• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (28/5/2021)

(An overview of the 10th London Spanish Film Festival Spring Weekend)


Following its postponement in 2020, the London Spanish Film Festival finally gets to host its 10th Spring Weekend. Running from 28-30 May at the Ciné Lumière in South Kensingon, the bijou programme contains four features, a featurette and a documentary. Sadly, it wasn't possible to see Pilar Palomero's Las Niñas/Schoolgirls or Lucia Alemany's La Inocència/The Innocence.


THE HUMAN VOICE.


Tilda Swinton finds herself in august company in Pedro Almodóvar's deliciously stylised adaptation of Jean Cocteau's 1928 monodrama, The Human Voice. Anna Magnani first played the unnamed protagonist in the Roberto Rossellini dualogy, L'Amore (1948), which also contained `The Miracle'. Ironically, she was next essayed in Ted Kotcheff's 1966 television version by Ingrid Bergman, whose performance was also immortalised on a long-playing record.


Now, just two years after Rosamund Pike gave her own accomplished reading for Patrick Kennedy, Swinton steps into the breach in Almodóvar's first short since The Cannibalistic Councillor (2009)and his first film of any kind in English. Not that there is any dialogue in the opening phase, as Swinton gets her bearings in a luxurious apartment. Alone apart from a border collie, she makes coffee, swills down a cocktail of pills and showers fully clothed before heading out to a hardware store to purchase an axe.


Once home, she goes into performance mode, as her phone rings and she slips in some earbuds to take the call. Over the next 20 minutes, it often looks as though Swinton is talking to herself, as she carries on a conversation with a recently departed lover, who is inquiring when it would be convenient to collect his belongings. Realising this may be her last shot to cajole her erstwhile beau into a rapprochement, Swinton takes the blame for their break-up and makes plain her emotional vulnerability after being abandoned at her time of life.


On grasping that there's no chance of a reconciliation, Swinton changes tack and pulls back from the brink of despair to start to assert herself. She tries to taunt the man on the other end of the line by casually declaring that she'll have no difficulty finding acting or modelling work because she's in impeccable condition. But she also leaves it lingering that he will be responsible should she not emerge from the separation intact.


Doubtless students of Anton Chekhov will have substituted the word `gun' for `axe' during Swinton's shopping expedition and they'd be right in their supposition. But the Russian playwright probably wouldn't have strayed outside the burnished interiors to show the cavernous soundstage in which they are situated. Almodóvar aficionados, however, would have been prepared for just such a gambit. After all, this is the third time he has visited La Voix Humaine, as it's linked to the one-woman show in Law of Desire (1987) and provided the inspiration for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988).


How perfectly Swinton would have fitted into either ensemble, as her association with Derek Jarman would have helped her clamber aboard Almodóvar's wavelength. For all her versatility, Swinton is always Swinton (as we shall see again shortly with the reissue of Peter Wollen's Friendship's Death, 1987) and she references her own past in much the same way that Almodóvar does with the audio samplings in Alberto Iglesias's orchestral score and the props dotted around Antxon Gómez's ridiculously chic sets (which come without ceiling so there is nowhere for Swinton to hide, even from top shots).


Clearly, cinematographer José Luis Alcaine had a fine old time lighting the ravishing colours in both the production design and the costumes created by Sonia Grande (with a little help from Balenciaga). But, their contributions are exceptional, this is a two-handed game and one can only hope that Swinton and Almodóvar can find a feature project soon.


MEMORIES OF MY FATHER.


In a monochrome Turin in 1983, Colombian student Héctor (Juan Pablo Urrego) gets a call from someone who studied under his father to remind him that he is about to retire. As Héctor returns to Medellín, he catches sight of Héctor Abad Gómez (Javier Cámara) across a lecture hall and his mind shoots back to the full-colour certainties of 1971, when he was a young boy nicknamed Quiquín (Nicolas Reyes) and lived in a cosy cocoon with mother Cecilia (Patricia Tamayo) and sisters Maryluz (Maria Tereza Barreto), Clara (Laura Londoño), Vicky (Elizabeth Minotta), Marta (Kami Zea) and Solvia (Luciana Echeverry).


Excited by the visit of American Dr Richard Saunders (Whit Stillman) to help Héctor work on a clean water project in the impoverished neighbourhoods, Quiquín informs live-in nanny Sister Josefa (Luz Myriam Guarín), that he is going to stop saying his bedtime prayers because his father isn't a committed Catholic. He soon learns a harsh lesson, however, when Héctor forces him to apologise to the Jewish woman he had been baiting with his friend.


