the paradoxical image of the couple's only male tenant, a handsome, young security guard named David (Pablo Derqui) who is first seen applying liniment to his leg after a track and field injury as Rosa knocks on his door. Abandoned by his wife and relegated to working graveyard shifts after the shopping malls have closed for the evening, David is also a figurative ghost resident of Barcelona, patrolling in the shadows of deserted public spaces with an unloaded gun. Paradoxically, even the couple's pregnant tenant, a cook named Violeta (María Botto) reflects this anxiety, as the viability of her unborn child becomes clouded by the uncertainty of the father's less-than-ideal genetic legacy (a compromised heritage that is also alluded in Rosa's complicated relationship with her younger brother, Santi (Jordi Bosch)). Within this pervasive sentiment of impotence and obsolescence, the couple's idiosyncratic act of role reversal in the final chapter may be seen as an act of empowerment - a symbolic transfiguration into their own self-created afterlives - where spiritual liberation exists in the anonymity of costumes and interchangeable identities.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 17, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Spanish Cinema Now

Lola, La Película, 2007

lola_pelicula.gifIn the opening sequence of Lola, La Película, young Lola Flores, the daughter of a tavern owner from Jerez, convinces a gypsy flamenco teacher to take her in as a student by performing a lively interpretation of the dance, incorporating an assortment of freestyle twists and turns that causes him to ask her at the conclusion of her routine where she had learned such unorthodox movements, to which she responds that they were made up as she went along, doing as she pleased. In a sense, her willful determination and willingness to flout conventions for the sake of personal expression encapsulates Flores's outlook towards life as well in Miguel Hermoso's reverent, yet unsentimental and well-rendered portrait of the legendary screen and stage artist. Chronicling Flores's career evolution from her public debut at the age of thirteen as an intermission act for a variety show headlined by popular flamenco singer, Manolo Caracol (José Luis García Pérez), to her early vocation as a struggling bailaora for a traveling variety show in the north of Spain during the early days of the Franco regime (an austerity similarly captured in Carlos Saura's ¡Ay Carmela!), to her long-running success in a collaborative musical revue with Caracol, to her South American tour that launched her international career as a film actress and performer, Hermoso captures the trajectory of Flores's career through the sacrifices and personal disappointments encountered along the way in her quest for fame and artistic recognition. Hermoso's demythologized approach to Flores's biography is perhaps best illustrated in rumba guitarist, El Pescaílla's (Alfonso Begara) repeatedly derailed courtship of Flores (played as an adult by Gala Évora), insightfully framing her artistic accomplishments as everyday milestones in an all too human search for unconditional love and acceptance.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 17, 2007 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2007, Spanish Cinema Now

December 15, 2007

Solitary Fragments, 2007

soledad.gifBy the time the final, pillow shot of Solitary Fragments unfolds - a congested panorama of dour, monolithic structures, interchangeable, tiled rooftops, and mobile cranes hovering over the cityscape in a perpetual state of construction and demolition - I was convinced that the film would conclude with some sort of postscript dedication to Edward Yang. And while filmmaker Jaime Rosales may have only subconsciously channeled Yang's distanciated images of liminal "city stories" that quietly unfold in the distractive chaos of an anonymous, ever transforming urban landscape (alas, the expected commemoration did not materialize), the film, nevertheless, remains a remarkable and poignant testament to Yang's indelible legacy. Opening to the bucolic image of cattle grazing at a pasture in the rural province in Leon that has been visually bisected by a foregrounding pole, the resulting split-screen becomes a recurring aesthetic that also reflects the film's parallel stories of separation, isolation, loss, and the randomness of fate. Composed of bifurcated, often long shots (usually complementary point of views of adjoining spaces or conversations that are idiosyncratically presented as a series of alternating frontal and perpendicular dialogues) and compartmentalized images (often occluded through in situ obstructions or the secondary framing of doorways and windows), Rosales reinforces the dual imagery through the interweaving stories of recent divorcée Adela (Sonia Almarcha) who, seeking a change from her uneventful life in the country, decides to make a fresh start by moving to Madrid with her infant son, and a widowed grocer, Antonia (Petra Martínez), the mother of Adela's new roommate, Inés (Miriam Correa), who struggles to find a place in her now grown daughters' lives as they work through the distractions in their own lives (including her younger daughter, Nieves's (Nuria Mencía) recent cancer diagnosis and her eldest daughter, Helena's (María Bazán) not too subtle overtures for financial assistance in buying a vacation home). Rosales demonstrates a keen eye for observation and for capturing the quotidian beauty of these seemingly cursory, often inelegant, momentary interruptions of life - the petty arguments, procrastinated plans, quiet sacrifices, acts of compassion, and conciliatory gestures - the insightful "solitary fragments" that capture life at its most intimate and honest expression of struggle, loneliness, and validation.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 15, 2007 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2007, Spanish Cinema Now

