Monday, 13 February 2012

"Viva Espagna!" Coverage of ¡Viva! Spanish and Latin American Film Festival

by Nick Pierce and Tom Dunn

If variety is the spice of life, then judging by the programme at Manchester Cornerhouse’s 18th annual ¡Viva! Spanish and Latin American Film Festival, contemporary cinematic culture in these parts of the world is – ahem – rather hot. With a selection that covers animation, fantasy, political drama and horror, ¡Viva! ensures that audiences experience the full breadth of Latin cinema today, with a number of particular treats waiting in the wings.
If casting one’s eye over the contemporary landscape of Spanish and Latin America cinema can be said to offer any reflections of where the world - and specifically these regions of it - are at in 2012, then the programme of recent films showing at the ¡Viva! Festival seem to allude to the familiar anxieties of our era, with a fear of oppression and its lasting legacy being a key theme across many of the feature presentations.

 Pa Negre (Black Bread) for one is a perfect illustration of our continuing preoccupation with the troubled history of the 20th century and the lingering spectre of European fascism. A companion piece of sorts to Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, it tracks the rude awakening of fresh-eyed innocent Andreu (Francesc Colomer) to the compromise and complicity of the world of adults with Franco’s oppressive regime. As a narrative, it’s arguably bleaker and more ethically complex than Del Toro’s magnum opus. Some of the grown-ups in that dark fairy tale resembled knights in shining armour, standing courageously and steadfastly against the broadly-drawn evil of fascism. In Pa Negre however the apparent knights – particularly Andreu’s Communist-sympathising father – prove errant, their armour of moral superiority to Spanish government concealing a degree of hypocritical accommodation with the regime that exposes it to be flimsy as tin-foil.
  It is surely significant that in the case of both of these examinations of Spain’s past, the central protagonists should be children. These babes in the woods effectively function as substitutes for the eyes of the new generations of Europe, looking back on the actions of their ancestors with bafflement and incomprehension, much as a child might struggle to fathom the decisions of its parents. Of course, whether this incomprehension can be taken at face value is another question. It might be interpreted as a means Europeans have used of distancing themselves irresponsibly from the past, as it is much easier to classify 20th century atrocities as an aberration of previous generations than to engage honestly with their causes and possible recurrence. To his credit, director and screenwriter Agustí Villaronga addresses this through the increasingly skewed moral development of Andreu, intimating thereby that the innocence of new youth need not necessarily overcome or avoid the errors of the past. The drama cleaned up at the Goya Awards in its homeland – including becoming the first ever Catalan-language winner of the award for Best Picture – and it’s certainly hard to imagine a similarly ambiguous and haunting dissection of American history receiving the same treatment from Oscar.

