• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (23/9/2022)

(An overview of the 18th London Spanish Film Festival)


The 18th London Spanish Film Festival will take place at the Ciné Lumière and Riverside Studios in London between 22-29 September. Always one of the highlights of the autumn calendar, the 2022 programme introduces a new window on Andalucían cinema to go alongside the established sidebars on Catalan and Basque films (which are now respectively in their 14th and 13th editions).


Two comedies by Barcelona-born Dani de la Orden enliven the core programme. In Papá o Mamá/You Keep the Kids, once contented couple Victor (Paco León) and Flora (Miren Ibarguen) find their competitive instincts hampering their divorce proceedings, when each refuses to take custody of their three children. Adapted from a play by Jordi Vallejo, El Test/The Test places two more couples on the horns of a dilemma. Héctor (Carlos Santos) and Paula (Miren Ibarguen) and Toni (Alberto San Juan) and Berta (Blanca Suárez) are offered a choice of an instant €100,000 or €1 million in a decade's time. The decision has to be unanimous. But, while the latter want to wait, the former have a cash flow crisis.


The tone is more serious in the debuting Violeta Salama's Alegría, which is set in the autonomous North African enclave of Melilla and draws on the experiences of her own parents to show how Alegría (Cecilia Suárez) is helped to come to terms with her Jewish heritage by her Christian friend (Mara Guil), her Muslim maid (Sarah Perles) and her bride-to-be niece (Laia Manzanares). By contrast, Laura (Ariadna Gil), a psychologist specialising in domestic abuse cases, has to work off her own instincts in Guillermo Ríos Bordón's thriller, Sólo una Vez/Just Once, when Eva (Silvia Alonso) and Pablo (Álex García) insist that they have been referred to her in error.


As the two titles in the Catalan Window are reviewed below, we move on to the Basque selection. Harking back to the summer of 1985, Manu Gómez's Érase una Vez en Euskadi/Once Upon a Time in Euskadi explores how one of the most turbulent times in the region's recent history impacts upon 12 year-old Marcos (Asier Flores) and his three friends, José Antonio (Hugo Garcia), Paquito (Miguel Rivera) and Toni (Aitor Calderón). Icíar Bollaín's fact-based Maixabel comes forward to 2000 to show how teenager Maria (Maria Cerezuela) responds to the news that her politician father, Juan Maria Jauregui, has been assassinated by the ETA separatist group. Eleven years later, two of the killers, Ibon (Luis Tosar) and Luis (Urko Olazabal), reach out from the Nanclares de la Oca prison to their victim's widow, Maixabel (Blanca Portillo), in a gesture of remorse and reconciliation.


On the Andalucían front, Manuel Martín Cuenca takes us to the mountains of Jaén province for La Hija/The Daughter, as care home worker Javier (Javier Gutierrez) and his wife, Adela (Patricia López Arnaiz), wait for 14 year-old runaway Irene (Irene Virguez) to give birth to the child they plan to raise as their own. However, veteran cop Miguel (Juan Carlos Villanueva) is on their trail and Inspector Manuel Bianquetti (Fred Tatien) proves just as dogged, as he arrives in Cádiz to investigate a young girl's murder with the aid of an unnamed nurse (Natalia de Molina) living in dread of re-encountering an abusive ex-partner in Juan Miguel del Castillo's adaptation of Benito Olmo's bestseller, La Maniobra de la Tortuga/Unfinished Affairs.


