Friday, 20 December 2013

Twelve Spanish Films from 2013 to See in 2014

I thought that I'd start my consideration of 2013 by looking at the Spanish films from the past year that I haven't managed to see yet. I usually choose ten films, but in the last few months a host of films have piqued my interest. I've deliberately avoided choosing films that I mentioned at the start of the year (with one exception) and also those 2013 films that I've already acquired on DVD but haven't watched yet (which include Ayer no termina nunca (dir. Isabel Coixet), A puerta fría (dir. Xavi Puebla), Alacrán enamorado (dir. Santiago A. Zannou), and Barcelona nit d'estiu (dir. Dani de la Orden)). As usual, titles that appear in square brackets are my translation when there doesn't appear to be an official English language title. I've also indicated if a trailer lacks subtitles (several of them are wordless, so I've only said ‘no subtitles’ if dialogue is included). 



15 años y un día / 15 Years and One Day (dir. Gracia Querejeta)
Drama. Trailer (no subtitles).  
From the synopsis, this doesn't really sound like anything out of the ordinary - a mother (Maribel Verdú) sends her delinquent son (Arón Piquer) to stay with his ex-miltary grandfather (Tito Valverde) in the hope of straightening him out. I'm guessing that it's a 'learning experience' for everyone. It's on this list because it's Spain's entry for the Foreign Language category at the Oscars - so I'm a bit curious about it (also curious to see if this maintains the trend of being the film nominated by the Spanish Academy to represent Spain, but ending up not being the one they award Best Film at the Goyas - this always strikes me as being similar to end of year lists where people nominate films for the impression they give of themselves rather than what they actually like. The 'tasteful' film goes into consideration for the Oscars, but the actual 'favourite' wins the Goya. Sometimes.).



Caníbal / Cannibal (dir. Manuel Martín Cuenca)
Thriller. Trailer.
I've deliberately avoided replicating my 'Forthcoming Spanish Films in 2013' list from last January, but of the films on that list this one has moved to the top of the pile. Manuel Martín Cuenca's La mitad de Óscar / Half of Oscar was in my end of year top 5 in 2011 and it sounds as if he has again created a window into the life of a taciturn man (here played by Antonio de la Torre) whose solitary existence is disturbed by the arrival of a woman who brings with her echoes of the past. La mitad de Óscar seemed to me to partly be a study in loneliness, or how our loneliness becomes apparent to us when it is thrown into relief by the company of others - the trailer for Caníbal suggests something similar, but it is a good exercise in revealing atmosphere rather than plot (and I am deliberately going in as blind as possible). I also hope to catch up with the director's earlier film, La flaqueza del bolchevique / The Weakness of the Bolshevik (2002). 



Con la pata quebrada / Barefoot in the Kitchen (dir. Diego Galán)
Documentary.
A history of how women have been portrayed onscreen in Spanish cinema (utilising clips from more than 150 films from the 1930s onwards), and by extension (one would imagine) revealing something of their changing status within the country itself. Given that it is co-produced by El Deseo, I'm hopeful that it will make an appearance on DVD at some point.



El futuro / [The Future] (dir. Luis López Carrasco)
Drama. Trailer.  
A house party in 1982, in the aftermath of the PSOE's historic general election victory. This hasn't acquired distribution in Spain yet, but has been playing on the festival circuit to some acclaim (see Michael Pattison's guest post about SEFF) and has been championed by several Spanish film publications as being part of the burgeoning 'otro cine español' (as have several other films on this list). I'm hoping that it will either reach a VOD platform or a UK festival (that I actually manage to get to!). 



Gente en sitios / People in Places (dir. Juan Cavestany)
Comedy. Cast: nearly every actor currently working in Spain. Seriously.
Trailer (not subtitled), or a subtitled sequence on the TIFF site.  
A fragmented, but collective, take on the country and its people at this time of economic crisis - generally getting a raw deal at the hands of the ruling classes. If ever a situation cried out for a touch of cinematic esperpento (a jet-black humour characterised by a grotesque distortion of reality with the intent of critiquing society), then it is surely that which Spain is currently undergoing (although how much reality actually needs to be distorted in order to make it grotesque at the moment is open to debate). By all accounts it is a very funny film, but also more political than it may appear at first glance. 



La herida / Wounded (dir. Fernando Franco)
Drama. Trailer.  
The feature debut of editor (Blancanieves (Pablo Berger, 2012) is among his credits) Fernando Franco, La herida follows ambulance worker Ana (Maria Álvarez) who (unbeknownst to her) suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder (characterised by extreme swings in emotion and self-destructive behaviour). That's not really a 'plot' and my understanding is that it's more of a character study than a narrative, which means that it will stand or fall on Álvarez's performance - she has won several awards for the film, including 'Best Actress' at San Sebastián - 2013 has been a good year for female performance in cinema generally, so I'd like to catch up with the one that has stood out in Spanish cinema.




Història de la meva mort / Story of My Death (dir. Albert Serra)
Drama.
Another veteran of the festival circuit (winning the Golden Leopard in Locarno) and another film yet to be released in Spain (it has only played the Filmoteca de Catalunya so far, although rumour has it that it will get a cinema release in early 2014). It is one of only two 'Spanish' films in Sight & Sound's top 30 of 2013 poll (the other being Blancanieves - and in the battle of mythical figures, Dracula and Casanova rank higher than Snow White in this instance) and, while the film has not won favour in all quarters (and Serra's self-aggrandisement can be rather abrasive), it has cropped up often enough for me to think that I should try to see it if the opportunity presents itself. 



Los ilusos / The Wishful Thinkers (dir. Jonás Trueba)
Drama. Trailer.  
Described as an 'intermission film', Los ilusos seems to be about in-between spaces - it follows a filmmaker in between films, passing the time with friends and loved ones, and his (and their) exploration of the spaces of Madrid. I don't know if Trueba has been highlighting issues surrounding distribution and exhibition in Spain, but there is only one copy of the film and he has been accompanying it on its travels - and it is another film that has received attention for its low budget (it was filmed over several months as and when people were available to work on it). This seems markedly different to his previous film, Todas las canciones hablan de mí / All the Songs Are About Me (another former 2011 favourite of mine) and I'm eager to see where Trueba is heading.


 
Stockholm (dir. Rodrigo Sorogoyen)
Drama. Trailer.  
Two people (Aura Garrido and Javier Pereira - referred to simply as 'Her' and 'Him' in the credits) meet at a party, they spend the night together, but the next morning the game of seduction takes on a darker psychological hue. Both actors have been praised for their performances, with Garrido (who also stars in Los ilusos and is one of my 'faces to watch') picking up several awards. I've avoided reading too much beyond the initial synopsis.



Todas las mujeres / [All the Women] (dir. Mariano Barroso)
Originally a 6 part TV series from 2010 in which veterinarian Nacho (Eduard Fernández) interacted with a different woman who signified something important in his life (his wife, his lover, an ex-girlfriend, his mother, his sister-in-law, and his psychologist) in each episode, the film reworks this into a tight ensemble piece (with all of the same cast - Michelle Jenner, Marta Larralde, Petra Martínez, María Morales, Nathalie Poza, Lucía Quintana) without an ounce of fat on it. Fernández falls into that category of actors I would watch reciting the phone book, but the reviews suggest that the women match him.



Tots volem el millor per a ella / Puzzlement (dir. Mar Coll)
[Note: a literal translation of the title would be We All Want What's Best For Her - the film is also known by its castilian Spanish title, Todos queremos lo mejor para ella]. Geni (Nora Navas) is recovering from a traffic accident, but as she does so she finds that her old life holds little attraction for her despite the encouragement of those around her for her to return to 'normal'. As her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, she can think of only one thing: escape. This is a case of the combination of director and actress attracting my attention - I still haven't seen Mar Coll's directorial debut, Tres dies amb la familia / Three Days with the Family, for which she won Best New Director at the Goyas in 2010, but she seems to be quietly carving out her own space for herself. I saw Nora Navas for the first time in Pa negre and she really impressed me there - this looks like a role she could have some fun with.



