Categories
Review

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.

Categories
Review

Review: Blancanieves (Dir. Pablo Berger, 2012)

blancanieves-2012_71735

The tale of Snow White was published by Grimm brothers Jacob and Wilhelm in their Hausmärchen collection and has seen many a filmmaker make attempts to adapt the classic fairy tale to the big screen including Walt Disney, Michael Cohn and most recently Tarsem Singh and Rupert Sanders. Both directors released, respectively, very different versions, however, since literary publication in 1812 it has taken some 200 years for a truly original retelling to be produced and Blancanieves (2012, dir. Pablo Berger) not only pays tribute to silent cinema but also serves as a love letter to Hispanic culture and historiography.

apple

In 1910 Andalucia, Antonio Villata (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is at the height of his profession as a matador. His beautiful wife, and one time recording artist/flamenco dancer, Carmen (Inma Cuesta) watches from the crowd cradling their unborn child in her bulging belly. Tragedy strikes during the estocada and Antonio is gored by his opponent; the shock of which induces labour and baby Carmencita is born into the world motherless with a disinterested and bereaved father who, unable to fend for himself, soon remarries Nurse Encarna (Maribel Verdú). The woman’s disdain of the infant is apparent and her intentions clear from the moment she flutters her heavy kohled lashes at the fallen toreros and thus Carmencita (played in childhood by Sofia Oria) is raised by her grandmother Dõna Concha (Ángela Molina). When her grandmother passes away on the child’s Holy Communion day Carmencita is returned to her father and they can, albeit in secret, renew their relationship. A decade passes and Encarna’s villainy drives the adult Carmen (Macarena Garcia) out of the family home world and into the collective bosom of six bull-fighting dwarves, one of whom doubles, wonderfully, as Prince Charming.

Blancanieves-wallpaper-pic-05

This production was reportedly in development for several years before director-screenwriter Pablo Berger started shooting and nothing is left to chance. Verdú (Y tu Mamá También; Pan’s Labyrinth) who was Berger’s first choice to play Encarna clearly revels in the role; an evil stepmother she was born to play even sans magic mirror (here an artist’s interpretation of the wicked woman on canvas, in a multitude of costume changes, replaces the reflection motif). While this film takes the majority of its cues and sway from the Snow White tale – Blancanieves’ literal translation is SnoWhite – there are also intertextual signifiers to other Grimm tales along the way including Little Red Cap, Cinderella and The Sleeping Beauty via Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). The mise-en-scène, as a whole, is an eclectic homage to the silent era of European cinema and the drama of the bullfight which includes the over-elaborate traje de luces (suit of lights) and black montera (hat), however, it is Alfonso De Vilallonga’s lush score, heavy on the flamenco beats, which is the real joy and builds emotion, tension and crescendo with each hand-clap of the non-diegetic sound.

In spite of the evidentiary early-20s influence Berger delivers a fresh spin on a female protagonist – often celebrated for her passivity and reliance upon a prince – which gives Carmen/Snow the edge needed for a 21st century heroine and reinforces this masterpiece’s declaration: that Blancanieves is, in fact, the fairest of them all.

Categories
Blu-ray Review

Blu-ray Review: Marshland (Dir. Alberto Rodriguez, 2015)

marshland_51

Alberto Rodríguez’s Marshland [La isla minima] opens in 1980 Andalucía. Times are a-changing as the fascist regime has come to an end and a democratic genesis is taking baby-steps in moving the country out of political turmoil. Detectives Juan (Javier Gutiérrez) and Pedro (Raúl Arévalo) are called in from Madrid to investigate the disappearance of sisters Estrella and Carmen. Both men are out of their comfort zone in Guadalquivir marshland and aside from their employment and respective facial hair, they appear to have little in common and each personifies the changes of the political climate (and not always in the ways one would think). This personality clash adds to the tension, especially when the girls are eventually found, sexually assaulted, tortured; their mutilated bodies left in a ditch, and so begins the ambiguous crossing of lines between cop and hunted. Both determined to catch a murderer and prevent more killings by any means necessary.

marshland-bird

Visually, this Southern Spanish Gothic-cum-neo-noir is stunning, beautifully shot with some breath-taking views courtesy of Alex Catalan’s cinematography. The drone-captured aerial shots, while not a particularly new technique of late, are fantastic; the opening montage resembling both brain and ocular cavity, as if the land itself is an additional character. The use of colour is wonderful, the flamingo scene stunning. Rural Andalucía brings to mind South Korea’s Memories of Murder, Argentina’s Everybody Has a Plan, and even the US’ The Texas Killing Fields and certainly the tone and colour – as well as subject matter – does lend itself to these films and builds an atmosphere which becomes specifically gripping during the final sequence. There is even a supernatural element which aids the noirish and gothic feel to the whole insular, albeit, conventional plot. Misogyny and machismo are at odds just as democracy and the Franco era which still lurks in the background. 

The male leads are outstanding, even Goya-winning in the case of Gutiérrez, they are not necessarily complex but at least they have activity to see them through the plot, which sadly, cannot be said for most of the females in the diegesis. There is a severe lack of characters beyond victims, not all are named and almost all either cry or die. Yes, this is an eighties set film and, as previously stated, there is an authenticity to it but a little character development would not have gone amiss, although given the parallels of the 80s and the world today (economic crisis, social tension, inherent sexism), perhaps, it is purposefully done. The slightest of niggles aside; it really is an enthralling watch which unfolds amid beautiful aesthetics.