Tuesday, 5 March 2013

The Burden of Family: iViva! 2013 Coverage

by Nick Pierce and Tom Dunn

Returning for a second year (see iViva! 2012 coverage here), Spectrum's resident film critics offer their review of Manchester Cornerhouse's iViva! Spanish and Latin Film Festival.

Family (specifically the collapse of the familial unit), and 21st century media figure largely in much of the programme for this year's iViva! Festival, the Manchester Cornerhouse’s annual celebration of Spanish and Latin American cinema. Now enjoying its 19th year, this latest edition features the usual eclectic mix of comedy, drama and documentary, though the inclusion of Cannes Un Certain Regard 2012 winner, Después de Lucia, acts as something of a lynch pin for much of the itinerary. 

Arguably the most well known of the titles featured this year, Después de Lucia (After Lucia) has already enjoyed critical success for its portrayal of bullying and loneliness, covering as it does the victimisation of Alejandra (Tessa la Gonzalez Norvind) at the hands of her supposed new friends, and her subsequent attempt to protect her widower father José (Gonzalo Vega Sisto) by staying silent. Michel Franco’s tale looks at the impact of bullying in a post-internet world, where Alejandra is able to gain sudden, widespread infamy through the filming and distribution of a prívate act, and the separation of this world, from the stability she attempts to maintain in the security of the home. Whilst ostensibly a focus on bullying, the film’s focus on a family’s fractured state, social media, and Michel Franco’s use of a naturalistic mode of cinema are all currents that run through much of the iViva! programme. 

Indeed, many parallels run between this story of silent abuse and writer-director Dominga Sotomayor Castillo’s study of familial breakdown, De Jueves a Domingo (Thursday Till Sunday). Filmed in a discompassionate, voyeuristic manner, Castillo’s film traces a four day road trip undertaken by two young children with their parents. Amidst hopeful talk of a holiday in the north of Chile, older sibling Lucia (Santi Ahumada) begins to piece together – along with the audience – that the purpose of the trip is not quite what it seems, even as Papa (Francisco Perez-Bannen) makes promises of an inherited plot of land to be found. Castillo’s camera catches extended snatches of the family as they sit, cramped and bored, in the car, only to occasionally break out for a minor episode of camping or play, the family’s disconnect made physical in the camera’s wide shots, lacking any focal point as multiple actions occur between different family members simultaneously. It becomes all too apparent, however, that mother and father are keeping up appearances for the sake of the children, and so Lucia witnesses what will be the last days of her parents’ marriage. Occasionally too languorous in its disinterested approach to the events it documents, De Jueves a Domingo is nevertheless an able partner to what is perhaps the festival’s centrepiece. 

Yet Maria Novaro’s Las Buenas Hierbas (The Good Herbs) has perhaps more in common with Michael Haneke’s recent effort, Amour – perhaps to the detriment of current audiences. Nevertheless, Novaro’s semi-improvised, low-budget feature has an earnestness to it that cannot be found in Haneke’s more devastating work, focusing as it does on the relationship between alternative radio host Dalia (Ursula Pruneda) and her herbologist mother Lala (Ofelia Medina). Free spirits who share a love of alternative medicines, the pair’s tight relationship is pushed to the brink upon Lala’s diagnosis of alzheimers, which takes an immediate, destructive effect upon her mind and body. Ursula Pruneda captivates as Dalia, giving the character an authentic sincerity that carries the film through its more wandering moments. Lala’s encyclopaedic knowledge of potions and remedies come to be locked away within a corner of her mind that neither her nor her daughter can access, and so Dalia comes to find that all of their curatives are ultimately, and tragically, useless in the face of death. The film’s other, somewhat disparate sub-plots, offer a more comprehensive overview on the fleetingness of life – and youth particularly - that suggest some influence from Almodovar. 

It’s not all doom and gloom at iViva!, however, with Gustavo Torretto’s Medianeres (Sidewalls) offering a rather more endearing look at modern, isolated life, and how it can still be overcome by gold old fashioned chance. Subtitled ‘Buenos Aires in Times of Virtual Love’, Medianeres follows the lives of two strangers, Martin (Javier Drolas) and Mariana (Pilar Lopez de Ayala), both young loners with their own quirky hang ups, struggling in jobs that aren’t quite as rewarding as they’d hope for, as they navigate the vast city of millions that surrounds them. Torretto’s film may be more than a little obvious in its message, but the delivery is twee in (almost) all the right ways, utilising smart cuts and thematic links to tie together the lives of its protagonists, who, we know, will eventually come to meet and have a chance at combating the mercilessness of city living. Torretto’s film may not be a classic of the romance genre, but what sets it apart amidst the current stable is its smart, embedded approach to online communication in the real world, often put forth in a wry manner.

It is Alex de la Iglesia’s La Chispa de la Vida (As Luck Would Have It) however, that offers the most biting criticism of how insidiously the media pervades our worldview, in a rather daft satire of the working man’s plight. Famed Spanish comic Jose Mota plays Roberto, a once-respected advertising exec who has now fallen on hard times. Over the course of an increasingly ridiculous day, Roberto attempts to validate himself through getting a job, reinvigorating his marriage to Luisa (Salma Hayek) and bring some respect to his name – opportunities that all come together when Roberto impales his head to a spike. Fully conscious, Roberto uses the subsequent live news coverage to book advertising space, hoping to earn his family money and prove his own worth. Iglesia’s film has a rather anarchic tone that, whilst suited to much of the arch cynicism at work, leaves viewers bemused when the script suddenly strives towards a sense of gravitas. The result is a rather confused affair that struggles to define itself, flitting between harsh criticism of the mercenary world of publicity (both private and public), and lazy one-note jokes that get repeated far too often. Honestly, what child would willingly be a Goth in this day and age?