Tres bodas de más / Three Many Weddings (dir. Javier Ruiz Caldera)
Low budget festival bait may be something of a trend in this list but that doesn't mean that I haven't had my eye on the more commercial end of the market as well (several of the films I had on my January list, such as Las brujas de Zugarramurdi (dir. Álex de la Iglesia) and La gran familia española (dir. Daniel Sánchez Arévalo), fall into that category - I'm waiting for them to appear on DVD). Tres bodas de más arrived in Spanish cinemas in early December (having premiered at Venice as the closing film), just in time to give the Spanish box office some much-needed oomph. The basic set-up is that Ruth (Inma Cuesta) has the misfortune to be invited to not one but three of her exes' weddings in the space of one month - what ensues has been described as Howard Hawks meets the Farrelly Brothers, which sounds...an unlikely combination, but I've also seen Cuesta's performance described more than once as a gender reversal of the Cary Grant-as-nerd roles (Ruth is a marine biologist and her nerdishness is signalled via the international shorthand of Very Large Glasses). Cuesta has the comic chops to be very funny and Javier Ruiz Caldera's Promoción fantasma / Ghost Graduation is a sweet-natured film that seemed to actually like its characters rather than simply set out to ritually humiliate them, so fingers crossed for this one (although I will admit that finally seeing the trailer while writing this post has dampened my enthusiasm somewhat). Bonus: Rossy de Palma plays Ruth's mother.

Those are the films that I'm particularly looking to catch up with, and each seems to have occupied a significant place in the landscape of Spanish cinema in 2013, but there are many others in the mix (not to mention the numerous 2012 titles I've yet to get hold of). Several of the films mentioned above are due to arrive at Filmin in the first quarter of 2014, so they should make a return appearance here in the coming months.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

The Late Show: Alfredo Landa

My contribution to Shadowplay's Late Film Blogathon, in which I should be discussing Luz de domingo, but mainly focus on the career of Alfredo Landa because I really disliked the film.

Alfredo Landa, 1933 - 2013

     In the introduction to the edited collection British Stars and Stardom, Bruce Babington states that indigenous stars:
'[...] give things to home audiences that Hollywood luminaries cannot - reflections on the known and close at hand, typologies of the contingent, intimate dramatisations of local myths and realities - which, when they fit into Hollywood's categories, make the performers who embody them world stars, while others remain local stars - but no less meaningful for that.' (2001: 10)
It has often struck me that while there is a certain amount of pride manifested when one of 'our own' makes it in Hollywood (they're ours! we spotted their potential first!), often those who remain geographically closer are regarded with greater affection; they're more clearly marked as belonging (exclusively) to us and we can pat ourselves on the back for having recognised a talent that is (we think) under-appreciated elsewhere. [Possibly it's only the British who have this sense of smugness with regard to our actors, but I think it's probably universal]. I happened to be logged in to the blog's twitter account when the news of Alfredo Landa's death broke back in May, and for the rest of the day my timeline was filled with an outpouring of affection from Spain that seemed universal (there was no sign of the usual twitter phenomenon where people feel the need to berate those who are moved by the passing of someone they didn't actually 'know'). What was striking though, was the range of films and characters that were mentioned - while Landa owed his iconicity in Spain to a particular set of films (which resulted in a sub genre, landismo, being named after him), his career as a whole had three quite distinct stages (his fame originated from the middle one). So while the blogathon requires me to focus on the end of his career, I'm going to start by outlining how Alfredo Landa's image / persona developed.



     Having started out in the theatre, Landa entered the Spanish film industry, in his own words, 'por la puerta grande' [by the big door] - his first proper screen credit was as part of the ensemble cast (José Luis López Vázquez, Manuel Alexandre, Agustín González, Cassen, and Gracita Morales forming the illustrious company in which he made his debut) in José María Forqué's Atraco a las tres / [Bank Robbery at Three O'Clock] (1962) [the opening credit sequence, which introduces the characters, is above] in which a group of bank employees decide to rob the branch they work at. It is probably my favourite Spanish film that I've watched this year - a timeless comedic masterclass that to my mind recalls the best of Ealing. Landa's character, Castrillo, is the youngest of the group and the most reluctant to take part in the robbery (all quavering voice and tremulous glances), but is eventually made the getaway driver (in one set-piece they teach him to drive). There followed a series of supporting roles / ensemble parts in films such as El Verdugo / The Executioner (Luis García Berlanga, 1963), Casi un caballero / [Almost a Gentleman] (José María Forqué, 1964), Historias de la television / [Stories of the Television] (José Luis Sáenz de Heredia, 1965), and La cuidad no es para mí / [City Life is Not For Me] (Pedro Lazaga, 1966). 
     In the late 1960s Spain was undergoing a period of massive economic development and extremely slow liberalisation as the Franco regime attempted to attract foreign investment - this was known as desarrollismo (literal translation, 'developmentalism'), and initiated the transformation of Spain from a largely rural country to an industrialised (urban) society. This was however tightly controlled by the regime and its expression on film came out in markedly different forms. On the one hand, you had the proponents of the 'nuevo cine español' (filmmakers such as Carlos Saura and Víctor Erice) who represented the fractures in Spanish society (necessarily) opaquely via metaphor and symbolism, and on the other you had the popular cinema in the form of the paleto (country bumpkin) comedies and la comedia sexy ibérica (iberian sex comedy) - it was in the comedies that Landa made his name by representing a masculinity under threat, filled with social anxieties caused by rapid social change (including the changing status of women), often living the life of the economic migrant, and manifesting the conflict between tradition and modernity. In this context, Alfredo Landa came to stand for 'the average Spaniard'. In the late 1960s, Landa represented the likeable rogue, a charmer driven by irresponsible pleasure-seeking (usually sexual) desires, an anarchic imp who was nonetheless usually reined in by the end of the narrative and married off to a nice Spanish girl to settle down within the expected norms of conservative Spanish society.

