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Review: Summer 1993 (Dir. Carla Simón, 2017)

Grief, sorrow and loss are overwhelming emotions in the wake of a family member’s death, as you struggle to make sense of their departure and the huge gaping hole they have left. It’s easy to dwell on the finality of death and the unfairness of it all, and that’s as an adult. Now imagine, you’re just six years old.

It is the summer of 1993 – a period when the AIDS virus is claiming lives – and the nighttime sky in Barcelona is lit by bursts of colour and light as fireworks go off with a multitude of bangs and whistles, and groups of children run around the neighbourhood, squealing with joy. There is little in the way of it for Frida (Laia Artigas) as she vacantly watches her belongings being packed into a van. She’s moving, leaving behind everything she has ever known following her mother’s death. She is going to live with her mother’s brother, uncle Esteve (David Verdaguer) and his wife Marta (Bruna Cusi) out in the Catalan county of La Garrotxa, surrounded by trees and fields of green. A complete departure from the urban city dwelling she has grown to call home.

This film – based on the childhood experiences of its writer-director Carla Simón – uses the urban setting and casts it against the neo-rural in a changing Spain. The surrounding leaves dappled with sunshine, and the revitalising greens and blues of the film’s palette create the perfect childhood idyll but this new and unfamiliar landscape is, seemingly, at odds with Frida’s perceptions of death, she is often preoccupied with both. At night, the child searches by torchlight for her ‘lost’ mother as if she has been stolen away by woodland creatures or leaves gifts, such as cigarettes, with the hidden statue of Our Lady guarding a cavernous hole in the wall.

Typically, there’s a split between the generations – history and tradition seen through a grandparent’s Catholicism and the gegants i capgrossos (the folkloric festival with its 15th century origins), as well as the obvious differing parenting styles of Esteve and his mother Àvia (Isabel Rocatti). Parental duties are divided between Verdaguer’s lovely uncle and Cusí’s patient Marga – although all family members are united in their love for their girl – who seemingly want to support, help repair the lost orphan and help her understand, accept her loss and acknowledge her grief all in her own time (though it is far from easy). To that end, this film never feels over-sentimental rather a beautifully tender and transformative experience as a small child grapples with rather overwhelming adult feelings. Brava to Simón who, in one sequence, normalises period cramps albeit while sensitively showing just how terrifying it appears to a child that has experienced a parent’s painful death.

While Summer 1993 [Estiu 1993] is a relatively simple narrative edited together detailing such a small window of time, it is beautifully measured and made up of small moments which only deepens meaning and enhances the story. None of which, it has to be said, would be quite as transfixing if not for the two wonderful little girls. The casting is sublime, the physical differences between the two are evident, but their life experience(s) or lack thereof are displayed in their facial expressions, open innocence, and the way they both ‘act’. Laia Artigas and Paula Robles inhabit Frida and Anna so naturally the heightened realism shapes the overall tone; Santiago Racaj’s largely static camera is always observing, sometimes in tightly framed shots yet it never feels intrusive.

The camera is often at Frida’s eye level as she cradles her doll – one of a whole army, all with names and showered with kisses for they are a measure of just how much everyone loves her – the frame opening as her new surroundings envelop her and she starts to accept her new way of life. The little girl is quiet, withdrawn and while her level of understanding is never truly known, she observes everything (her cosplaying her mother proves that in spades). In complete contrast is Esteve and Marga’s daughter Anna (Paula Robles) who is always singing, climbing and generally following her cousin around. Frida, not only has to process her new habitat, family and grief but negotiate her new status as a big sister which leads to regression, cruelty and, understandably, petty jealousy.

Preceding this, Simón wrote and directed three shorts: Born Positive (2012), Lipstick (2013) and Las pequeñas cosas (2015) with the London Film School before completing Lacuna (2016) which was made using her late mother’s letters. She manages to inject her gorgeous feature film with a sweeping verisimilitude, concentrating on the complexities and minutiae of familial relationships which will warm your heart and swiftly break it (catharsis is such a powerful tool, especially during this dénouement). It goes a long way to communicate that a family may be reconstructed but it is still a family, and those who are no longer with us in body live on in memory.

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