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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (6/1/2023)

(Reviews of Piggy; and Alcarràs)


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 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.


ALCARRÀS.


Having made a remarkable debut with Summer 1993 (2017), Catalan writer-director Carla Simón returns to her childhood region for her sophomore outing, Alcarràs. Named after the small town in which she grew up, this family saga is less directly autobiographical than its predecessor. But the Simóns have owned a peach farm for generations and the balmy aura of authenticity is reinforced by the casting of non-professionals from the surrounding villages.


From the moment a crane removes the old car in which six year-old Iris (Ainet Jounou) plays with twin cousins Pere (Joel Rovira) and Pau (Montse Oró) beside the reservoir, the writing seems on the wall for the Solé family. Despite the landowning Pinyol clan giving their word that the Solés could farm peaches after sheltering them during the Spanish Civil War, Joaquim Pinyol (Jacob Diarte) has decided to uproot the trees and demolish the house in order to house solar panels. As grandfather Rogelio (Josep Abad) has no documentary proof of the gentleman's agreement, the Solés will be evicted once the harvest has been gathered.


Married to Dolors (Anna Otin), Rogelio's son, Quimet (Jordi Pujol Dorcet), is devastated by the news and fears that he won't be able to provide for Iris and her older siblings, Roger (Albert Bosch) and Mariona (Xènia Roset). He takes out his frustration by organising a nocturnal shooting party to drive away the rabbits that feast on the fruit. But the need to cut costs means he has to let his migrant workers go and he urges in-laws Cisco (Carles Cabós) and Nati (Montse Oró) to pull their weight.


Mariona would rather be learning dance moves with her friends Gal·la (Irati Elordui) and Núria (Abril Baltrons), while Cisco and Roger have started growing cannabis plants among the peach trees to make some extra money. Quimet doesn't know about this scheme, but he does get cross when one of the twins gets stuck in the bucket of a mechanical digger. Meanwhile Rogelio offers organic vegetables to Joaquim in the hope he will change his mind. He refuses to budge, however, although he does offer Quimet and Cisco jobs maintaining the solar panels, which means the family could stay in the farmhouse.


In order to keep on the right side, Rogerio enlists Mariona's help to pick some figs from a tree Joaquim's grandfather had planted and they drive into town to present them. But Joaquim is out. Quimet is suffering with his back, but insists on working all hours and berates Roger for not studying when he tries to help out and offers to go on a protest mounted by the other small growers against the big companies who have muscled on to their patch and undercut them with the local supermarkets.


With the grown-ups picking fruit, the cousins are left to their own devices. They tend to a dead rabbit, build a den out of a pallet, and have a lettuce fight in a neighbour's vegetable patch. Rogerio makes them clean out a bull's pen as punishment, but he gets a lecture of his own from Quimet, who is so angry with him for giving figs to Joaquim that he shuts his car in the barn. He also has a blazing row with Joaquim and turns down his job offer after seeing a fleet of trucks delivering panels to the estate.


While Rogerio takes to his bed, sister Pepita (Antònia Castells) rehashes old gossip about the Pinyols. Dolors tries to keep the kids out of Quimet's way, but gets a shock when she sees Cisco and Nati chatting with Joaquim while out shopping. She decides not to tell her husband and urges Mariona to keep quiet. However, Nati raises the solar project when her lesbian sister Glòria (Berta Pipó) comes for lunch. She lives in Barcelona and is curious as to why Quimet isn't interested in acquiring some nearby land to continue farming.


After feasting on smoked snails, they do some picking before Quimet lets his hair down and pushes everyone into the swimming pool in the garden. When a storm blows up, the cousins dress up and put on a show, with Iris singing an old Civil War song that causes Quimet to gaze longingly at the land he is shortly going to have to leave.


When the workers start installing the panels, Quimet goes ballistic because Cisco and Nati are on site and Roger has to intervene to stop a fight. They stop the twins from playing with Iris and Quimet takes revenge by pulling down the panel Cisco has attached to the barn wall. With his back plaguing him, Quimet needs injections and he annoys his fellow growers by ducking out of the protest march.


Roger takes charge of the harvest while his father is out of action and meets the daily quota. However, he returns to a dressing down for failing to fix a tractor properly and he excuses himself to smoke a joint by his cannabis plants. That night, Quimet and Glòria get tipsy and he jokes that she's become such a city girl that she's become afraid of country sounds.


Missing her cousins, Iris decides to ignore her father. However, Mariona eavesdrops on her mother and Glòria, as they grumble about Cisco and Nati. She feels sorry for her grandfather, who is aghast at having let the family down by trusting a spoken agreement and not having committed the deal to paper. While he dozes in front of the telly, he is aware that his offspring are discussing what to do with him when they have to move out.


One afternoon, Glòria brings the twins to play with Iris. They find a den and re-enact the Solé/Pinyol Civil War experience. But Quimet is annoyed that his sister has spoken to Nati after she took a job with Joaquim. They have a row and Mariona watches in dismay from the window. Indeed, she's so cross that she refuses to celebrate when Quimet wins a wine-drinking contest at the town fiesta and even refuses to join her friends on stage to perform the dance routine she has been practicing for weeks.


En route to town, Quimet had spotted Cisco skulking in the peach orchard and Roger sees him sneak away from the fiesta to set light to the cannabis plants. Furious with his father, Roger leaves the sluice gate open on the irrigation channel and returns to the square, where he upsets Mariona by stopping her from dancing with a boy she likes. She returns home early and discovers that Iris has been left a recorder by the tooth fairy. Moreover, she spots Rogerio wandering into the night and follows to see him find the neighbour's bull grazing under the Pinyol fig tree.


Next morning, Dolors is worried because Roger failed to get home. She asks Cisco to look for him and he brings him back to the farm, where Quimet is already in a bad mood because the ground is muddied and Iris keeps tooting her recorder. He is about to vent at his son when Dolors slaps both their faces and everyone gets back to work in gloomy silence. As they are loading the pallets, Quimet misjudges a distance and stalks away from the bruised fruit with tears in his eyes. Nobody says anything, as they help refill the pallet.


That night, Roger and Mariona shoot rabbits from his motorbike and leave the carcasses outside Joaquim's front door. Shortly afterwards, father and son join a protest against the exploitation of peach farmers. But it proves to be a last hurrah, as a digger comes to uproot the trees closest to the farmhouse, as the reunited family makes preserves in the courtyard. Their fate is left undetermined.


Reminiscent in places to Catherine Corsini's Summertime (2015) and Paolo Sorrentino's The Hand of God (2021), this is a relishable evocation of inhabited place and textured time that switches succinctly between the perspectives of the different characters. This could have been risky, as none of the principals had acted before. But, such is the dexterity of the dialogue scripted by Simón and Arnau Vilaró that each performance is suffused with an unforced naturalism that makes each vignette feel as though it has been caught by chance by cinematographer Daniela Cajías.


Her use of the seasonal light is as exceptional as the way in which she contrasts the colours of the verdant peach trees and their parched rocky environs. Thomas Giorgi's sound design is equally astute, as it captures the breeze rustling branches, raindrops cascading into the garden, and the chatter of young and old alike, as they reminisce, gossip, grumble, and play. And piecing it all together is editor Ana Pfaff, who emulates the leisurely rhythms of a Catalonian summer in pacing and sequencing episodes that attest to the contention that a farmer's work is never done. The winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, this grittily melancholic pastorale is already guaranteed a place in the end-of-year chart.


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