Performing Antón's 'gay' alter-ego in No desearás al vecino del quinto (Ramón Fernández, 1970),
     Landismo arrived with No desearás al vecino del quinto / Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbour From the Fifth Floor (Ramón Fernández, 1970), a film that attained such a high level of box office success that its record remained unbeaten until the release of Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios / Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Pedro Almodóvar, 1988) almost twenty years later. The film effectively launched Alfredo Landa as a national star and led to the coining of the term landismo, which has been defined as:
'[...] the offspring of the confusion and the uncertainty, in a country immersed in too many changes that it did not understand too well. It also shows a code half-way between perplexity and doubt...characters trapped on the crossroads between tradition and modernity, the new Spaniard was undecided between the stability he had just abandoned and the fuzzy and uncertain perspectives that were slowly forming on the horizon' (Diccionario del cine español, p.493 - translation taken from Vivancos 2012: 45)
This is summed up early in the film by one of the characters describing her generation as being too modern to be provincial, but too provincial to be modern - Landa often occupies that no-man's land in between these two sides of Spanish society. The plot of No desearás... concerns a young, handsome gynaecologist (Jean Sorel), working in provincial Toledo, who is continuously assaulted by husbands, fathers, and brothers outraged that he has seen their womenfolk in a state of undress. In the same town is Antón (Landa), a boutique owner and fashion designer who spends all day around scantily-clad women without any of the physical threats because he is widely assumed to be gay (homosexuality is never actually mentioned within the film - the coding is done visually through Antón's dress and modes of behaviour). However when Sorel's character goes to Madrid for a conference, he bumps into Antón in a club and discovers that the 'homosexuality' of the latter is just a masquerade to allow him to develop his business without violent misunderstandings - he's actually a randy heterosexual male who spends a week of debauchery in Madrid every month, seducing Swedish air hostesses who cannot resist his iberian charms (suspension of disbelief is required for this latter aspect and it is a source of the comedy that ensues when Antón takes Sorel's innocent character out on the pull). The friendship that develops between the two men leads the townsfolk of Toledo to believe that they are having an affair (Antón is the eponymous fifth-floor neighbour of the title) - 'hilarity' and more violence follow, alongside a conventional ending of sorts that sees both men reunited with their respective spouses (in secret) but maintaining the charade of their own relationship for business reasons.
     The film was loudly dismissed by commentators at the time, in the way that 'popular' cinema often is (for example, the President of the Association of Film Distributors declared in 1982 that '80% of this country's film output is not culture' (cited in Triana-Toribio 2003: 114). Bless), and alongside other popular films of the era it has been paid little attention in a critical sense until relatively recently (because of their supposed lack of artistic merit). Spanish friends I have spoken to about landismo (this is the only one of those films I've seen so far) seem to regard the films as something of an embarrassment, a bit naff. The film is definitely of its era but Landa's affability shines through despite the dodginess of the film's gender and sexual politics - to me, it didn't seem all that different to the British Carry On series, insofar as there is a lot more tease than show (it's something of a misnomer to call them sex comedies given the lack of sex, or indeed actual nudity) and the central performance is one of genial familiarity (there is also a parallel with the Carry On films in the way that, over time, an extended group of familiar faces who share multiple screen credits build up a linked association in the minds of the public). But landismo came to an abrupt end as censorship faded out in the late 1970s and the destape (literal. 'undressing') took off - no need for films that hint and tease when anything goes. What followed was Landa's reinvention as a 'serious' actor (the third stage of his career), which is widely agreed to have been achieved with three particular films: El puente / [The Bridge] (Juan Antonio Bardem, 1977); El crack (José Luis Garci, 1981); and Los santos inocentes / The Holy Innocents (Mario Camus, 1984).   
        I haven't seen the first of those films, but it apparently takes the temperature of the nation by having Landa cross the country on a motorbike and having a series of encounters with different social / political groups. El crack, which I'll return to as it connects to Landa's last film, showed a darkness in the actor that had previously gone untapped, but it was with Los santos inocentes that he cemented his reputation as someone to be taken seriously - Landa shared the Best Actor prize at Cannes with his co-star Francisco Rabal (who gives an extraordinary performance). The film is an example of the cine de calidad (quality cinema) pushed by the then-Socialist government (a reaction to the already-stated perception that most of Spanish cinema didn't count as 'culture') - they were mainly fairly staid literary adaptations with high production qualities and low audience turnouts; the cine de calidad generally didn't tap into the audience desires of 1980s Spain (perhaps because so many of them harked back to Spain's past, which a lot of people were trying to forget), which were perhaps better served by the comedia madrileña and directors such as Fernando Trueba, Fernando Colomo, and of course Pedro Almodóvar. Based on the book by Miguel Delibes, Los santos inocentes is about a way of life, as the inhabitants of a rural estate (in the 1960s, if one can take the women's fashions as a marker) seem to be stuck in the servitude of the previous century and live in terrible poverty and squalor. Landa plays Paco, el bajo (Paco, the low - that is how he is referred to by other characters) who loyally serves his señorito Iván (Juan Diego) to the detriment of his own health. He is famed for his sense of smell, and in one sequence crawls on all fours sniffing out the game shot down by his master. Landa was atypical casting insofar as his performance took many by surprise (I would describe his performance as minimalistic, in sharp contrast to his usually ebullient manner in the comedies), but in some ways the film also taps into the rural associations created by his earlier roles (the flat cap is a continuity of iconography in Landa's image and career), an association that continues in films such as El bosque animado / [The Enchanted Forest] (José Luis Cuerda, 1987) and La marrana / The Sow (José Luis Cuerda, 1992).

Following a scent in Los santos inocentes
     So, back to El crack and Landa's professional association with director José Luis Garci. In total, they made seven films together: Las verdes praderas / The Green Meadows (1979); El crack (1981); the imaginatively-titled El crack 2 (1983); La canción de cuna / [Cradle Song] (1994); Historia de un beso / The Story of a Kiss (2002); Tiovivo c.1950 (2004); and Landa's last film, Luz de domingo / Sunday Light (2007). Las verdes praderas was Garci's third film and along with his first two (Asignatura pendiente / [Pending Subject] (1977) and Solos en la madrugada / [Alone in the Small Hours] (1978)) could be considered the tail end of what was known as the cine de la tercera vía (Third Way cinema), an attempt (engendered by producer José Luis Dibildos) to make films that engaged with the social change that was underway, in a form acceptable to the regime, but that were also commercially viable. They were aimed at the middle classes and those who felt that the Spanish comedies that were dominating the box office were somehow beneath them. Las verdes praderas is essentially about the middle-class hell of the responsibility of owning a weekend getaway in the countryside, as Landa's self-made man (prized by his ad-exec bosses for his 'common touch') finds it nigh on impossible to get any time to himself when he and his family visit their chalet for the weekend. It is as dull as that sounds, although Landa's innate likability makes you root for him - certainly his wife's (María Casanova) decision to 'liberate' them by torching the place at the end felt like the right decision (although I may have just been pleased that it signalled the end of the film). But there's enough 'supposed' comedy in the film for it to operate as a crossing over point for Landa.


      In El crack - widely considered one of the actor's best films and performances - Landa plays detective Germán Areta, looking for a missing girl and finding that he pushes a lot of noses out of joint as a result. When the powers that be decide that the best way to get him to back off is to mess with his de-facto family - his girlfriend (Casanova again) and her small daughter - he instead goes on full attack. The film has dated and although it aspires to noir status (it's dedicated to Dashiell Hammett) it doesn't quite pull it off - for all that Garci is acclaimed as an aficionado of classic cinema, it only ever feels like a copy rather than an original - but Landa is completely transformed; there is no lightness to his performance, and the heaviness of the burden his character carries is reflected in the seemingly infinite sadness in his eyes. I haven't seen the sequel (it doesn't appear to have ever had a DVD release), and aside from the Cuerda films mentioned above, the only other role of note that Landa had in the late-80s / early-90s was as Sancho Panza to Fernando Rey's Don Quijote (a genius casting pairing) in a luxurious TV series directed by Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón (I've watched one episode of the five parts so far - it is available on DVD with English subs - and am enjoying it immensely). I also haven't seen Canción de cuna, which brings us to the next Landa / Garci project, Historia de un beso, which along with El crack is the only one of the Garci films that I rate in any way. Told through the framing device of Julián (Carlos Hipólito) in 1949 returning to the village where he grew up for the funeral of his uncle (celebrated author Blas Otamendi (Landa)), the film concentrates on the events of 1925 and the parallel coming-of-age of the nephew and a late romance of the uncle. Blas is an outsider - an author better-known outside of Spain than within and unwilling to kowtow to the regime or the Church - but respected within his community and adored by his nephew. The film is sentimental but not in a sickly fashion, and both it and Landa have a twinkle in their eyes that allowed this viewer to pack away her cynicism for a couple of hours.

The trusty squire and the knight errant
     As I also haven't seen Tiovivo c.1950, that means that we have finally reached the purpose of this post: to discuss Alfredo Landa's last film. Should I take part in the Late Film Blogathon again, I will make my choice a little differently - namely by choosing a film of interest rather than simply a late film of someone I'm interested in. Because there's no way around it: Luz de domingo is a dud. It would be more enjoyable if it were out-and-out awful, but it's merely forgettably mediocre. Landa announced his retirement before the film was actually released and, although it's useless to speculate about such things, he doesn't really seem as if his heart was in it. I don't understand the critical acclaim that Garci has received and his films are generally an anathema to me - although accusations of wallowing in nostalgia are regularly levelled against him (and he proudly declares himself to not be a 'modern' filmmaker), he is usually described as a good director of actors and generally proficient on other fronts. And yet this is someone who won't use just one establishing shot when he can use five (usually to show how many extras are in the scene but in a way that fails to give a sense of spatial relations), regularly leaves shots to hang for a couple of seconds longer than required (is someone about to come through that closed door? No. Oh ok, then), and arbitrarily crosses the 180 degree line in the middle of a scene (and by arbitrarily, I mean that the change in camera position doesn't seem to reveal / signify anything beyond suggesting that the director changed his mind part way through filming the scene). All of which makes his filmmaking sound considerably more interesting than it actually is - the reason those things stick out is because of how pedestrian the rest of it is (as I said in my previous post, Tyne Tees' Catherine Cookson dramas were directed with more verve). It's fair to say that it wasn't my cup of tea, and in fact it (or more accurately, the scene outlined below) put me in a foul mood. [Warning: spoilers follow]