On the documentary front, biographer Ian Gibson follows in the footsteps of Luis Buñuel to Las Hurdes and goes in search of Federico García Lorca's remains in Granada in Pablo Romero Fresco's Donde Acaba la Memoria/Where Memory Ends, while Emilio Belmonte's Trance profiles flautist Jorge Pardo and guitarist Paco de Lucía in a globe-trotting celebration of the power of flamenco music. Finally, in addition to Enrique Gato's witty animation, Tad the Lost Explorer and the Curse of the Mummy, there will also be a chance to see Luis García Berlanga's Patrimonio Nacional/National Heritage (1981). Coming between The National Shotgun (1978) and National III (1982) in the `Leguineche trilogy', this gleefully convoluted satire follows the Marquis of Leguineche (Luis Escobar), as he returns to Madrid after three decades of exile on his Los Tejadillos farm in Guadalajara in the hope of finding a place at the court of the newly restored King Juan Carlos. His scheme is jeopardised, however, by a pair of tax inspectors, as well as the members of his feuding family: his Francoist wife (Mary Santpere) and her ex-lover Nacho (Alfredo Mayo); his son Luis José (José Luis López Vázquez); and his nephew Alvaro (José Luis De Villalonga) and his French wife, Solange (Syliane Stella).


THE HOUSE AMONG THE CACTUSES.


Three years after completing her first short, Summer Solstice (2019), 27 year-old Carlota González-Adrio makes her feature bow with La Casa entre los Cactus/The House Among the Cactuses, which has been adapted by Paul Pen from his own novel. A graduate of the Cinema and Audiovisual School of Catalonia, González-Adrio makes remarkably assured use of the enclosed setting, while also taking cues from such distinctive pictures as Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides (1993) and Rob Reiner's Misery (1990).


Some time in the 1970s, Emilio (Daniel Grao) and Rosa (Ariadna Gil) live with their five daughters in a remote woodland house on the Canary Islands. A year after Lis (Judith Fernández) was killed after her father crashed into a tree to avoid a deer, the family is more closely knit than ever. Mila (Marga Arnau) comes from the nearby school to help with the education of teenagers Iris (Aina Picarolo) and Melissa (Zoe Arnao). But even she doesn't know that Lila and Dalia (Anna and Carla Ruiz) are identical twins rather than a single eight year-old named Margarita.


One summer day, while Emilio is working at the local garage, Rafa (Ricardo Gómez) arrives at the house to ask for directions. He claims to have lost his way while hiking and lingers long enough to wangle a supper invitation and somewhere to sleep. He is puzzled when the scratch on Margarita's arm disappears (because Lila and Dalia have changed clothes so that the one hidden out of sight in their bedroom can get a look at the stranger).


When shown to the backseat of a car at bedtime, Rafa starts scribbling in a notebook, only to be interrupted by Iris, who pleads with him to take her with him when he leaves. Next morning, he falls into a cactus while washing in the garden and Rosa insists in treating his arm as Emilio leaves for work. She leaves Rafa alone to deal with a commotion outside and he snoops around the house until Melissa invites him to her room to see her drawings. He becomes agitated when he sees a picture of Lis and rushes downstairs.


Meanwhile, Emilio has discovered some incriminating documents in a car parked in the woods, while Rosa has come across the notebook in Rafa's haversack. He punches her in a struggle and starts down the parched track when he is rammed by Emilio's truck. The girls are ushered inside, as Emilio ties Rafa to the bed in Lis's room and locks the door. However, Melissa climbs in through the window and sifts through some newspaper cuttings about stolen children. She reacts calmly to the revelation that Rafa is Lis's brother and says nothing to Iris because she knows how much Emilio and Rosa have sacrificed to give the sisters a good life.


While Emilio torches Rafa's car, Rosa reassures Melissa that everything will be okay. But Iris is less phlegmatic after she clambers into Rafa's room and takes the spare car to tell Mila what is happening. Emilio is about to chase after her with Rafa's corpse in his truck, when Mila arrives. She accepts the story that Rafa had run away after abusing their hospitality by robbing them and Emilio and Rosa hope that things can return to normal after they burn the body in the woods.


They have a barbecue in the garden and Melissa watches her parents dance. However, while accompanying Emilio to market, she had slipped away to the post office and had mailed a copy of Pride and Prejudice to Iris's mother, a necklace to Lis's and drawings of Dalia and Lila to their mother. But, as she sent nothing to her own family, there's no telling from Melissa's impassive expression whether she has done this to provide solace to the grieving or to betray her abductors.