The forgiving kind, Héctor allows Quiquín to accompany him to the university and leaves him with loyal secretary Gilma (Aida Morales) when he's busy. However, his socialist views lead to his dismissal (even though Cecilia's uncle is an archbishop) and he has to work abroad for a while. On his return, he tests a new polio vaccine on Quiquín and chides him when he fails to help Sol when she falls into the water while on holiday. He despairs when bombs start going off in the city, but Héctor's world falls apart when the guitar-playing Marta dies of cancer.


A sudden lurch forwards (into monochrome) takes us to 1983 in time to see Quiquín (Urrego) kill a woman while drink driving. He's forced to spend time at an asylum while his mental state is assessed, but the woman survives and Héctor pulls strings to get him released (indeed, Quiquín even has a fling with her care worker). But he's not particularly grateful and almost skids off a mountain road after losing his temper in an argument about Héctor's duty as a doctor to help the poor.


They are on better terms after Quiquín graduates and Héctor even seems to be enjoying his enforced retirement. But the ongoing crisis prompts him to run for mayor in 1988, in spite of the fact that political leaders on either side of the divide are being assassinated by Death Squadrons. No sooner has he announced his candidacy than Héctor is lured into a trap and shot on the street. Unable to bear the funeral eulogy, Quiquín slips out of the church, just as a procession denouncing the carnage arrives to pay its respects.


Directed by Oscar winner Fernando Trueba, El Olvido que seremos/Memories of My Father (aka Forgotten We'll Be) could not be any better intentioned in seeking to pay homage to a noble man. But the sketchiness of the historical context will leave many baffled by what and who Héctor Abad Gómez was actually fighting against. In adapting novelist son Héctor Abad Faciolince's 2006 memoir, Oblivion, screenwriter David Trueba prioritises personal over political details, with the consequence that the complexities of a crisis that paralysed a nation are over simplified and the domestic travails of an emblematic family are reduced to mawkish melodrama.


In many ways, Trueba's approach resembles that of Alfonso Cuarón in the much-garlanded Roma (2018). But it's nowhere near as insightful or refined, in spite of the best efforts of Javier Cámara, as the doctor whose sense of duty is rooted more in pragmatic humanism than ideology or faith. Although he revelled in being a family man, his responsibilities drive something of a wedge, although the Truebas make a grave error in failing to show how Quiquín became such a resistible brat after jettisoning quaint hero-worship for querulous hedonism.


Thanks to cinematographer Sergio Iván Castaño and production designer Diego López Mesa, Trueba just about gets away with the switches between monochrome and colour. But, apart from an opening reference to Brian De Palma's Scarface (1983), the Spaniard struggles to capture the changing ambience of Medellín and his cause is hardly helped by the decision to drench the action in Zbigniew Preisner's maudlin score. Even more grating, however, is the use of The Rolling Stones track `Ruby Tuesday' over a montage detailing the teenage Marta's brave bid to make the most of her limited time.


MY MEXICAN BRETZEL.


`Lies are just another way of telling the truth,' according to little-known author Paravadin Kanvar Kharjappali in the opening caption of Nuria Giménez's feature bow, My Mexican Bretzel. And she should know, as she has taken the home movies filmed in the 1950s and 60s by grandparents Frank A. Lorang and Ilse G. Ringier and repurposed them to illustrate a fictitious journal chronicling the deceptively happy marriage of bourgeois couple, Léon and Vivian Barrett.


Having been invalided out of the Swiss air force with diminished hearing after a crash landing, Léon Barrett takes up the offer of his Paris-based friend, Jacques, to join Lovedyn, a company that markets pills from a plant found only near Popocatépetl. During the trials, Léon and wife Vivian go on an Alpine skiing holiday with friends and patch up the relationship that had suffered since the accident and the discovery that Vivian couldn't have children.


It's not all bad, though, as they live in a beautiful house inherited from Vivian's eccentric Uncle Paul, whose interest in the Mexican writer Paravadin Kanvar Kharjappali is soon shared by his niece. Friends Olivia and Peter aren't convinced by the Lovedyn scheme, however, and Vivian begins having the same monochrome nightmare in which she's a mouse scurrying across the nocturnal snow to escape a watching owl. She is also upset by her friend Rita's story about a young woman who was killed in an air raid by American bombers who had mistaken a Swiss town for their German target.