Simplistic symbolism 101: the red dress (the only time a colour that vivid is worn in the film) signals imminent danger in the form of the red motor car they are watching approach
    The film primarily concerns itself with the wrangling between two political factions in the small village of Cenciella in the early 1900s -one headed by the corrupt mayor, the other by one of the few landowners who doesn't bow down to him, Joaco (Landa). Into this mix comes outsider Urbano (Álex González), the new idealistic council secretary who promptly falls in love with Joaco's granddaughter, Estrella (Paula Echevarría). The newcomer wins over the grumpy older man with his sincerity. But when both men displease the mayor (Joaco by refusing to sell him some of his land, Urbano by refusing to let the mayor pass new taxation laws that are designed to bankrupt Joaco into submission), he decides that his only recourse is to hurt the person they have in common: Estrella. More or less out of the blue comes a gang rape sequence where the mayor sets his three wastrel sons on the young couple the weekend before their planned wedding: Urbano is tied to a tree and forced to watch (along with the audience) while his fiancee is brutalised by the three men and their servant. This is by no means Irreversible (Gaspar Noé, 2002), but for all of Noé's provocations, I find the brutal trauma of the attack on Alex (Monica Bellucci) in his film more honest in the style and execution of its filming than the 'artfully' composed and framed assault filmed by Garci. This scene seriously disrupts the world of the film - and it should do given the impact on the life of Estrella (who almost entirely disappears from the film after this point - the incident is never discussed in her presence and she barely utters another word), but it is not in keeping with the tone of the film up to this point. [One of the Spanish reviews argues that the scene divides the film in to two and that the second half is more like something directed by Michael Haneke, which feels wide of the mark to me but is an indication of the tonal rupture it causes]. The rest of the film feels unsettled but also strangely placid; Urbano marries Estrella as planned, they leave the village (it transpires that she's pregnant as a result of the rape) without recourse to the law, and Urbano refuses to let Joaco defend the honour of his granddaughter. The young man reaches for saintliness and is fairly uninteresting as a result. In fact the older generation provide most of the colour of the film, and it seems revealing that the young couple are rarely shown in conversation (their romance is communicated via a series of vapid smiles); the more interesting interactions transpire between people with 'pasts', whether the boarding house landlady from Seville and the much-travelled musician in love with Vienna, or the Uruguayan bar owner who shows Joaco a series of postcards detailing her life in New York (where Joaco has also previously lived). 

One of the more interesting pairings in the film
    The conversations with the bar owner are among the few sequences where the spark returns to Landa's eyes, and although he received top billing he doesn't dominate the film until right at the end when, with Urbano and Estrella packed off the New World, Urbano gives Joaco the all-clear to finally extract revenge for his granddaughter. Violence erupts once again (but too late for there to be a sense of catharsis) as Joaco shoots two of the mayor’s sons as they ride through the forest and then parades their corpses through town for the church congregation to witness. He shoots the remaining son and the mayor himself in a stand off as they exit the church, before being shot and killed himself by the guardia civil. There’s a certain poignancy to his dying onscreen in his last role, but I was left with more sadness that the opportunity to give him a memorable last appearance was frittered away. To a certain extent, at least in terms of the theme of vengeance, Joaco could be said to hark back to Landa’s performance in El crack (men who hurt the women his characters love meet a violent end at his hands in both films) but this echo really only serves to highlight that of the films he made with Garci, only El crack really endured as part of his star image or persona. The more personable and affable side to his persona was established at the start of his career (in films that are apparently subject to countless repeats on Sunday afternoon TV in Spain), and I would argue that despite his proving himself in ‘serious’ roles, it is those early comedies (possibly in conjunction with the TV sitcoms he appeared in the 1990s/2000s) that hold the key to the enduring affection with which he is regarded by Spanish audiences. He was awarded the Goya de honor the year following his retirement and ended his speech by saying that this was ‘adiós, y para siempre’ [goodbye, and for good] – he stuck to his word.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Coming Attraction: The Late Show


    The past couple of years I've enjoyed reading the various contributions to Shadowplay's annual Late Films Blogathon, but have been too disorganised to take part myself. This year, when I saw David Cairns's first callout, I thought "Right, get to it!" and had a think about what I could contribute. 
    The idea is to write about a film from late in a person's career - sometimes people go out with a bang, and sometimes with a whimper. It doesn't have to be a recent film, or someone who has recently died. But Spanish cinema has had many losses in 2013 (in a multitude of contexts), so I thought that I would focus on someone who had died in the past year. There are many big names on that roll call - producer Elías Querejeta, directors Bigas Luna and Jess Franco, the iconic Sara Montiel, for a start. I tend to write about actors more than directors, so I thought I'd write about an actor who is iconic in Spain, but little known abroad: Alfredo Landa. Unfortunately his last film, Luz de Domingo / Sunday Light (José Luis Garci, 2007), is a dud (Tyne Tees' Catherine Cookson dramas were directed with more verve) but I'm hoping to be able to link it back to his earlier films and come up with something interesting. My post will go up later in the week, but in the meantime keep an eye on Shadowplay as David Cairns will be linking to the various blogs taking part.


Alfredo Landa in his first screen role in the brilliant Atraco a las tres (José María Forqué, 1962)

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Guest Post: Michael Pattison - Notes on Some Spanish Films at the Seville European Film Festival

     Though their country’s economic plight worsens daily, Spanish filmmakers are beginning to assess and get to grips with a political climate that is, in the final analysis, antagonistic to artistic endeavour. While films ineluctably express the complex, contradictory tensions that characterise the social context in which they are made, the aim and hope is that any historical period finds its artistic match: those works that grasp the matter at hand, embrace the difficulties ahead, and refuse to evade the work to be done. To this end, there were a significant number of Spanish films at the tenth Seville European Film Festival (SEFF) whose general focus and political persuasion spoke of a palpable discontent with regard to the current state of things. Not every film will be politically charged, of course, and so it is to SEFF’s credit that it waded through what I presume to be a large swamp of mediocrity in order to present, by and large, the strong selection it finally offered. These works speak to the present precisely because they convey an understanding – to varying degrees – of how they relate to the unfolding historical moment.

Costa da morte / Coast of Death
     I have written elsewhere here and here   on Lois Patiño’s Costa da Morte, but some further remarks won’t go amiss (I first saw the film in Locarno in August, and again at the Viennale prior to my arrival in Seville). An essay film on the eponymous Galician coastline – named so because of its history of shipwrecks – Patiño’s debut feature frequently surveys its region from afar, zoomed-in so as to flatten its landscapes and thereby deny a more visually harmonious vantage point. There’s something unnatural about such optical choices: as humans, we cannot, after all, get a closer look at an object without telescopic aid or without physically moving to a closer proximity. Consequently, the film enables an unspoken but ongoing commentary on its own function: in denying itself and its audience a postcard-friendly view of the Coast of Death, it suggests a better understanding of these locales might come from a more idiosyncratic view. By flattening the landscape in such a way, Patiño’s film pits a multiplicity of histories against one another, privileging none and including all. Just as every landscape is the sum of its parts, so the present is the sum of its pasts. Note the plural: at no point in history has there been a moment without contradictions – the remnants of a bygone time, the formations of an era to come. 

El Futuro / The Future
     El Futuro takes an aesthetically different approach to history. Set in the immediate aftermath of Spain’s 1982 General Election – which was won by the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party – Luis López Carrasco’s debut feature confines itself to a house party attended by a group of increasingly inebriated twenty- and thirty-somethings hell-bent on indulging the post-Franco night away. When I saw the film at Locarno in August I couldn’t write the soundtrack list in its end credits down fast enough: this boasts an infectious selection of the Euro-synth and -punk of the period, and lends the narrative a real verve. There’s something futuristic about electronic music, of course, and yet ’80s synth – as well as other fashions from that decade – seems to have dated quicker than most. Likewise, the forward-thinking euphoria facilitated by a socialist party’s assumption of governmental responsibilities now seems a distant memory: López Carrasco’s ironically-named film is anything but optimistic, and the textured grain of his 16mm compositions reminds us at every turn of its own retrospection. Every smile, laugh and suggestion of a future appears as a ghost prohibited today by Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy’s enforced austerity.

