Tuesday April 24, 9:30pm
Dir: Juan Antonio Bayona
One of the most revered films in the labyrinthine history of Spanish cinema is 1953’s Bienvinedo Mr Marshall (Welcome Mr Marshall!), a comedy directed by Luis Garcia Berlanga, and co-written by Javier Bardem’s uncle Juan Antonio. It’s a sharply affectionate comedy in the vein of Billy Wilder, and tells the story of a small Spanish village at a time when the country was still internationally isolated. When the locals hear that American representatives of the Marshall Plan (a post-World War II stimulus package) will be visiting the village, they leap to conclusions about the riches that await them.
They get, of course, what their selfish desires deserve, but along the way they try to present a happily clichéd view of their village that they think might be pleasing to an American visitor, while imagining themselves as players in America’s greatest export – the movies. Six decades on there is a lesson in that, tangled amidst the fantasies and assumed identities, on the curious relationship Spain’s moviemaking psyche still has with the rest of the world. In April a season of Spanish films on SBS, screening on Tuesday nights, explores the common ground and unexpected departures that mark the increasingly vital – and now internationally recognised – creative voices of the Mediterranean nation.
In 25 Carat (April 3), the impressive debut feature from Catalan writer/director Patxi Amezcua, the day-to-day life of Spain’s increasingly pressed working class is refracted through an offbeat crime thriller. Most of the characters in the film are working stiffs, albeit on the criminal periphery, and they do what they have to do as a matter of getting by. For Kay (Aida Folch) it’s a matter of making ends meet by staging car accidents and then robbing the other party while they’re still shaken up, while her father Sebas (Manuel Moron) is a petty fence who gambles away his earnings from stolen goods and runs various scams.
The catalyst to their not quite stable life in inner-city Barcelona is Abel (Francesc Garrido), a boxer turned debt collector who gets a cut of what he threatens and/or beats out of loan shark customers. When Abel rescues Kay after one of her cons goes down in public flames they recognise something akin in each other, and Amexcua’s picture finds a genuine intimacy in their moments together even as it makes clear the amoral actions they routinely undertake. The film’s aesthetic is handheld and immediate, and it’s strong enough to make a well worn thriller into something more vulnerable.
Gordos (April 10) comes from the prolific Daniel Sanchez Arevalo and it bristles with ideas (and sometimes archetypes) about the contradictory way that Spain’s repressive history and oft-stated fondness for pleasure can crack up even the hardiest of citizens. The ensemble comic drama is about a therapy group for the overweight run by the aspirationally thin Abel (Roberto Enriquez), but the more the characters fret about their appearance and the perceptions held by others, the more problematic their weight becomes.
Enrique (Antonio de la Torre) is an actor whose sponsorship deal with a weight-loss product is in trouble because he’s growing ever larger, while Sofia (Leticia Herrero) is increasingly sexually frustrated, blaming her body despite her rigidly devout husband hardly being a source of satisfaction. Arevalo switches up from madcap humour or dramatic confessions, and just as quickly back again, and while the movie may sometimes feel as if the characters are placeholders for the issues he wants to address, Arevalo doesn’t sell them short with glib outcomes.
There are distinct, albeit interconnected worlds, beyond the Spanish cinema, and that is the creative voices of Latin and South America, where Spanish settlement of indigenous peoples and subsequent rule laid the foundation for various cultures that put their spin on contemporary issues. Bad Day to Go Fishing (April 17) is from Uruguayan filmmaker Alvaro Brechner, and it uses a dry, comic style to look at the interaction between a diverse group of people in a small Uruguayan town when a two-bit hustler, Prince Orsini (Gary Piquer), and his charge, ageing wrestler Jacob (Jouko Ahola), arrive with easy pickings in mind.
Nothing goes right for the pair: Jacob is having an identity crisis tied to his diminished status, while Orsini’s fix for a wrestling match goes south and he’s pursued by a younger, female adversary, Adriana (Antonella Costa), who insists that her boyfriend, who can’t be nobbled, should be the one to face Jacob. Brechner enjoys putting his character into tricky positions and then letting them scramble to get out, although that makes it hard for him to subsequently qualify the pathos he tries for. But what Bad Day to Go Fishing suggests is that change can’t be avoided, that the world moves on and you cannot stand in its way.
One of the most vital elements of Spanish cinema, and definitely commercially successful, has been the country’s take on horror films. The sense of fear in the work of Alejandro Amenabar, Guillem Morales and Juan Antonio Bayona is pervasive, and often tied to the crimes of the past that have never been remedied. In that sense Spanish horror films are often related to the country’s bloody civil war in the 1930s and the dictatorship that rose out of it. When Spain returned to democracy late in the 1970s the previous decades were put aside, often leaving discord to fester. That unsatisfied, collective guilt seeps into intimate tales where contemporary characters struggle to make amends for previous wrongs.
SBS’s Spanish season ends with one of the best examples in the genre: Bayona’s The Orphanage (April 24). The movie, which won seven of Spain’s top film honours at the annual Goya Awards, is about a woman, Laura (Belen Rueda), who along with her husband and their adopted son plans to reopen the orphanage where she grew up as a centre for disabled children. But when her son disappears she comes to believe that building is haunted, and that voices from the past are trying to communicate with her. Laura can’t escape from her early mistakes, at least not in this life, and Bayona puts aside cheap scares for tragedy that terrifies. It’s just one of many ways that the Spanish cinema continues to surprise.