Needing a recreational outlet, Léon buys a boat and Vivian tags along because it's the first time he's shown enthusiasm for anything since his prang. She's frustrated by his constant filming, however, and feels as though they have started doing things solely for the camera. Blithely ignoring the stunning scenery on their numerous trips, Vivian complains that Léon points the camera at her like a gun and resents the fact that he hides behind it when he's not ignoring her by having to concentrate at the wheel. Eventually, she asks him to teach her how to steer and operate the camera, but derives little pleasure from either and would much rather write.


While staying in Barcelona, Vivian muses over Kharjappali's contention that life is alternately like being in a play and in prison. She also heeds his insistence that desire isn't to be wasted and kisses a Mexican man she meets in Majorca named Leonardo. Over footage of Vivian and Léon sightseeing together, she claims to have enjoyed the guilt-free liaison and later pays Leo a visit when Léon is on Lovedyn business in the United States. On joining her husband in New York, Vivian feels guilty and is troubled by the notion that it's no longer possible for one person to know everything about her.


The couple explore Hollywood and San Francisco, where Vivian is irritated by Léon using obsequious flattery in his sales pitches. However, the company is doing well and she's pleased when he secures Lovedyn sponsorship for the Mille Miglia auto race. Over exciting footage of the race, however, she announces that she's going to leave Léon and move in with Leo. She will break the news after Le Mans, but this happens to be the year that 83 spectators are killed when Pierre Levegh perishes in a fireball crash.


The trauma captured by Léon's camera (and supplemented by newsreel commentary) has the curious effect of bringing the pair closer, while also driving them further apart. Vivian keeps Leo's last letter unopened in a drawer and often wonders how he is doing. Yet, despite being annoyed by Léon's suggestion that she tries Lovedyn to help her sleep, she realises that she doesn't regret staying. That is, until she discovers that Léon is having an affair with Olivia after she sees her wearing a bracelet that she had found in his dressing-table. The lake had frozen over that winter and everyone had a grand time on the ice, except Vivian.


When they cross the Atlantic on the Queen Mary, Vivian spends the entire voyage looking for reassuring signs and finds none. She prefers places like New Orleans to Las Vegas and resorts in the middle of nowhere that you forget while you're still visiting them. But, while she's deeply unimpressed by a Wild West theme park full of animatronics, she goes along for the ride while biding her time before tormenting Léon with her knowledge of his affair.


While on Molokai, Vivian hears of an old man who had died without ever having seen the sea, despite the island only being 600km². She decides that people live in their own Molokai landlocks and muses on Kharjappali's concept of `sweet death', in which you slowly come to a halt as the world drifts by. On reflection, Vivian concludes that she would rather keep moving and watch everything else disappear, including Léon. Yet, despite her eagerness to make him suffer for hurting her, she also wants him to lust after her and, during a tour of Hawaii's natural wonders and surfing beaches, she finds his polite attentiveness infuriating.


While in Venice, Vivian has a dream about dying the same day as the Pope and is frightened when Pius XII passes away. She feels the need to flee, but feels Death relentlessly pursuing her. Shortly after experiencing this disconcerting dream, she's informed by her doctor that her cancer has spread and that she only has three months to live. Léon suggests a last trip and Vivian chooses Majorca, although she feels detached from everything happening around her. Looking into Léon's lens, she signs off with Kharjappali's epitaph: `Thank you for everything, Lord. But I didn't understand a thing.'


Closing captions reveal that Vivian died in Switzerland in 1969 and Léon eventually followed in Mexico in 2010. We also learn that Lovedyn was taken off the market in 1971 after it was discovered that it was a placebo, while 12 years later, Kharjappali was exposed as a plagiarist. But, while we never get to know whether Vivian told Léon about Leo or whether she pressed him about Olivia, we are left to wonder who got to read her journal.


Of course, the text was devised entirely by Nuria Giménez, who rather mischievously saddles her grandparents with alternative existences. Great-nephew Chris Stevenson was more respectful when he cobbled a commentary from logbook entries for The Pan-American Highway, which recycled footage that Canadians Mel and Ethel Ross had recorded while travelling in their pale blue V6 GMC camper van and released in 1960 under the wonderfully quaint title Adventurama.


The locations they visited are nowhere near as exotic as those that welcomed Frank and Ilse. But they share the indelible sense of nostalgia that shimmers through the yesteryear colours of the splendidly restored home movie strips. Taking eight years to sift through the 50 reels of 16mm memories, Giménez and co-editor Cristóbal Fernández do a fine job in fitting the images to the text. However, the decision to use subtitles rather than a voiceover is somewhat compromised by the fact that the white print often disappears into the brighter patches of the screen. How difficult could it have been to locate some legible lettering?