El triste olor de la carne / The Sad Smell of Flesh
    Mariano Rajoy is a secondary character in El triste olor de la carne, the second feature by Cristóbal Arteaga Roza. Having his first state-of-the-nation address in February this year overheard in intermittent snippets here recalls Andrew Dominik’s similar employment of Barack Obama soundbites in Killing Them Softly (2012). Unlike that film, however, El triste olor de la carne has no time for allegory: a single-take trudge through Madrid’s urban sprawl, it takes one citizen’s financial loss to its logical, literal and inevitable (if no less powerful) conclusion. Said citizen is Alfredo (Alfredo Rodríguez), an uncanny cross between Boris Karloff and Peter Capaldi, his visibly fatigued face saying more than the character ever does, as he tries desperately to defer a meeting with the bailiffs who are coming to repossess his home.
     When a recession begins to affect the perfect image of a white middle-class nuclear family, you know you’re in trouble. Alfredo’s burnt-out businessman is a figure of belated if bewildered acceptance, and the only resistance he can summon rings, in the end, all too true. Though some critics might feel its persistent, unbroken take results in unnecessary bouts of dead time – such as when Alfredo is driving, or else travelling on a bus or in a taxi – this is precisely the film’s strength, lingering as it does on those unbearably long passages in which unthinkable stress drains a person’s life away. Indeed, the prospect of financial collapse is now too familiar a prospect for many Spanish people that contrived dramatics are no longer necessary.

Alegrías de Cádiz / Joys of Cádiz
     Not every Spanish film at SEFF felt like it was making a significant contribution to the battle. Gonzalo García Pelayo’s Alegrías de Cádiz returns its director to filmmaking after three decades in other fields, and feels very much the product of someone lacking practice. (For a serviceably flashy take on García Pelayo’s venture into professional gambling in the 1990s, see Eduard Cortés’s The Pelayos (2012)). Anyone familiar with the director’s work – pseudo-cerebral, flesh-heavy forays into the beauty of women, the joys of sex, monogamy as a socially conditioned and therefore unnatural state, and so on – will not be surprised to hear this is a heavily indulgent work. Not without its lively moments, the film is an uneasy blend of a meta-comedy about a ménage-à-trois and a sincere essay film on Cádiz. As such, it keeps itself busy for its two-hour running time, but García Pelayo’s implication-cum-assertion, that the most interesting thing about a city is its women, seems like a perverted joke.

10.000 noches en ninguna parte / 10,000 Nights Nowhere
     Other films disappointed. 10.000 noches en ninguna parte, by Malaga-born writer-director Ramón Salazar, is a centrifugal triptych on themes of loss and – of course – love. Wide-eyed Andrés Gertrúdix plays the same character thrice, living in parallel dimensions: with a bohemian trio in Berlin, with a childhood love in Paris, and with his alcoholic mother in what I presumed to be Spain. A dull, cold visual palette – with shallow-focus camerawork – gives the film a terminally malaised look, and though a certain whimsicality forces its earlier passages along, the employment of Arvo Pärt’s overused ‘Fratres’ reveals an essentially juvenile sensibility at work. Indeed, at a certain point during the film I wrote in my notebook: these people don’t live in the same world as me – the real world, with financial pressures etc

Los chicos del puerto / The Kids from the Port
     Nor do the protagonists of Los chicos del puerto, by Alberto Morais. The film’s eponymous port is that of Valencia, and its kids are Miguel, Lola and Guillermo, three pre-teens who embark upon the ostensibly simple trek to a cemetery, to place an army jacket on the grave of the recently deceased friend of Miguel’s grandfather. The pilgrimage of course turns out to be more arduous than first assumed. The friends underestimate their bus fare; they journey to the wrong cemetery; they become lost; they grow hungry; they go broke. That one-note tone of dramatic seriousness – more familiar to French productions than to Spanish – sets in quickly: characters act not how people do, but for a desired symbolism, one which over the course of even a slim 78 minutes drains all would-be energy. Programme notes mention “sparse dialogue and a formal Bressonian minimalism”, but the invariably stilted interactions here are part of a wider filmmaking trend that may very well be indebted to Bresson but which provides too little social commentary to justify the comparison. Too many filmmakers seem to mistake this sullen, ploddingly mopey register for mysteriousness, for ambiguity, for poetry or for purity – or for any other apparently desirable trait.
     All the more refreshing, then, to watch more upbeat films like El Rayo, Un ramo de cactus and Las aventuras de Lily ojos de gato. The first of these, directed by Fran Araúgo and Ernesto de Nova, screened in SEFF’s ‘Andalusian Panorama’ section following a world-premiere at San Sebastian, and sees a defiantly high-spirited itinerant labourer trekking across Spain back to Morocco on a tractor. The second, which received its world-premiere at SEFF as part of the festival’s inaugural ‘Resistances’ strand, is a pleasing if sometimes technically amateurish comedy by Pablo Llorca, featuring a deceptively masterful central performance from Seville-born Pedro Casablanc, who has in recent years been ubiquitous on Spanish television. Casablanc’s deadpan style and pockmarked face recall Bill Murray, and his turn in Llorca’s film – as a fiftyish farmer at odds with his family’s acceptingly money-oriented ways – deserves much wider recognition. In contrast to a film like Los chicos del puerto, both Un ramo de cactus and El Rayo demonstrate that a serious film need not be glum.

Las aventuras de Lily ojos de gato / The Adventures of Lily Cat Eyes
     Las aventuras, meanwhile, is a night-in-the-life-of tale centring heavily on inebriation as a means to forget. Working as a PR for a bar in Madrid, Lily (Ana Adams) meets a bleary-eyed customer with whom, after hours, she solemnly swears to drink till she hits the ground – and perhaps would if real-life events didn’t get in the way. To be sure, Lily is drinking away the hurt of a break-up, but her temporary escape is frustrated by more pressing matters: a friend’s pregnancy, her new pal’s paralytic state, an abusive employer, and so on. A more systemic understanding of things might be beyond Boix and his film; I would have preferred a less cartoonishly cruel boss, for instance. And though these are palpably more universal features with which to pepper a story – as opposed to the characteristics of the Galician landscape, or the political fate of Spain – the film nevertheless has an undeniable strength, in taking an otherwise insufferable young drunk and accounting for her self-destructive behaviour in a non-evasive way. Played by British actress Adams – who speaks Spanish fluently – Lily has a rugged, get-on-with-it edge, which makes her charming even when she’s actively derailing a blues performer’s final song in a late-night bar.


Michael Pattison is a freelance film critic based in Gateshead, UK. He blogs at idFilm and Tweets @m_pattison.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Not-Entirely-Within-the-Remit-of-this-Blog Viewing: Pablo Larraín edition

     This blog is supposed to focus on cinema 'made in Spain', rather than 'cinema in Spanish', but having recently viewed Larraín's Chilean trilogy of films I thought I would stretch my remit a bit and write about them here. I saw No (2012) in the cinema earlier this year and even at the time I realised that its undercurrent of 'alegría' marked it as distinct within Larraín's trilogy given that all three relate to Chile under Pinochet; No is like the gulp of air taken after you've been held under water for too long.
     And life under water is shown to have been a grim and dark place. Tony Manero (2008), the first of the films, is set in the darkest period of the dictatorship in around 1977-78. In part the choice of year seems to have been shaped by the fact that Saturday Night Fever was in cinemas at that point - both the extras on the DVD and interviews contemporaneous to the film's release reveal that the starting point was a photo of a man, which inspired in Larraín the idea of a killer who just wants to dance. In the Q&A on the DVD, Alfredo Castro (who plays Raúl, who wants to be 'the Chilean Tony Manero' in a TV dance contest) says that when they realised that the Travolta film was released in Chile in that period, they saw that they could draw some interesting parallels between the character's behaviour and that of the State. In essence, operating in a general atmosphere of fear and the absence of morality, Raúl doesn't see why he shouldn't always get his own way - so he kills in order to fulfil his dancing dream (arguably there's also a parallel being made between the dysfunctional State and the sexual dysfunction of the individual). Abhorrent as Raúl is, and despite the absurdity of his behaviour being in pursuit of the chance to win a TV lookalike / dance contest (Jonathan Romney talks of the first two films' 'grotesque absurdism' (2013: 28)), the film's occasional jet-black humour (not so much the banality of evil as the mundanity that underpins Raúl's singleminded attention to detail in his quest to 'be' Tony Manero - "Two buttons?") is undercut by the intrusion of the dangerous reality (police raids and a background undercurrent of the simmering threat of violence). 