Els Nens Salvatges (The Wild Children) is a contemporary re-telling of the old biblical admonishment that the sins of the fathers will be visited upon their children. Depicting the lives of three troubled adolescents in the weeks leading up to one of them committing a terrible crime, it explores how parental tyranny, indifference and blindness contribute to a final, brutal loss of childhood. It’s most remarkable for the totally convincing performances of its young cast, all of whom succeed in conveying the first painful sproutings of adult desire, resentment and regret. As a cautionary tale reminding viewers of the importance of compassion, Salvatges makes its points clearly and with a minimum of fuss, albeit without a very original or compelling approach. Sadly, such a worthy subject matter can easily fall into off-putting didacticism and writer-director Patricia Ferreira doesn’t entirely avoid this pitfall. Despite its resonant and universal subject matter, the story barely develops past its initial positing of intergenerational alienation, instead rehashing the same confrontations between adults and youths again and again until the concept begins to feel too slight to sustain another feature. Another problem is the mishandling of the tragedy to which it builds, the film finishing before either its prelude or repercussions can be satisfactorily delineated. As a result, it has an air of melodramatic overstatement, awkwardly belying the narrative’s prevailingly naturalistic register.

Una Vida Sin Palabras (A Life Without Words) similarly deals with the ways in which adult and childhood worlds can painfully overlap, although this time in documentary form. Director Adam Isenberg records the lives of siblings Dulce Maria and her brother Francisco, born deaf in rural Nicaragua, and never taught any means of spoken, written or signed communication. Although technically adults – both are in their twenties – without language they have been deprived of the learning others take for granted and remain isolated in a childlike world, living at home with their parents and only capable of the most rudimentary household tasks. The film goes on to follow the attempts made by a similarly deaf aid worker to teach them language, which may prove to be impossible.

Isenberg’s work recalls the profound documentary excursions of Werner Herzog in its complex examination of what it means to be human. Like that legendary filmmaker’s work, the complex and disturbing Palabras shows us a place where familiar concepts like language and family have been turned on their heads or exist in broken-down form so as to challenge what we believe we already understand about them. As events slowly unfold, questions keep multiplying. Is the sign language the aid worker brings really a means of liberating her two students, or do the lessons devolve into party tricks with little effect outside of assuaging social guilt? Was the parents’ decision to remove the children from education in their infancy a way of protecting them and thus a sign of love, or an example of irresponsible abuse? Impressively, Isenberg manages to tease these issues of family, personal and social responsibility, and human interaction out of a story far removed from most of our experiences, and yet makes the questions feel relevant to each of us.

Violeta Went To Heaven is a moving dramatization of the tumultuous and extraordinary life of Violeta Parra, a Chilean singer and folklorist iconic in her native country but little known in Europe today. For those with no prior knowledge of Violeta’s life and work, the biopic was a more than serviceable introduction. Director Andrḗs Wood moves confidently and often lyrically between the definitive points in her life and career; from her poverty-stricken childhood, through her pursuits in ethnomusicology and artistic recognition in Chile, her struggle to gain long-term acceptance in the prejudiced environs of Europe, a love affair with Swiss flautist Gilbert Favre, and her eventual suicide at 49, it appears that little is left uncovered. One particularly remarkable discovery is the fact that Parra had the first public exhibition of her tapestries at the Louvre, after taking up the discipline relatively late in life and feeling sure enough of her abilities to approach the gallery’s administrators.

But the real achievement is the filmmakers’ and actress Francisca Gavilan’s portrait of Violeta herself. Their efforts yield a rich and complex characterisation that evokes Parra’s spirit with all the vibrancy and humanity of one of her own tapestries. We’re shown a living, breathing, hurting individual shorn of the tinsel and embellishment often given to such cultural figures in the stories of their lives. She’s alternately an iron-willed and uncompromising visionary, determined to pursue her creative genius and preserve her nation’s heritage, and a lonely, vulnerable egotist, insensitive to the needs of others. At one telling moment, she reacts in fury to a patronising host’s suggestion that she have something to eat in the kitchen after having performed at his soiree for the French upper classes, instead of joining the other guests. We’re not quite sure whether she’s more angry at the way her nation’s voice, invested in her, has been ignorantly co-opted as dinner music for the wealthy, or at the personal slight to her own feelings of importance. Indeed, the truth is probably a little of both, and it’s this unsentimental approach to the undiminished humanity of its protagonist that makes Violeta a success.

Los Lobos De Arga (Game of Werewolves) is an altogether more frivolous example of horror comedy, a genre growing increasingly in vogue in Spain after the recent crossover success of Juan of the Dead. It’s the story of a wannabe writer returning to the village of his youth, only to discover it harbours a werewolf summoned by an ancient curse and that he is to be sacrificed by the superstitious locals as a means of bringing the black magic to an end. In the pantheon of blood-soaked black comedy, Lobos is closer to the knockabout silliness of the Evil Dead franchise than George A Romero’s satirical bites at contemporary society. There’s the same evident love of slapstick, tastelessness and knowingly camp performances, with the cast ably gurning and grimacing their way through the frequently funny set-pieces. The movie’s depiction of country dwellers as a largely irrational gang of violent, drunken sheep-shaggers would seem more than a little unfair, but it’s obvious from the beginning that Lobos is aiming for the broadest, daftest tone possible. As such a piece of no-frills entertainment, it serves up a prime, throbbing cut of claret and belly laughs, even if it fails to bring anything very original to its rapidly expanding sub-genre. An enjoyable, lightweight finish to a festival with more than its share of gravitas.