Despite this teasing note of ambiguity, Pen and González-Adrio fail to shore up the gaping chasm at the centre of the story. Given that Emilio and Rosa have been so scrupulous in covering their tracks (even letting Lis die rather than risk awkward questions in taking her to hospital), how did Rafa manage to find them? There are no telltale clues in the newspaper clippings that Melissa sees that would have brought him to that precise spot on Gran Canaria. And did no one else know he was conducting an inquiry that must have taken up a lot of time and involved a fair amount of travelling?


It also seems somewhat specious that a person in a responsible position like Mila would go along with Emilio and Rosa's reclusive approach to parenting. Moreover, surely someone in the town would have been curious about the situation, if only Emilio's boss at the garage. Such misgivings aside, however, this is an atmospheric saga that is evocatively photographed by Kiko de la Rica and accompanied by an unsettling score by Zeltia Montes, as González-Adrio creates what she calls `a cocoon that keeps danger out, but darkness in' and allows `the serenity and silence of nature [to] take on a new significance'.


Ariadna Gil, Daniel Grao and Ricardo Gómez are respectively nurturing, taciturn and baleful as the adults, but they are rather upstaged by their younger co-stars. Anna and Carla Ruiz brim with mischief (the scene in which they mirror each other is very amusing), while Aina Picarolo recalls the literary heroines Iris so much admires and Zoe Arnao is poignantly pensive as the middle child who seems able to empathise with both sides of the scenario. González-Adrio directs them well and this `story concealing truth and lies, secrets and things kept hidden, violence, affection and sanctuary' should prove the starting point of a compelling career.


MEDITÉRRANEO: LAW OF THE SEA.


Having won the Gaudi Award for Best Documentary by following wheelchair user Albert Casals and girlfriend Anna Socías in their bid to travel from Barcelona to New Zealand without money in Little World (2013), Marcel Barrena found inspiration in Ramon Arroyo Prieto's determination to enter an Iron Man competition in 100 Metres (2016). He returns with another fact-based story in Meditérraneo: The Law of the Sea, which was inspired by the efforts of the Catalan lifeguards who formed the Open Arms charity to save the lives of migrants trying to reach Europe by boat.


In 2015, dismayed by news images of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi's body on a Lesbos beach, lifeguard Oscar Camps (Eduard Fernandez) persuades colleague Gerard Casals (Dani Rovira) to fly to Greece to investigate. Affronted by the indifference of local coastguard chief Masouras (Vassilis Bisbikis), the Catalans risk their lives to rescue the men, women and children being pushed out of rubber dinghies that have made the short crossing from Turkey.


They discover that many slash their own boats because they acquire refugee status if they are rescued at sea. Basing themselves at a café belonging to Nora (Giota Festa), Oscar and Gerard decide to stay (even though the latter has a young family). A month later, they are joined by Nico (Sergi López) and Oscar's daughter, Esther (Anna Castillo).


She resists his attempts to protect her (as they barely saw each other when he was battling alcoholism) and tries to persuade him to let photographer Santi Palacios (Àlex Monner) publicise their work. Oscar is proud of the way she handles a rescue with their new dinghy. He is also touched by the plight of

Rasha (Melika Foroutan), a Syrian doctor who is looking for her lost daughter, and offers her a job after she delivers a baby on the beach.


Surprised when junior coastguard Loukas (Yiannis Niarros) has him released from jail after a corrupt cop charges him with trafficking (after he drove two elderly survivors in his rented car), Oscar agrees to give an interview to publicise the situation. However, his presence is still resented by the locals and he is considering his position when a sinking leaves hundreds in the water and Oscar is relieved when half a dozen fishing boats come to their rescue. Masouras and Frontex take the credit, but Oscar remains at the To Kyma tavern to run the Open Arms NGO.


Despite a sly line from Santi about presenting Oscar's story from a European perspective, it's hard to escape the fact that the focus of this well-meaning picture devotes relatively little time to the migrants risking their lives to escape war zones and persecution. Writer Danielle Schleff clearly wants to pay tribute to the Catalan lifeguards who responded with compassion and pragmatism to a crisis that everyone from the EU and Frontex to the Greek coastguard and the Lesbos police were trying to buck pass. But Barrena never fully addresses the dilemma facing Open Arms about what happens to the people they pluck out of the sea.