Alfredo Castro, with less resemblance to Travolta and more 'a scrofulous-looking Al Pacino'
     Alfredo Castro is really the reason I wanted to write about the films because he turns in extraordinary and completely transformative performances both in Tony Manero and Post Mortem (he takes a supporting role in No). I don't know why, having habitually focussed on actors in my research for the last ten years, but I am still surprised when an actor turns out to be completely unlike how he appears onscreen in a given film. Castro appears in the DVD Q&A, looking not just younger and more animated, but positively rejuvenated in comparison to his appearance as the pasty and almost-jaundiced Raúl. I've been trying to decide whether he should be described as vulpine or vulture-like (he is frequently shown in profile, drawing attention to a prominent nose) - Raúl both scents danger (he often surreptitiously observes acts of violence being carried out by others) and also circles around in the aftermath (whether relieving an unconscious man of his watch and jewellery or faking a good samaritan act with an old lady). Castro's performance is a composition of costume (the suit) and body language, alternating between the peacock-like strut on the dancefloor and scurrying rat-like run with which Raúl makes his way around the city (he has an in-built sensor for the approach of bigger animals - he's frequently seen hiding in doorways or behind mounds of rubble as either the military or the police patrol the area). I found it interesting that his focus is on Tony Manero, the character, rather than John Travolta, the actor (he walks out of a screening of Grease with a look of incomprehension). Castro says in the Q&A that although they knew the character would be a dancer, they wanted to avoid the 'perfect' style of American musicals. The dancing in Saturday Night Fever is athletic rather than elegant, and perhaps more importantly is also relatable to Raúl's social class and to the street. The restraint of Castro's performance is made clear in the two instances when emotion floods Raúl's face: being moved to tears in the cinema, watching Saturday Night Fever; and when he is applauded after his TV performance (his reaction here doesn't happen after the applause at the earlier lodging-house show). On both occasions he is transformed before our eyes.

The invisible observer, Mario, in Post Mortem
     Post Mortem (2010), the second film, moves further back in time to September 1973 and the military coup. It is a quietly unsettling film, and very different stylistically to the other two films. The theme (or sense) of surveillance runs through all three films - the handheld camera work in Tony Manero suggests a city under constant watch, while in No it evokes the intimidation of the security forces. Post Mortem's very elegant and stylised framing is closer to voyeurism, indicated in our introduction to Mario (Castro) where he is standing in front of his main window, waiting for his showgirl neighbour Nancy (Antonia Zegers - luminously fragile but also playing Nancy as narcissistic and flaky enough to truly be a danger to others) to arrive home. The idea of a window is maintained by the letterbox framing throughout the film, which also suggests a restricted view: things frequently happen just out of shot (I had headphones on when I was watching it and the sound is also frequently positioned to the side or somewhere behind you), below the frame. One example is the way that Mario (and the viewer) misses the raid on Nancy's house (we hear explosions and shouting) because Mario is looking away from the window while he is in the shower and the camera stays on him (observing him through the window). But this is also possibly a comment on people deliberately not looking - averting their eyes to an unpalatable reality (and trying to avoid being seen themselves). 
     Mario is a grey creature, Castro's wolfishness from Tony Manero completely gone, his face hidden behind a curtain of light grey hair, and much like one of the cadavers whose post-mortems he records for the pathologist; he is one of the walking dead. But he is also attempting to be invisible, to get along, and not draw attention to himself - something that his apparently already deadened nature helps him with. In contrast, his female colleague (Sandra - Amparo Noguera, who played Raúl's girlfriend in Tony Manero), although presented in an equally pallid palette of colours (costume, but also her complexion) cannot inure herself to the piles of corpses that start to stack up as the military coup unfolds; I didn't take this to be a representation of the 'hysterical female', but rather someone who is fervently trying to cling to what she believes in and what she 'knows' in the face of obstruction, obfuscation, and denial. One gets the sense early on that this story is not going to end well, and the final wordless sequence silently foretells the horrors that were still to come for Chile in the aftermath of the coup.
     Many of the same actors (Castro, Zegers, Noguera, and others) appear in all three films, but in No Gael García Bernal comes centre stage as advertising whizz-kid René Saavedra, the strategist behind the 'No' campaign in the referendum that would finally oust Pinochet. The choice of lead perhaps speaks to the representation of a younger generation, hope and alegría on the way, but the Mexican actor also brings with him a measure of ambiguity that suits the character; we are never really sure whether René believes in the 'No' cause or simply likes a challenge and views democracy as another product to sell (something suggested by his using the same lines when he introduces the first referendum piece as when he introduces the advertising promos for a soft drink (at the start of the film) or a new telenovela (at the end of the film)). Either way, his youthfulness fits with the aesthetic of the film - utilising U-matic film so as to be able to seamlessly blend archival footage into the film (about 30% of the film is archival footage according to a Larraín interview on the DVD - they called up the people who appeared in the original 'No' campaign and use them to play themselves, so that on the monitors the original footage shows their younger selves while they appear within the film itself as they are now, 24 years on, 'history [...] written on their bodies' in Larraín's words) - the video 'feel' of the footage and naturalistic lighting (lens flares and all) suggesting youthful adventure and moments caught on the hoof (not unlike the way the 'No' campaign itself was shot). 
Former exile René (Gael García Bernal) is also frequently positioned as an outside observer
    Alfredo Castro again transforms himself, here playing René's lizard-like employer, an advertising executive who sides with the 'Yes' campaign (eventually taking it over in response to what the 'No' team manage to pull together) but who nonetheless recognises talent and engages in a cat-and-mouse provocation with the younger man. The back-and-forth between Lucho (Castro) and René, an almost affectionate bickering that has an undercurrent of real threat to it, and Lucho's private talks with the Prime Minister (Jaime Vadell, who played the main pathologist in Post Mortem), provide much of the film's humour (in addition to some of the absurdities of the world of advertising, and small touches such as the cleaner at the 'Yes' headquarters frequently whistling the 'No' campaign's jingle); the lighthearted tone of the film mirrors the 'No' campaign's 'Happiness is coming' sunny representations, in sharp contrast to the earlier two films. The film does however still highlight the darkness beyond the sunniness, whether in witness testimony about the disappeared, the State's surveillance and attempted intimidation of the 'No' participants, or the cacophonous range of political opinions among the opposition, including René's radical estranged wife (Zegers) who tells him that in taking up the challenge, he is playing by Pinochet's rules and by extension validating what many on the Left thought would be a rigged outcome. Although the end of No is ambiguous (Larraín is quite pragmatic about the limitations of what was achieved and what Pinochet's lasting legacy for his country was - see the interviews on the DVD), my lasting memory of the film from my first viewing was of sunshine. The trilogy goes out on a euphoric high. 

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Anatomy of a Scene: Los lunes al sol / Mondays in the Sun


Sequence: the argument in the bar, 01:15:51 - 01:22:32.

