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Recent Spanish Cinema at the
XII Festival de Cine Europeo de Sevilla 2015   

Adrian Martin


The following notes arise from viewings at Sevilla’s XII Festival de Cine Europeo (information in English here) in November 2015. I was a member of the Official Section jury (which considered several of the films discussed below), but was also following up certain recommended titles, especially in the ‘Resistencias’ section of the Festival that concentrates on current, independent and adventurous Spanish production. My thanks up front to Festival Director José Luis Cienfuegos and Programmer Alejandro Díaz Castaño for making this adventure possible.


Spanish cinema – as the current push for Catalonian independence constantly reminds a newcomer to the place, like me – is full of differentiations and divisions. There never was any simple, unified ‘mirror to the nation’ here – not even the mirage of it. There is Spanish cinema, Catalán cinema, Basque cinema … and then co-productions of various levels and kinds (Spain/Mexico, Spain/France, Spain/Uruguay, etc) … and then the type of renegade micro-productions (some emanating from film courses and schools) that, a couple of years ago, kicked off a ‘new Spanish cinema’ revival after the first, crippling years of the country’s economic crisis, characterised by films as different as the gag-skit-based Gente en sitios (People in Places, Juan Cavestany, 2013) and intimist dramas like Jonás Trueba’s Los Ilusos (2013) or Fernando Franco’s La Herida (2013).


Plus, as in any well-cultivated cinema/cinephilia landscape, there are (depending from where you are standing and looking) the beloved or despised ‘official masters’ (Pedro Almodóvar, Alejandro Amenábar, Carlos Saura), the once-cult figures in uneasy détente with the mainstream (Álex de la Iglesia, or Bigas Luna until his death in 2013), those who move between once-political filmmaking and the ever-present Euro-pudding temptation of lacquered, starry productions (Isabel Coixet), and those genuine culture-heroes who maintain their public image and high-esteem level even when chances for them actually making new work seem terribly fallow (Víctor Erice, Montxo Armendáriz).


Regular reflections on the state of Spanish cinema – for instance, by Carlos Losilla in the pages of the magazine Caiman or the newspaper La Vanguardia – tend to diagnose developments in this national arena along two axes. On the first axis, there is experimental narrative work – often existing (partly because modest budgets tend in this direction) on that now famous ‘line between fiction and documentary’ (that was the title of a seminar in Melbourne way back in 1987, almost three decades ago, but the growth area designated by this vital marker still shows no sign of shrinkage). Of the films canvassed below, O futebol strays into this field, and even The Academy of Muses (the frame of which is fully fictive) draws on its energy. Furthest out in this direction at Sevilla was Luis Aller’s Transeúntes, a genuinely strange montage experiment hyper–rapidly cutting together two decades of gathered footage into the largest and most sprawling network–narrative (and city symphony) ever devised.


Then, on the other axis, there are the endless attempts to either satisfy or playfully subvert (while reaping benefit from) the laws of movie genre – seen, in Spain as in every country struggling in the world-dominant shadow of Hollywood, as the near-magical entrée to success in the commercial market, as the widespread hopes pinned on Carlos Vermut and his curious Magical Girl (2014) show. In Sevilla’s 2015 crop, Norberto Ramos Del Val’s Amor tóxico and especially Pablo Hernando’s Berserker worked and tinkered with genre elements. The latter, made with few material resources but plenty of energy and commitment, spins a well–acted mystery tale that sets off from the bizarre premise of a troubled woman murdering her boyfriend and fixing his head to a car’s steering wheel. Although its narrative tricks–within–tricks finally overwhelm the project, it holds our interest.


Let’s go right to the top rung of this modest and informal survey. José Luis Guerin’s La Academia de las musas (The Academy of Muses) is among the most exciting and stimulating films, from anywhere, of the past few years. Armed with extremely modest resources – a digital camera, small crew, an ensemble of non-professional actors – Guerin and his collaborators began with the documentation of a university seminar (led by Rafaelle Pinto) in which this gregarious Professor tries to convince his (mainly female–enrolled) class that the ancient concept of Woman–as–Muse remains a viable and important concept for our modern, fallen world – and for the renewed (or persistent) possibility of creating poetry within it.


From there, the assembled team collectively weaves a highly intriguing fiction concerning the various relationships (on various levels) between the teacher, several of his students (played by Mireia Iniesta and Emanuela Forgetta, among others), and his no-bullshit wife (Rosa Delor Muns). There are discussions, excursions, confrontations … and finally, even a few surprise revelations.