  También la Lluvia (Even the Rain) on the other hand transpires to be a somewhat more conventional melodrama in the Hollywood mould: well-made and often gripping, but ultimately falling short of its worthy ambitions. It documents the production of a period drama by Mexican filmmaker Sebastián (Gael García Bernal) and his right-hand man Costa (Luis Tosar) intent on recreating Columbus’ first voyage to the New World and his subjugation of the native population. Filming in South America’s most impoverished country Bolivia, the crew hire locals to play the parts of the indigenous folk exploited by the Spaniards, paying them a pittance. Predictably enough, the filmmakers’ ruthless, unethical behaviour begins to mirror the story they are telling and the evils of Columbus and his cronies. This allows the film to make an unsubtle if thought-provoking point about how the emotional pornography manufactured by Tinseltown may in fact help to conceal contemporary injustices, rather than merely condemning those of the distant past.
  Unfortunately, Lluvia somewhat blunts its core message by having Costa undergo an implausible moral u-turn at the last minute, assisting the locals in their fight for the water supply to their village against the oppressive Bolivian government. In effect, by giving the film industry this easy exit screenwriter Paul Laverty undermines the ostensible aim of the picture, and Lluvia transforms into one of those examples of exploitative Hollywood-esque fluff the movie criticises. Of course, one could interpret the last act as an ironic commentary on the self-aggrandisement of the motion picture business, which is often obsessed with bigging up its own social consciousness, but the prevailing tone of po-faced seriousness makes that hard to believe.
  However, as a piece of pure entertainment it performs efficiently, carried for the most part by the solidly charismatic performances of Bernal, Tosar and Juan Carlos Aduviri as Daniel, a Bolivian native cast in Sebastián’s picture and committed to civil disobedience in protest to the government’s actions.  
  Lluvia draws its plot from the recent history of the water crisis in Bolivia, and the presence of the past also makes itself felt in the moving animation Arrugas (Wrinkles), albeit in an altogether different fashion. Here the ‘past’ manifests itself in the elderly characters living out their days in an efficient yet impersonal nursing home. The problem the movie raises is precisely how these ‘clients’/inmates have been relegated to the realm of the past by society: forgotten by their families and handled like defunct objects. With the unavoidable fact of an ageing population in Europe, this subject matter is certainly timely, and perhaps even a little uncomfortable. Director Ignacio Ferreras steers clear of polemic in favour of the personal, however, with the blossoming friendship between Emilio, a new resident succumbing to Alzheimer’s Disease, and the cynical, streetwise Miguel who spends his days fleecing the other patients of their money taking centre-stage. Although the themes offer little fresh insight, it succeeds through its poignant marrying of black comedy and tender emotion. Alongside the works of his peer Sylvain Chomet, Ignacio Ferreras’ melancholy rumination on obsolescence and compassion suggests that there remains a promising future for hand-drawn animation in providing a more thoughtful, adult alternative to the whiz-bang pyrotechnics of computer-animated kids’ flicks. One small warning: if you’re of a sensitive disposition, come the end Arrugas may well have reduced you to a blubbering wreck.

  By comparison Terrados, a low-key tale of unemployed thirty-somethings coping with Spain’s job crisis by escaping from this bleak reality via spending their days hanging out on the rooftops of their city, fails to engage. The time is definitely ripe for artistic explorations of the social impact of the economic downturn, but the characters and their situations are far too sketchily drawn to fit this bill. Aside from the dramatic weight afforded by the breakdown of the relationship between stuck-in-a-rut Leo and his ambitious girlfriend Ana, it comes across as Clerks without the laughs or likeability. At other points it has a disconcerting habit of filling the mouths of its cast with unwieldy chunks of information about the economic iniquities of the country’s leaders. Believe me, as a currently jobless graduate I wasn’t exactly unsympathetic with the characters’ plight, but I couldn’t escape the realisation that the slight premise was too underdeveloped to sustain its length.

Diego Lerman’s La Mirada Invisible instead applies the microcosmic approach to the bloody introduction of democracy into Argentina, as the country’s military junta loses public favour in the Falklands War. An adaptation of Martin Kohan’s 2006 novel, Moral Sciences, the film follows the fall of Marita (Julieta Zylberberg), a young, withdrawn teacher in an intensely restrictive private school. As the lecherous head professor, Biasutto (Osmar Nunez), lectures Marita on the “cancer of subversion” that is spreading itself through the school, it soon becomes clear that this austere environment, bathed in silence when not in the hymns of the nation, is a metaphor for the regime the people are fighting against outside the school’s formidable walls. Whilst this initial premise is perhaps rather too obviously handled, the film makes apt use of its material through its study of Marita, whose increasingly obsessive surveillance of the student body disguises a far more destructive infatuation with a male pupil. When coupled with Biasutto’s attempts to ingratiate himself in Marita’s colourless life, the film’s outcome is rather straightforward, being as it is an exercise in simple metaphor. Zylberberg’s performance however, at once frosty and vulnerable, is spellbinding, her depiction of Marita’s downfall unflinching without submitting to melodrama. This, in conjunction with Alvaro Gutiérrez’s clinical cinematography, elevates the film’s standing and provides an engrossing piece of cinema.