    Los lunes al sol / Mondays in the Sun (Fernando León de Aranoa, 2002) was Javier Bardem’s return to Spanish cinema after a three-year absence from Spanish-language films, during which time he had made Before Night Falls (Julian Schnabel, 2000) and achieved his first Oscar nomination. Three years after mass redundancies caused by the closure of Spanish shipyards, the narrative follows three former steelworkers and their differing responses to unemployment: Santa (Bardem), José (Luis Tosar), and Lino (José Ángel Egido). While the film’s reception in the critical arena was generally positive (especially when Bardem is the focus), it has also received a more mixed response elsewhere: essentially, those who judge the film as formalists (the position taken by many film critics) see the film more positively than those cultural commentators (such as Quintana (2005) and Fecé and Pujol (2003)) who think that the film does not go far enough in its social commentary and who seem to judge the film by different criteria (i.e. their prescriptive ideas of what ‘Spanish cinema’ should be). Aside from looking at how his role/performance coalesce with his star image (I think that exploring the issues of class and politics bring up some interesting issues in this context), there are a number of angles one could take in approaching Bardem's performance in Los lunes al sol: for example, the madrileño performing a (deliberately vague - León de Aranoa didn't want to specify location and filming took place in both Vigo and Gijón) northern accent as Santa - the film is notable for being the first (other than Before Night Falls) in which he performs an accent markedly different to his own (see E. Fernández-Santos (2002: 41)). But although I can hear that the accent he performs is not his own, I would have difficulty articulating exactly what it is he does vocally. So, for the purposes of this post, I'm going to look at Bardem’s skill at ‘registering psychological and dramatic fullness through non-verbal representation’ (Perriam 2003: 102), effectively representing a character’s interiority externally through glances, posture, movement, and his sheer physical presence, and how that becomes an intrinsic part of his performance as Santa.
    In my opinion, there are three scenes in the film that best illustrate Bardem's performance and the essence of who his character is: the courtroom scene; the bedtime story; and the argument in the bar. I'm going to look at the last of those because it's the longest of the three (and at 7 minutes, it's also the longest scene in the film) and also distills many of the key themes of the film whilst also giving the clearest sense of how these characters relate to one another (and what their shared history is). I've switched back and forth between English and Spanish in terms of how I've recorded specific lines - that reflects how I wrote my notes. If I were to write something further about this scene in particular, I'd have to go back and make sure I had both for any lines I wanted to cite.
     The position of the camera(s) in this scene is quite unusual insofar as it doesn't respect the usual 180 line, mainly because of how the characters are arranged in the bar. In previous bar scenes, the camera has taken a variety of positions: near Amador's seat at the end; behind the bar, not from Rico's direct POV, but certainly from either his or Nata's vantage point; and, when Lino was sitting there with Nata, from one of the tables by the door. But those sequences generally follow a shot/reverse-shot editing pattern - the camera remains static and we have a fixed sense of where people are in relation to one another (that most of the men are often standing at the bar usually allows them to be framed together). In this sequence, we still have this sense of where they are in relation to each other, but the camera angle cuts between several different positions (notably not from Amador's angle, which foreshadows the significance of his seat being empty) and we never see more than a couple of the characters in frame together at a time (providing a visual illustration of how the sequence as a whole reveals the fractures within the group). Bardem / Santa is the axis for the camera: we don't get his direct POV but his presence at the centre is integral to how we read the spatial relations (if he isn't in shot, the eyelines of other characters or his voice pinpoint his location). Interestingly, it recalls the courtroom scene because the characters there are also seated in the round and the camera takes several positions, none of which strictly aligns itself with a character's viewpoint.


    The scene starts with a black screen and the sound segues from the diagetic music in the previous sequence (where the music appears to come from the stereo in the solicitor's car) to Reina's voice in the bar. However the first image we see is not Reina (Enrique Villén) but rather the impact of his words on Santa. We see Santa in profile / slightly from behind (the angle does not match anyone's POV), sitting at the bar so that Bardem occupies the left hand side of the screen - when Santa reaches for his drink (drawing attention to José (Luis Tosar) sitting around the curve of the bar), he fills both the horizontal and vertical length of the frame (he is the only character in the scene who consistently occupies so much of the frame). 

Reina, to Santa's right
Rico, in front of Santa
Lino and Sergei, behind Santa
     To begin with, the sequence cuts back and forth between the far end of the bar where Reina is standing leaning sideways against the bar so that he is facing Santa, and Santa remaining seated and looking ahead (not at his interlocutor). It then starts intercutting Rico (Joaquín Climent) on one side of the bar (in front of Santa) and Lino (José Ángel Egido) and Sergei (Serge Riaboukine) sitting at a table (behind Santa) - there are now four angles in the mix, and the only person who appears in frame with Santa is José (who will be seen nodding in agreement with Santa during the argument - framing them together underlines their unity).  


    While Reina talks, we continue to get Santa's silent, yet eloquent, reactions: Bardem's posture, sitting, leaning forward with his elbows and forearms on the bar suggests that despite Santa pointedly not looking at Reina, he is in fact concentrating on what the man is saying. We can only see his face in profile, but the roll of his eyes and the way he tilts his head conveys both disagreement and a certain level of irritation (which is disguised by feigned amusement - Santa smiles, but it doesn't reach his eyes) - we get the impression that this is not the first time Reina has espoused such views (and we have already seen tensions between the two men in an earlier bar scene, where Santa pours away a drink Reina has bought for him).

The alpha male stands up
    Santa's first vocal interjection is signalled by his standing up, which is also necessary since he is seeking to involve Lino in Reina's criticism and Lino is sitting behind Santa - in order to look at him, Santa either needs to swivel the chair around or stand and turn. The camera subtly moves with Bardem as he stands (it does the same with Reina as he moves later in the sequence but it feels even less pronounced then), keeping him slightly left of centre but with the bar top no longer in frame. Bardem arches his back, one of his methods of emphasising Santa's weight, drawing attention to his paunch but also by natural corollary (his shoulders are also back) puffing out his chest - the alpha male in the room has just stood up. Juan Marsé describes Santa as ‘un parado que sobrevive entre la rebeldía interna y la desilusión, como un gorila entre las rajas del deprimente zoológico’ ['An unemployed man who survives between internal rebellion and disillusion, like a gorilla between the bars of a depressing zoo'] (2004: 35), and there is something animalistic about the potential threat he manifests through his sheer bulk. He doesn't fully face Reina at this point, looking at him sideways on with his head now tilted in a manner that could be taken as a challenge, but Bardem keeps his voice at normal volume with a neutral tone - that Santa is a threat to Reina in any way is only conveyed via his body language.

Jose, in potential isolation
    At the point at which Reina uses Rico as a positive example of what the men could have done after they lost their jobs, José starts to be intercut into the sequence on his own although he never moves from his seated position at the bar and continues to be shown in shot with Santa as well. I think his being shown alone is partly to show another fracture within the group but also to suggest his potential isolation - it is significant, given that he usually sits along the length of the bar where Santa and Reina currently are, that he is instead sitting alongside Amador's (Celso Bugallo) empty seat; Amador serves as a warning as to where José might end up if Ana (Nieve de Medina - not present) leaves him. José's scepticism as to the likelihood of everyone managing to do as well as Rico leads to Reina's assertion "Not if you work hard", which harks back to the bedtime story scene and by extension leads to an audience expectation as to Santa's reaction. On cue, on that line, the camera cuts to Santa. 


    Bardem fills the left hand side of the frame, standing, leaning backwards, head tilted in a way that in combination with his gaze, suggests that Santa is assessing Reina. When Reina mentions Amador, Bardem expels air through his nose in a snort that is somewhere between derision and disgust, and he looks away from Reina and down at the ground. Cut to Reina. Then cut back to Santa as he starts to speak. Bardem is now in medium close-up (head and shoulders) in three-quarter profile. His tone is no longer neutral and he is tilting his head down, so that he is looking up, giving emphasis to both his words and his eyes. As Santa starts to warm to his theme, Bardem shifts his weight between feet and changes his stance so that he is temporarily facing Reina straight on, in the centre of the frame. He stays centre frame when he turns his body back to the bar and keeps his head turned towards Reina / the camera as he speaks. However, as Santa begins to get angry, his stance changes again and he leans with one elbow on the bar so that he turns away from Reina, his back / the back of his head to the camera. Santa is trying to hide his emotions but it seems a brave decision by Bardem to hide his face; we feel the anger in the tightness of the angle of his neck and the stiffness of his shoulders rather than from a facial expression. When he turns back, he has both arms on the bar and is leaning diagonally into the frame, occupying most of the screen (again, emphasising his size but arguably also his centrality to the construction of the sequence -everyone else acts in reaction to him).
     Cut to reaction shot of Lino, which I think serves to emphasise Santa's emotion at this point and how it has the potential to unsettle the other men. Throughout the film, Santa reveals himself to be astutely aware of the personal dangers faced by his friends and their currently precarious sense of self-identity (engendered by their lack of employment - as León de Aranoa puts it, ‘el trabajo es su capital, su única posesión, su bien más preciado; si se lo quitan, les quitan todo’ ['Work is their capital, their only possession, their most valued asset; if it is taken away, everything is taken'] (Ponga, et al 2002: 158)), but he presents himself as the bluff pillar of the group; his showing emotion reveals that he is not unscathed by their common experience, and that seems to unnerve Lino. It's noticeable during this part of the sequence, that in each of the reaction shots, the other men are either looking down or away from Santa - lost in their own thoughts, but also finding it difficult to look at him given what he is talking about and how he is talking about it. Cut back to Santa, now upright and standing again, who starts to point and tap the bar for emphasis. 