Eduard Fernández gives a suitably nowty turn, as Oscar Camps overcomes a lack of people skills to get things done. More might have been made of Dani Rovira's domestic situation, as his uncomplaining wife is left to raise a newborn baby on her own, while Sergi López might have placed greater emphasis on the jeopardy in which Oscar may have left his employees through his philanthropy. Anna Castillo is quietly intrepid, as the daughter trying to rebuild a relationship while proving her worth, but the chance to use Giota Festa to explore local reactions to the mission is spurned, while Melika Foroutan's fictional doctor smacks of melodramatic tokenism.


Nevertheless, the sea rescues are expertly staged, with editor Nacho Ruiz Capillas conveying the desperation of the migrants and the peril they pose to themselves and those trying to help them. Kiko de la Rica's photography and Arnau Bataller's score are equally commendable. Barrena also merits praise for spending four years researching the subject and bringing the work of Open Arms to a wider audience. But a little more political boat-rocking might not have gone amiss.


THE ODD-JOB MEN.


Catalan director Neus Ballús has fun playing with the blurred lines between fact and fiction in her third feature, Sis Dies Corrents/The Odd-Job Men. Based on Ballús's recollections of her plumber father's stories, the script written with Montse Ganges and Ana Sanz-Magallón (using the pen name Margarita Melgar) is full of insouciantly incisive comments on race, class, gender, craftsmanship and the state of the nation. For all its acuity, however, this is also innovative and amusing.


After decades of working as a plumber in Barcelona, Pep (Pep Sarrà) is about to retire. Much to the annoyance of Valero (Valero Escolar), who complains that clients tend not to like foreigners, the boss of Instalaciones Losilla (Paqui Becerra) has hired Moroccan Moha (Mohamed Mellali) on a trial basis. As she just happens to be his wife, Valero is forced to show the newcomer the ropes, while gauging his suitability to become Pep's full-time replacement.


At their first port of call, Moha gets distracted by a centenarian who insists on discussing at some length the foods essential for a long life. At the next job, a pair of mischievous sisters, who are bored because they can't use the TV or the computer, hamper Valero's efforts to restore the power. Some time later, Moha manages to lock them out on the balcony of a block of flats. With no choice other than to be sociable, Valero shares his lunch with Moha and bemoans the fact that he is trying to lose weight in order to fit into his best suit for a family wedding.


Moha's flatmates (Hamid Minoucha and Youssef Ouhadi) tease him about his eagerness to assimilate by learning Catalan as well as Spanish. But he takes their joshing in the same good part as he does Valero's bellyaching and constant efforts to sabotage his work. His hopes of winning Valero over are dented when a photographer (Judith Vizcarra Puig) compliments him on his physique and insists on his modelling for her. However, both men are baffled by the psychoanalyst (Alfredo Aloisio) who wants to transform his office into the kind of haven of automation that appals Pep, who thinks the old ways are the best.


Naturally, all ends well, with Moha landng the job and Valero enjoying the wedding, despite being unable to button his jacket. But it remains to be seen whether the insecure Valero will cope without Pep's perfectionist expertise, as he will no longer be able to coast, especially if `hot shot' Moha turns out to be the better handyman. Ballús explore such themes with a lightness of touch that extends to the naturalness of the performances and the blend of improvisation and scripted wit and wisdom.


After two years' of pre-production, real-life odd-jobbers Valero Escolar and Mohamed Mellali prove to be a fine fit, as they refine their double act in the face of everyday frustrations and absurdities and the breaking down of prejudices and assumptions. Ballús perfected this approach during the four years it took to make The Plague (2013) and it allows Anna Molins's camera to noodle around the plumbers like an eavesdropping workmate. If only all docufiction was this acute and accomplished.


PIGGY.