In contrast, a sense of weariness abounds whenever the topic of revolution rears its head – and it does so frequently – in Juan de los Muertos, famous for being Cuba’s first zombie picture. Whilst this might be the case, Alenjandro Brugues’ take on the genre finds itself well entrenched in the familiar staples of the field; the zombies allegorize the long shadow of unrest in the state, with Juan (Alexis Diaz de Villegas) and his buddy Lazaro (Jorge Molina) functioning as much more mercenary renderings of Shaun and Ed. Through the crisis, Juan is inevitably provided with a scenario so removed from day-to-day reality that, with the aid of his misfit pals, he is able to redeem himself in the eyes of his daughter and emerge a fuller man. If it’s not Shaun of the Dead, then, with its pointed accusations toward the US, it’s certainly The Host, and the narrative threatens to buckle at the midway point under the weight of well worn ideas. Thankfully, the film is carried through its punctuations of, at times, genuinely inventive black comedy. Whilst this might not be the most original zom-com you’ve ever seen, it’s certainly one of the most outrageous, sporting gross-out humour when gross-out gore can’t be provided. Villegas and Molina’s pairing is refreshing, their characters largely lacking the core morality we would expect of our protagonists in favour of a thoroughly commercial (and highly sexual) mindset. It is a testament to Juan’s sensibility that he ensures a steady, if seemingly redundant, source of income from the zombie outbreak and the pest control opportunities it affords, with Villegas thriving in the role. Whether this can be said of the entirety of the cast is debatable, but Juan de los Muertos proves itself to be worth a gander for genre aficionados, with its grab-bag appropriation of tropes.

Hollywood still has some way to go when it comes to matching the likes of Balada Triste de Trompeta (The Last Circus), however. Opening with a Republican Militia recruiting circus performers as impromptu fighters for the Spanish Civil War, Alex de la Iglesia’s idiosyncratic feature quickly begins a waltz of absurd cruelty that dances its way merrily through to the film’s conclusion. Javier (Sash Di Bendetto), gawky son of The Funny Clown, a man begrudgingly become war legend, has forever been scarred by the tragedy the Civil War thrust upon him, and as such, can only function as a Sad Clown. Joining his latest circus, he quickly meets his match in Sergio (Antonio de la Torre), a violently unstable drunk who also happens to be a damn good joker and the alpha male of the big tent. Infatuated with Sergio’s headstrong lover, Natalia (Carolina Bang), Javier decides to stand up against the abuse of the so-called Happy Clown and prove himself a true gallant to his paramour. What follows is a tit-for-tat battle for supremacy that quickly escalates into something exquisite in its savageness - at once hilarious and horrifying. White paint gets swapped out for sodium hydroxide, cream pies for bloody trumpets, as Sergio and Javier give in to their individual psychopathic tendencies, with Natalia caught in the middle like a rabbit in headlights. Beautifully rendered through the eye of Kiko de la Rica, Iglesia’s feature – heavy on visual metaphor – moves beyond grindhouse parody into something a little more fantastical, and a lot more European. The Last Circus is undoubtedly one of the festival’s highlights.

Speaking from a country still gripped by armed conflict, Jairo Carrillo’s animated documentary, Pequeñas Voces, gives voices to Colombian children affected by a generation of violence and war. The film, having recently won both the Grand and the Special Jury prizes at the International Gold Panda awards, adds to the variety and breadth of ¡Viva!’s programme, though is perhaps a little too worthy for its own good. Carillo’s feature takes a series of monologues related by children affected by war, and marries them to a single cartoon world; rather than merely produce distinct, anecdotal animations for each story, the narrative moves between speakers whose generic characters (sometimes embodying a number of no doubt unrelated speakers as a single child) interact through mime and monosyllabic utterances during transition sequences.  It’s a strange stance to take, in that it produces a pseudo fiction that at best comes to feel forced, and at worst, disingenuous, particularly during several emotional climaxes that are clearly added for the purpose of drama. There is too great a disparity between the spoken word and the filmmakers’ additions for the two to unite and suspend disbelief. That said, the film’s use of actual children’s drawings as figures in this landscape is a smart move, well conveying the paradoxical innocence the likes of child soldiers and war refugees still enjoy, and is something Carrillo should have extended toward his three protagonist figures. The tale of said child soldier is a particularly harrowing reminder of the realities that permeate guerrilla warfare, and is perhaps the standout narrative of Pequeñas Voces.

Unlike Juan, we needn’t fear the walking dead just yet: if there’s one thing this year’s line-up proves, despite the absence of international brands like Del Toro or Almodóvar and the predictions of gloom ‘n’ doom surrounding art-house filmmaking, it’s that Spanish and Latin American cinema is still alive and kicking.