By Susan Patterson
Aside from Almodóvar, Spanish films barely get a look-in in the UK outside of festivals, and sometimes not even then (there are four Spanish films at the forthcoming London Film Festival and there were none at Edinburgh this year). Fans of Spanish film should be grateful, then, for the London Spanish Film Festival, now in its 7th year.
Lope (Andrucha Waddington, 2010) was a good opening night gambit, a kind of Shakespeare in Love in Madrid, inspired by the life of the Golden Century Spanish playwright and poet Lope de Vega. Lope, played by Alberto Ammann, returns from war only for his mother to die. He incurs a debt paying for a lavish funeral for her, and tries to make a living as a writer to pay it off, employed by a theatre owner who is happy to exploit his talent, but holds him back artistically. Lope gets romantically entangled with Elena, the theatre owner’s daughter; consequently the film delivers plenty of heaving breasts, and sex in hitched–up 16th century skirts.
También la Lluvia (Even the Rain – Icíar Bollaín, 2010) was much better than I expected. The subject matter – a Spanish film crew who travel to Bolivia to make a film about Columbus’s discovery of the Americas and mistreatment of the indigenous people, exploiting those same people along the way – and the involvement of perennial Ken Loach collaborator Paul Laverty might lead you to expect something worthy but dull, but this is much more nuanced than that. Gael Garcia Bernal, as the director of the film-within-the-film, and Luis Tosar, as the stereotypical producer, play off each other well, but the film is stolen by Juan Carlos Aduviri, who brings a quiet, angry edge to his character, Daniel, who is arrested and beaten for leading a protest against water privatisation, which almost scuppers the film Bernal and Tosar are making. A special mention also goes to Karra Elejalde, who plays the alcoholic actor playing Columbus. The script hints that he is a faded big name whose presence has secured the film’s funding. His character delivers a brilliant note of unintentional levity at the script read through; one of a couple of scenes where Laverty pokes fun at actors and acting.
Of all the films in the festival I was most looking forward to seeing Pa Negre (Black Bread – Agustí Villaronga, 2010), having tried and failed to see it in Barcelona on its initial release, and it didn’t disappoint. Set in Catalonia in the years after the Spanish Civil War, it tells the story of Andreu, a boy whose father, Farriol, was a Republican during the war, and is now suffering the realities of being on the losing side. At the very beginning of the film Andreu witnesses the death of a classmate and his father, driven off the road and over a cliff in their horse and cart by a mysterious hooded person. The local mayor suspects Farriol knows more about the incident than he says, and consequently Andreu is sent to the countryside to live with his grandmother, while Farriol flees to France. Some of the story threads, such as the hint of sex abuse by the local school teacher, don’t come to anything, and I’m guessing that they featured more prominently in the original books by Emili Teixidor from which the film was adapted. The film won nine Goyas last year, becoming the first film in Catalan to win a Goya for best film, and has been selected as Spain’s entry for the foreign film Oscar.
Vidas Pequeñas (Small Lives – Enrique Gabriel, 2010) was introduced by its charming Argentine born director. It’s an ensemble piece, although focusing slightly more on Bárbara (Ana Fernández), a heavily indebted designer living with her mother and unable to sell her latest collection. When she finds herself without money to pay for a drink she is rescued by an artist who takes her to the campsite on the outskirts of Madrid where he lives. At first she is aloof, but slowly she integrates and gets to know the people on the campsite, who all have their stories to tell. And that’s all that really happens. It’s a film more concerned with character than plot, not dissimilar to Mike Leigh, but without the cringe factor.
El Gran Vazquez (The Great Vazquez – Oscar Aibar, 2010) is a biopic about the comic book artist, Manuel Vazquez (Santiago Segura), who worked in Barcelona during the sixties. Vazquez was a larger than life character, a conman and a bigamist, given a sympathetic hearing by writer/director Aibar. The film is clever and engaging, with a cartoonish feel, bright colours and exaggerated performances. Asked about the performances afterwards, Aibar, who briefly worked with Vazquez when he was starting his own drawing career, and clearly admired him, said that the challenge in directing was to rein in Segura, who he described as a Spanish Rowan Atkinson. Pictures of Segura suggest someone more like Robin Williams, always in performance mode.
Crebinsky (Enrique Otero, 2011) was the festival’s sole offering in the Galician language. That was the only thing that drew me to watching it, but I’m so glad I did, as it was extraordinarily good. It showed with the short film, Os Crebinsky, which Otero had expanded into the feature. Set in Galicia during the Second World War, it is about two brothers who live on the coast, with a cow called Muchka. When a German soldier washes up on the shore and Mucka escapes, the brothers set off on an absurd quest. Galician star Luis Tosar (Miami Vice and Cell 211 as well as this festival’s Lope and Even the Rain) has a small English-speaking role, and is credited as a producer.
One strand of the festival was a homage to the great Spanish director Luis García Berlanga. The only film in that strand that I managed to see was Benvenido Mr Marshall (Welcome Mr Marshall, 1953), Berlanga’s second film. In the film, a small Andalusian town becomes as Andalusian as it can in order to secure money from the American government under the Marshall Plan (which Spain was never eligible for because of its support for Germany during the Second World War). It quickly becomes apparent where the film is going, and in spite of a prolonged dream sequence towards the end, it is charming funny and of its time, and not as someone said to me on the way out, the worst film ever made (That accolade goes to Bruc. La Llegenda (Bruc, the Manhunt – Daniel Benmayor, 2010) the story of a Catalan drummer boy who incurs the wrath of Napoleon in the Peninsular War).
I did wonder if Catalunya uber Alles (Ramon Térmens, 2011) would be a hymn to nationalism, but was instead a cautionary tale about Catalan independentism being hijacked by the far right. Split into three loosely connected (and true-story inspired) stories, it is about a recently released prisoner who the locals want out of town, an African immigrant who takes a commission-only job as a debt collector (given to him because a black face will scare the debtors more), and a business man who becomes a hero when he shoots an immigrant who was robbing his house. The story of the debt collector worked best because of its inherent humour, and the life of the businessman in the third story unravelled in a very satisfying way, but I found the other story too broad-brush, although David Arribas’s performance as the ex-prisoner (none of the characters had names) was excellent.
Mil Cretins (A Thousand Fools – Ventura Pons, 2011) wins the award for the best Q&A I saw. Managed by the excellent and knowledgeable Professor Maria Delgado, rather than being, in the fashion of most festival Q&As, an opportunity for audience members to make long rambling statements about anything but the film, it illuminated and honoured the film without sucking up to the director. Regarding the film itself, a portmanteau of 15 stories adapted from Quim Monzo’s book of the same name, I will just say that it’s hard not to be enchanted by a film that starts with a middle-aged son helping his elderly father put on his bra and make-up.
It wouldn’t be fair to round up the festival without mentioning a couple of its shortcomings. Time keeping was generally lax, and I waited for 45 minutes to go into Bruc. La Llegenda (had I known I wouldn’t have bothered), which followed the Geraldine Chaplin personal appearance. Ciné Lumière is a beautiful, comfortable, recently refurbished cinema, but some of the projection was woeful, with a lot of fiddling around with aspect ratios at the beginning of films and some films projected from questionable materials. Those tiny niggles apart, this was a good festival that brought films to a London audience that wouldn’t have otherwise been able to see them.