If Julia Ducournau set out to make a mash-up of Catherine Breillat's À ma Sœur! (2001) and Brian DePalma's Carrie (1976), it might look a bit like Cerdita/Piggy, the debut feature that Carlota Pereda has expanded from her 2019 Goya-winning short of the same name.


In a quiet village in Extremadura, near the Portuguese border, Sara (Laura Galán) lives with her genial butcher father, Tomás (Julián Valcárcel), and hectoring mother, Asun (Carmen Machi). Shy and overweight, Sara is tormented by classmates Maca (Claudia Salas), Rocío (Camille Aguilar) and (to a lesser extent, Claudia (Irene Ferreiro). They call her `Piggy' and waste no opportunity in hurting and humiliating her.


One afternoon, after Maca had posted a picture of her serving in the family shop, Sara goes for a siesta swim in the town pool. As there's no one around, she hurries to the edge, only to be frightened by a stranger (Richard Holmes) popping out of the water. Such is her alarm that she fails to notice a man's lifeless body at the bottom of the pool. Maca, Rocío and Claudia go past and the first pair can't resist mocking Sara and asking if the bearded man is her boyfriend.


No sooner has he left than Maca and Rocío try dunking Sara with a leaf net before stealing her clothes. Even Claudia picks up her towel before running off. Hurrying home in her bikini, Sara is harassed by some young men in a car and takes cover in a dusty side road. Peering around a bush, she sees a white van and is shocked to see Claudia's bloody face appear in the rear window. She pleads for help, but Sara does nothing, as the stranger drops her towel on the ground before driving off, with Claudia and friends.


Back home, Sara is scolded by her mother for getting sunburnt. She goes online and feels no pity when she sees a social media post about the `three little pigs'. However, she's wary when Claudia's boyfriend, Pedro (José Pastor), comes looking for her and reluctantly agrees to run an errand for her father. The stranger follows her into the shop and buys some of the snacks she comfort eats (and later leaves them in her bedroom).


With rumours circulating that the lifeguard was killed because he was having a fling with a missing waitress, Sara is whisked off by her mother to see what has happened at the pool. When quizzed by Civil Guards Juan Carlos (Chema del Barco) and son Juancarlitos (Fernando Delgado-Hierro), she lies and claims to have bathed in the river before snapping at Asún for doing nothing to protect her from the mean girls. Juancarlitos is convinced Sara is hiding something, but his father dismisses his suspicions.


Embarrassed by Claudia's mother, Elena (Pilar Castro), coming to the house and asking about her daughter, Sara sneaks out after supper to find her missing phone. She uses her father's mobile to track the ringtone on the dusty road, but runs into the stranger. He ushers her away, as the parents of the missing girls conduct a torchlight search and Sara is shocked when he kisses her.


Amidst the commotion caused by the discovery of the waitress's body, Sara slips away and is masturbating to pornography in bed when Pedro knocks on her window. She comes down and takes a toke on his joint, as she admits to having seen the girls at the pool. He begs her to speak up, as he is coming under suspicion. But their chat is interrupted by Elena, who implores them to help her and winds up in a scuffle with Asun when she comes out to protect her child. When the Guardia try to interrogate her, Asun proves just as stubborn, even though Juancarlitos knows she is withholding information.


Marching Sara back home, Asun demands to know why Claudia's bloody towel was in with her washing. However, they are interrupted by the stranger, who has just murdered Tomás and leaves Asun unconscious before dragging Sara into the night. He takes her to an abattoir on the edge of town, where she finds Rocío and Claudia strung up on meat hooks. Maca is already dead and they beseech Sara to free them before the stranger comes back.


Despite the fact that he alone has shown her some pity, Sara kills him with his knife and uses the rifle he stole from her father to shoot the ropes binding her tormentors. As she wanders back along the road, she encounters Pedro on his motorbike and he gives her a lift back to town without mentioning that his girlfriend is alive, albeit without her right hand.