Jonathan Danch's sound design is more successful, as it slips foley effects and the odd musical cue into the lengthy passages of silence. For all Giménez's scriptorial and editorial ingenuity, the biggest credit has to go to Frank and Ilse, who not only have an eye for an image, but who also act so naturally on camera. Frank comes across as a Pat O'Brien-style everyman. But, with her resemblance to Ingrid Bergman and Isabella Rossellini, Ilse has an ease that complements the elegance that consistently makes for such amusing contrasts with Vivian's more acerbic observations. Let's hope she was less at the mercy of secrets and lies.


THAT WAS LIFE.


Having moved to Belgium to be near her grandson, María (Petra Martínez) suffers a heart attack. Her husband of 48 years, José (Ramón Barea) sits silently at the foot of her bed and she only brightens up when she is joined in her side room by Verónica (Anna Castilla), a twentysomething who can't understand why she's being kept in for tests after fainting in a shop.


Although irked by her incense stick, María is intrigued by the vibrant younger woman, who has a healthy appetite and chats cheerfully about coming north to pick fruit and developing an interest in photography. She persuades María to pose for her and washes her hair, while revealing snippets of information about her life in Spain. Moreover, at night, she pulls the curtains across her bed so she has the privacy to masturbate and María listens to her breathing with a sense of regret that her life is devoid of any form of passion.


But Veró's mood dips when she's informed that she has a serious heart condition and needs an urgent transplant. María feels bad about leaving her alone and tells her to phone if she needs anything. She is surprised, however, when the hospital calls to say that Veró has designated María as her contact and is shocked when she goes into a fatal cardiac arrest during one of her visits.


Refusing to allow the unclaimed ashes to be thrown away, María leaves José a note and takes the train home in order to find a loved one to accept the urn. Arriving in the Almerían salt mining village of Las Salinas, María learns that no one knows the whereabouts of Veró's flighty mother and she withholds the truth from her ex-boyfriend, Juan (Daniel Morilla), who lives in the next town. Reluctant to leave the ashes in a niche in the cemetery, María decides to leave. But she winds up agreeing to cook Sunday lunch at La Marina, the café owned by the bear-like Luca (Floran Piersic, Jr.).


Having spent a chaste night sleeping on top of Luca's bed after he fell off his motorbike after a night of omelettes and liqueurs, María changes her mind and walks to the bus stop. But she's left stranded and accepts a lift on Juan's scooter back to Las Salinas. She buries Veró's ashes under pomegranate tree and breaks the bad news to Juan after he helps her in the kitchen. A rock band plays in the square and María joins Luca on the dance floor. He coaxes her into riding pillion on a trip to the seaside and she even strips down to her underwear for a splash in the sea.


Back in Belgium, María settles back into her routine with José, even though he resists her attempts to cuddle in bed. She endures an awkward lunch with her sons, during which they try to convince her to see a therapist. But she makes her excuses and prepares for an early night so that she can be alone in the darkness and touch herself.


There may not be anything particularly novel about David Martín de los Santos's La Vida era eso/That Was Life, but María's rite of passage proves compassionate and compelling nonetheless. Played with poignant impassivity by 76 year-old Petra Martínez, María is a woman who has forgotten how to live and Verónica's vivacity and tragic unfulfilment drives her to do something constructive with her third chance (after having been fitted with a stent following an earlier incident).


This is essentially a journey of self-rediscovery, as María reflects on the limitations she has placed upon her own existence and the regrets that Veró will never get to have. She is played with affecting delicacy by Anna Castillo, although she remains an enigma as María discovers so little about her or her background. This leaves Daniel Morilla's Juan as a something of a shadow character, while Floran Piersic's Luca is sketched sufficiently to provide a hulkingly shambolic alternative to Ramón Barea's dully decent José.


Making the transition to fiction after making his name as a documentarist, De los Santos directs with a keen eye for character context. He's ably abetted by cinematographer Santiago Racaj's scorchingly bright images of the arid Almerían backwater that has markedly different effects upon Veró and María. The asides on mechanisation, depopulation and the lingering economic effects of the credit crunch are deftly integrated, but the primary focus falls on the shifting expectations of Spanish women and the need to make the most of every second of our all-too-brief spans.



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