    Up until now, Bardem's gestures had been quite contained and had more to do with posture, but as Santa's emotions come to the surface they become more expansive and his hands and arms more frequently come into frame. Still shot sideways on at the bar, when he now turns to Reina with his head tilted forward, eyes up, you get the sense of both Santa's need to push and Bardem's restraint. Cut back to Reina as he asks what the strikers achieved, and then back to Santa as Reina answers his own question with "Nothing". Santa is facing the bar, head bowed, he turns as he says "Estabamos juntos" ["We were united"] with force and Bardem shifts his weight forward as if Santa is going to start moving in Reina's direction. Reina looks away.


    Cut to a shot of Rico, this time with Nata (Aida Folch) visible behind him (the first time we realise that she is present - the scene so far has been blocked in such a way as to hide her presence, despite her being in view of all of the men). But as Santa starts to talk about what went wrong with the strike, Bardem turns his back again (hiding emotion again, but this time a mixture of anger and sadness - indicated via tone of voice as well as his avoidance of eye contact). 


    His attitude towards Rico (he tilts his head back, listening, his chin up but not in a challenge), as the bar owner justifies his actions during the strike, lacks the hostility he shows Reina and he concedes the point about men who had families to take care of, again leaning forward and tapping the bar for emphasis. In response to Rico's "There wasn't anything else", he gives an eloquent shrug, smiles with a nod, and says "Cojonudo" ["Brilliant"] twice (the second time half muttered), turning so that he is centre frame. He looks left so that his body is facing forward but his head is in three quarter profile, and then he turns back to the bar, his head bowed; it gives the impression that Santa knows this argument is going nowhere (it has effectively already been lost - what they're arguing about happened three years earlier) but he can't walk away from it and is therefore tethered to these people and a need for someone to acknowledge that what happened wasn't right, hence his moving about on the same spot. 


     At this point Nata starts to be intercut into the individual reactions (now the sixth angle within the set-up -and the closest to being Santa's POV), the first lone shot of her coinciding with a heavy sigh from Santa. That her individual reactions begin at a point when Santa's words form the audio (and that they occupy the same space within the frame), rather than Rico's (her father), speaks to the connection between the two of them (she is the only character capable of leaving him lost for words) but arguably also refers to Santa's association with children; he is repeatedly shown interacting with them - the children of the two women we see him flirting with and the boy he babysits - and he is the only male character who does so. At this point, as Bardem shifts his weight again, Santa seems more weary and sad, although his pointing towards Amador's empty chair (seen almost from Santa's own POV) has an emphatic flourish, and he then starts to pick up speed again. [The manner in which Amador preys on Santa's mind is revealed a couple of scenes later, when rather than leaving to meet a woman - as José presumes - Santa instead goes to check on the older man at home (and discovers his body)]

An emphatic flourish for the absent Amador
Smaller in defeat
    When he talks about 'the agreement' that divided the strikers he taps the bar with more force and his tone becomes more aggressive. He now hunches his back forward, which makes him appear smaller (a physical representation of a sense of defeat), once more leaning into the frame towards Rico to emphasise what he's saying (and also talking much faster). "We weren't united anymore. They'd divided us" - he turns away again and looks down at the ground rather than directly at any of them; his tone of voice and stance here (looking down, more contained) speaks of disappointment, some residual anger, but mainly sadness and it reveals more clearly that the group is still divided because of what happened three years earlier. At the end of his explanations as to how they each ended up in the positions they are now in, he looks directly at Reina, head back and chin up, defiant and issuing a clear challenge. The look in Bardem's eyes when (in response) Reina argues that the shipyard wasn't competitive enough and that he'd go to a different bar if the drinks were cheaper elsewhere is one of disgust and his upper lip slightly curls. He now properly raises his voice and bangs on the bar with his hand, speaking rapidly. 

"Let me tell you something..."
    As he outlines his explanation as to why they wanted to close the shipyard (the site is by the sea and worth a fortune to property developers) he looks away, turns back with a look of resignation and looks down while shrugging his shoulders and talking rapidly with an almost exasperated humour in his tone of voice. He then looks away (possibly embarrassed at how much he is revealing of himself) again as he says, with one arm extended (calling attention), "Let me tell you something - I wouldn't leave here even if they were giving the drinks away [elsewhere]", he looks directly at Reina and then at Rico, "I've been here for three years and I intend to keep coming...even if you did sign the agreement" - a line that reveals his own sense of loyalty to these men but also the stock that he places in it as a quality (he is directly contrasting himself with Reina, who looks away). He sighs heavily and then turns to face Reina, standing centre frame, smiling as he fiddles with a napkin - "I could get a job serving drinks tomorrow. But if everyone gets laid off, there'll be no customers", his head tilted at an acute angle to the right (his gaze looking down and to the right), which places emphasis on what he's saying but there's also something slightly playful about it, "That pisses me off" (repeated, the second time as a mutter, as he looks directly at Reina). 


     He then turns back sideways on to the camera, head inclined forward. His voice is no longer raised but is still emotional - not a neutral tone - his voice catching on the line "You signed away your kids' jobs [...] Nos perdimos” ["We lost" / "We lost ourselves" - note: Bardem definitely uses the verb in a reflexive form but the subtitle simply says 'We lost" - however I think "We lost ourselves" fits the tone of the scene]. Close up of Nata on that line, then cut to José, who sighs and asks for another drink (subtly connecting José's drinking to the defeat / losing of self).


    The end to that part of the discussion is signalled by the camera panning (rather than cutting) to Nata as Rico crosses over to José. Cut back to Reina who decides to have another go. 


    Cut back to Santa, back to leaning against the bar in such a way that he fills most of the frame. Bardem stands upright with a sigh as Reina continues to push, Santa's voice now tipping into both irritation and personal hostility. When the subject of Reina's current job comes up, both men take a step toward each other and violence seems a real possibility - the tension heightened by the editing, which intercuts first Nata casting a worried look in Santa's direction, then Rico and José looking, then Lino and Sergei watching apprehensively, within the shot/reverse-shot of Santa and Reina's exchange. This particular sequence of shots also reinforces Santa/Bardem as the axis of the scene and clearly delineates the spatial relations between everyone present (at no point during the sequence are all of the characters in shot). Bardem juts his chin out on the line "Un cabrón con pistola" [An arsehole with a gun] and pulls himself up to his full stature. The line about Reina's wife ("She wanted me closer to her") is said matter of fact but with a full glare maintained in their eye contact - Santa doesn't repeat it (or retract it) when challenged and a heavy silence is allowed to hang. 


    Reina leaves. Santa sits back down, leaning forward on the bar, head down. Mutters "Gillipollas" [Dickhead]. Santa overstepping the line actually breaks the tension in the room (he is effectively back to 'normal') and, once Reina has gone, the other men visibly relax and their sense of humour reappears.

Back to the position he was in at the start
    This scene occurs more than halfway through the film but, despite the tensions in the group being apparent earlier on (notably at the football match and the afore-mentioned scene where Santa pours away a drink paid for by Reina), this is the first time we're given a proper background as to exactly what happened at the shipyard - it becomes apparent that just as work has previously united them, it is also what currently divides them, whether in terms of their having found reemployment or simply in the different ways in which they've coped with its absence (hence Reina's antipathy towards Santa in particular - León de Aranoa makes the point on the DVD commentary (which also features Bardem) that Reina isn't a bad man, but the fact that he has found work separates him from his former colleagues - something that is suggested in the framing, as if you look above you will see that Reina is always on the right of frame whereas the rest of them are on the left (the only exception being the family shot of Rico and Nata together, and Rico is often centre-frame part way between the two opposing sides, but the rest of the time even when in a group and they spill across most of screen, your attention is drawn to the left-hand side via either an actor's movement of the depth of focus)). The editing of the sequence also reinforces Santa's status as the pillar of the group, a central point who is relied upon for his steadfast sturdiness - he reveals himself to have a far subtler (though firmly-held) take on the situation than Reina at the same time as he shows that he is unable to change who he is for the sake of an easier life (the sequence that directly precedes this one has already shown him to be a man who has to stick to his principles, albeit in a somewhat childish way in that specific instance). He is down but not out. In terms of Bardem himself, the dichotomy between his powerful physique and the sensitivity he conveys with his eyes (on full display in this sequence) is something that was established at the start of his career (in the films he made with Bigas Luna), but his performance as Santa in Los lunes al sol serves as one of the best examples of his ability to convey complex psychological insight through subtle gestures and modes of behaviour. As I have said in a previous post, if you told me that I could only 'keep' one Bardem performance, this is the one I would choose.