An exceptional performance by Laura Galán (in her mid-30s) holds together this audacious psychological slasher, which plays with a raft of generic conventions without diminishing their effectiveness. Indeed, Carlota Pebreda's readiness to subvert expectation keeps the audience on tenterhooks, even as the action becomes more frustratingly formulaic in the final reel. Nevertheless, it would be nice to know what happens next, if only to the young bull that opted out of the festival run and gave Sara a fright as she searched for her phone.


If the focus on Sara leaves the secondary characters in her shadow (although Carmen Machi is splendid as her brusque mother), Pebreda is more successful at exploiting her location, with cinematographer Rita Noriega utilising the Academy ratio frame to convey the clamminess of the summer heat and the simmering tensions within a town riven with fissures and feuds. Olivier Arson's discordant score and David Pelegrin's measured editing (the throat to melon cut is a doozy) enhance the sense of unease, as we try to fathom Sara's reaction to the fact that a murderous avenger in a white van has recognised her plight and seems prepared to resolve it while accepting her for who she is, both physically and emotionally.


Although Pereda revels in the gorier moments, the real horror lies in Sara's shaming ordeal at the hands of her peers and neighbours. Forever trying to make herself look small or overlookable, Galán brilliant captures the victim's vulnerability and volatility, even as the picture rather jumps the gate during the slaughterhouse sequence and leaves the lingering suspicion that the short leaving countless questions unasked is superior to the feature that raises even more.


SUMMER 1993.


Echoes of Victor Erice's El Sur (1993) and Carla Simón's Estiu 1993/Summer 1993 (20170 reverberate around Marta Lallana and Ivet Castelo's charming coming-of-age saga, Ojos Negros. A degree project that attracted festival attention in its native Spain, this is featurette was co-written by classmates Iván Alarcón and Sandra García and made with the support of tutors Jonás Trueba, Mar Coll and Clara Roquet. It's also something of a family affair, as teenage lead Julia Lallana is the younger sister of one of the directors.


First seen eavesdropping on an argument between her parents, Paula (Marta Lallana) is dismayed when pregnant mother Celia (Raquel Vicente) sends her to spend the holidays in the Aragonese pueblo of Ojos Negros with her Aunt Elba (Ana Sabate) and her grandmother (Ines Paricio). She enjoys feeding the chickens. playing with the dog and going for bike rides through the spectacular countryside. But. as she comes to dread the ominous silences of mealtimes, Paula realises that her grandmother is old and frail and that her aunt has never forgiven Celia for an incident in the past.


Much to her relief, Paula bumps into Alicia (Alba Alcaine), who is also spending the summer away from home. She is more emotionally mature and socially experienced than the 13 year-old, who quickly falls under her spell, as the pair disappear for hours to chat and swim in the lake. They even allow Elba's dog to run away and slip away from the religious procession taking place in the town. Paula also has her first period and gains an insight into the interconnection between life and death. Moreover, she learns about her mother's past and begins to feel the first stirrings of love. But she is also aware that the summer is coming to an end and that she might never see Alicia again.


Anyone who has forged a holiday friendship will recognise the adolescent emotions experienced by the naive young woman at the centre of this enchanting story. Guided by her sibling, Julia Lallana excels as the town mouse being exposed to ideas, sensations and feelings from which she has been protected by her mother. But she is splendidly supported by Alba Alcaine. whose worldly wisdom touchingly contrasts with her new friend's innocence.


Marta Lallana and Ivet Castelo may not stray far from the familiar byways of rite of passagery, while a couple of incidents strain credulity. But they handle their young actors with tact and are not afraid of using silence as a means of communication. Indeed, the sound mix achieved by Eloy Rodriguez de la Rosa, Claudi Dosta Ivanow and Roger Navarro is almost as affecting as Raül Refree's score. Similarly, cinematographer Jorge Basterretxea's painterly landscapes and intimate close-ups gain considerably from the delicately paced editing of Victor Xavier Monzó and Nila Nuñez. Consequently, while this meticulous miniature may lack thematic originality, it certainly suggests its makers have enormous potential.


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