Contestant, 2007

contestant.gifRodrigo Cortes's first feature, Contestant is something like effervescent, visual prestidigitation, a self-consciously frenetic, hyperactive, insubstantial, flauntingly inconstant, and naïve satire on the perils of modern-day instant wealth, consumerism, applied economics, and state taxation. The film follows the plight of an attractive economics history professor, Martin Circo (Leonardo Sbaraglia) who wins the largest cache of prizes ever awarded at a trivia game show on television, only to realize that he cannot afford to pay the windfall taxes that have been attached to his winnings. Initially seeking a short-term financial remedy by taking out a line of credit from a bank using his winnings as collateral with the idea of paying off the taxes in order to unfreeze his newly acquired assets from the government's lien and enable him to sell them and repay the bank, Martin soon realizes the inescapable financial quagmire that he has been ensnared, when he bank then subsequently seizes his assets as insurance against defaulting on the debt. Cortes deploys a dizzying arsenal of gratuitous, MTV-generation, short attention span, film school 101 clichés (including simulated, Brakhage-styled scratch film sequences, arbitrarily interwoven color and black and white sequences, fluid, birds eye view crane shots, knowing, fourth wall addresses, and repeating slow-motion rain and bath shower scenes that highlight the pixellated texturality of water drops) to distracting, and ultimately uninspired (and even off-putting) effect that distracts from the film's more relevant, critical assessment of indenturing, collusive financial institutions that reinforce social immobility and economic polarization, integral questions on the systemization of poverty and dependency and that was better articulated in Abderrahmane Sissako's spare, yet potent and incisive Bamako.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 15, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Spanish Cinema Now

December 17, 2006

Carnival Sunday, 1945

carnival_sunday.gifPart Alfred Hitchcock styled mysterious intrigue and part 1930s inspired romantic comedy, Edgar Neville's Carnival Sunday is a taut, irresistibly refined, and well crafted whodunit thriller. Set in the surreal atmosphere of the advent of Carnival Sunday, the beginning of the three day celebration that culminates with the Mardi Gras festivities (and ushers the beginning of Lent with Ash Wednesday), the film opens with an obtrusive tenant and night watchman's discovery of the body of a murdered pawn broker that had been haphazardly concealed in her unlocked apartment. Reporting the murder to the local police constable who seems resistant to conducting a prompt examination of the crime scene to search for clues for fear of curtailing his holiday plans (and rationalizing that the social insignificance of the crime lends itself to a soon forgotten resolution, irrespective of the perpetrator's capture), the constable cedes the investigation to his inexperienced, but highly motivated junior officer, Matías (Fernando Fernán Gómez) who believes that the answer to the identity of the murderer may be found within the sheaf of promissory notes discovered within the secret compartment of the victim's bureau. But when Matías makes a quick arrest after a local tonic peddler is discovered attempting to retrieve a lost item in the pawn broker's apartment, the peddler's devoted daughter, a clock seller named Nieves (Conchita Montes) decides to launch her own independent investigation, aided by her affable and well-intentioned friend, a costume merchant and town gossip named Julia (and aided in part by Julia's access to an assortment of disguises) to root out the real killer. Creating an environment that is both ominous and carnivalesque, and sustaining the film's tension and suspense through the efficiency of narrative, Neville not only demonstrates a precision for storytelling, but also provides an incisive glimpse of the endemic social and economic disparity and instability that defined contemporary life during the transitional, early days of postwar Spain and the entrenchment of fascism.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 17, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Spanish Cinema Now

La Dama Boba (Lady Nitwit), 2006

dama_boba.gifIn a well-appointed villa in seventeenth century Spain, a wealthy, widowed noblewoman, Otavia (Verónica Forqué) vows to marry off her two beautiful, but problematic daughters: Nise (Macarena Gómez), whose dark, smoldering beauty is equally matched by the ferocity of her intellect and penchant for uncompromising, philosophical debates with the finest intellectuals of the day, and Finea (Silvia Abascal), the sweet and fair, but (seemingly) dimwitted sibling whose marital prospects, despite having been made all the more attractive by the endowment of a generous dowry, have been tempered by her exasperating bubble-headedness and naïve gullibility. With Nise amorously pursued by a roguish and penniless, but well-respected poet and cavalier named Laurencio (José Coronado) and Finea courted by the vain and self-absorbed Liseo (Roberto Sanmartín) at the instigation of his parents, Otavia's hopes to find appropriate suitors for her difficult daughters seems to be within her grasp, until the fickle Laurencio disrupts the fated course of arranged love by turning his attentions instead on Finea in the hopes of acquiring a small fortune through her dowry. Adapted from the titular comedy by Spanish playwright Lope de Vega, Manuel Iborra's La Dama Boba evokes the lightness, burlesque humor, and effervescent tone of William Shakespeare's comedies (most notably, The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night) to create a sincere and incisive exposition on the nature of identity and the transformative power of love. However, inevitably, like Shakespeare's escapist comedies, La Dama Boba similarly suffers from a certain degree of archaicness, blunt absurdity, and caricature that, like Finea's lapses of common sense, renders the memory of the film equally fleeting and transposable.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 17, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Spanish Cinema Now

Honor de Cavallería, 2006

quixotic.gifAlbert Serra's understated first feature, Honor de Cavallería loosely channels the melancholic wanderlust of such contemporary, dedramatized road films as Marc Recha's Days of August and Lisandro Alonso's Los Muertos to create an organic, rigorous, and often frustrating, but indelible and penetrating chronicle of the interiority and profound alienation of picaresque adventure. A de-romanticization of knighthood, chivalry, and heroic myth - and in particular, the ambiguity and delusive rationalization of the "noble quest" that propelled the Crusades - Serra's vision of the iconic Don Quixote de La Mancha (as personified by Lluís Carbo) eschews the abstraction of a loveable dreamer, eccentric protagonist, and tragic hero and hopeless romantic of the Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra novel for the corporeality (and terrestriality) of a Samuel Beckett-inspired, moribund, existential antihero, transforming the self-destructive co-dependency of Waiting for Godot's directionless traveling companions, Vladimir and Estragon, into a chronicle of the dislocated, atemporal journey of a fragmented, helpless, and willful aging horseman unaware of the absurdity of his situation and an obliging, devoted friend, Sancho Panza (Lluís Serrat) who enables his unattainable, pathetic delusion. Filmed using natural lighting in long takes, often in medium and long shot, the film is composed of decentralized, hyperrealist, quotidian sequences reminiscent of Ermanno Olmi's The Tree of Wooden Clogs that underscore the idle passage of time and the vacuity of their noble, but elusive gesture - resting in the shade, surveying the landscape, collective laurels for a wreath, clearing paths, bathing in a lake, and engaging in reinforcing (and regurgitative) hilltop pronouncements on the righteousness of their lonely crusade. So bracing in its vulnerability and dislocation, and achingly transitory in its tactile, crepuscular imagery, Honor de Cavallería subverts the evoked (and unrequited) ideals of the eponymous hero to create a somber, aimless, and provocative meditation on longing, spiritual desolation, impotence, and collective delusion.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 17, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, Spanish Cinema Now

Tirante el Blanco (The Maidens' Conspiracy), 2006

maidens_conspiracy.gifBased on the popular, baroque, fifteenth century chevalier story Tirante el Blanco, the seminal Catalan novel that Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra cites as a profound influence on the realization of Don Quixote de La Mancha, Vicente Aranda's The Maidens' Conspiracy is a lavish, risqué, and skillfully composed, but superficial and unsatisfying medieval adventure that combines the ambitious scope of epic, battlefield encounters with the intimacy and situational satire of sexual politics. Centering on the often comical (mis)adventures of a handsome, brave, and dutiful knight from humble origins named Tirante el Blanco (Caspar Zafer) who seeks to curry increasing favor from the benevolent, ailing Byzantine king (Giancarlo Gianini), initially through his assumed role as military strategist to defend the kingdom and stave off the inevitable incursion into Constantinople by the Turks, then subsequently, through his brazen seduction of the royal family's only surviving child, the young, fanciful, and impressionable princess, Carmesina (Esther Nubiola), the film quickly devolves from grand, heroic tale to lowbrow, bedroom farce. As Carmesina is alternately counseled, manipulated, ordered, and bedeviled by a seemingly endless assortment of intrusive and interfering court handmaidens and servants - a stern and repressed widow (Victoria Abril), the Viuda Reposada (The Rested Widow), a hopeless romantic (Leonor Watling) named Placer De Mi Vida (Pleasure of My Life), a trusted confidante named Estefanía (Ingrid Rubio) who has fallen for Tirante's roguish lieutenant Diafebus (Charlie Cox), a dutiful servant named Eliseo (Rebecca Cobos), and a royal page named Hipólito (Sid Mitchell) whose youth and sensitivity has attracted the attention of the neglected queen (Jane Asher) - and the dynamics of the Imperial Court is further complicated by her parents' attempts to ensure peace and sovereignty in the kingdom from the Grand Turk's (Rafael Amargo) insatiable lust for conquest, what unfolds is an effervescent, but confused, vacuous, and ultimately forgettable (and idiosyncratically cobbled) pastiche that is equal parts romantic ode, bawdy comedy of errors, and graphic illustration of the brutality (and inhumanity) of religious war.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 17, 2006 | | Comments (5) | Filed under 2006, Spanish Cinema Now