A plot summary does not even begin to capture the dynamic texture and movement of this great film. As if to answer all those dour critiques that pegged Guerin as a idealising-fetishist-voyeur guy-type after In Sylvia’s City (2007) and its various offshoots in video, photography and installation, Guerin upends his own seeming auteur-system by staging the relentless comedy of women challenging the hero about his views – often in stunningly vibrant, intellectual exchanges. (Pinto, it should be added, gives as good as he gets.) But, more than that, The Academy of Muses is a genuinely dialogical film, in its entire structure and form. I have rarely felt such a vivid sensation of a movie as an agora for contesting views, and clashing viewpoints. A very verbal work – and a work about speech itself, as gesture, act and posture, power and seduction – it nonetheless manages to achieve wonderful, new effects of mise en scène (using frames crammed with faces, reflections in glass, superb close-ups) with the digital image.


Pozoamargo is a Mexican-Spanish co-production. Its director, Enrique Rivero, was born in Spain but is based in Mexico; I was impressed by his Parque via (2008), a small gem that moved from the Jeanne Dielman-like record of a quiet man’s servitude in a wealthy home to a sudden, turnaround, blunt-force-trauma conclusion (as ‘slow cinema’ is sometimes wont to do). Pozoamargo also – for good and for ill – has a critic immediately reaching for comparative equations: it’s Lisandro Alonso (Jauja and pre-Jauja) + Abbas Kiarostami (zig-zag roads in distant fields) + Carlos Reygadas/Amat Escalante (a pig munches on our hero’s face as he lies under the rubble of a collapsed building) + Béla Tarr = …


It’s also a tale of guilt and flight. Jes­ús (Jesús Gallego) has – as a gruesomely close-up insert of his penis over the toilet bowl reveals – raging Venereal Disease. He abruptly leaves his partner, his home, his village, with a plan to disappear into anonymity. Next stop: Pozoamargo in Castile, sheltering a close-knit, farming community of churchgoers who all, equally, seemed wracked by either guilt or sexual frustration. When history inevitably begins repeating itself for Jesús, he decides to end it all, about one hour into the full 99 minutes. That is when the movie does its reality-warping switch, from colour into black-and-white, and possibly also into a more mystical realm of shadow-selves and second chances (just watch out, in this space, for the flesh-eating animals out for karmic revenge).


It’s easy to make it sound derivative and second-hand. But – especially in its first hour, before the Turin Horse-like solemnity sets in – Pozoamargo is quite captivating, on no small account due to the taciturn, granite-like presence of Gallego in the lead role (on screen for virtually every second). Rivero has yet to entirely find his own voice as a director, but he is someone to keep a close watch on.


Documentary modes of a relatively familiar sort – tending to the contemplative in one case, and reflective diary/chronicle in the other – structured Mauro Herce’s Dead Slow Ahead and Eloy Domínguez Serén’s Ingen ko isen (No Cow on the Ice). I was especially won over by the latter: beginning as a familiar lament about migration and alienation (the director moved to Sweden and later began a romantic relationship with a partner who doesn’t always seem happy with the camera’s constant testimony), the film actually begins to cheer up considerably once the filmmaker, left to his own devices, starts really learning his new native language and trying to fit in. Despite all that cold water, ice and snow, it’s a surprisingly sunny lesson about the drive to culturally displace oneself, and how to cope with the consequences of that drive.


O futebol (the official English title is On Football) – made in Brazil, birth-country of the now Spain-based director, Sergio Oksman– is a film that divides audiences. I had encountered Oksman’s previous short A Story for the Modlins (2012) – a lightly conceptual, brain–twisting essay-documentary in the tradition of, for example, Isaki Lacuesta’s Cravan vs Cravan (2002) – and was aware of the input in the new film of his script collaborator, cinephile and teacher Carlos Muguiro. But, no matter what foreknowledge you come in with, this film can blindside you. Where its doco aspect ends and its fiction aspect begins is a problem you have, eventually, to put aside entirely; like in a Frederick Wiseman movie, everything here finally becomes cinema, touched by a certain facility, an attitude, a regard.


O futebol is in the now vast pool of ‘personal documentaries’ from the past three decades about directors trying to come to terms of endearment, or reckoning, with their parents – whether living, dead, or (as here) in transition from one state to the other. Sometimes this loose genre can come across as a big, egotistical whinge on the part of the director – demanding recognition, understanding and love from a parental figure who, for one complex social/personal/historical reason or another, is simply unable to grant that reciprocation. Especially as the documentary camera, a few feet away in the room or park or cemetery, rolls relentlessly. (I recalled, for example, the recently deceased Haskell Wexler and his fierce challenge to his son Mark embarking on such a ‘sentimental journey’ of account–settling in Tell Them Who You Are [2004].)


But, at a certain point, O futebol turns a corner, and we see proceedings another way. We become alert to the element of fantasy-projection (and even persecution) in the filmmaker, through the way he portrays himself and his project – desperately wanting to recreate the past and give form to a memory which, perhaps, he never even truly lived. Like in Margot Nash’s superb Australian film The Silences (2015), a certain agony intrinsic to such pained revisiting of a largely mute past invades the arrangement of the images and sounds, the gestures and tableaux: here given immortal expression in the father’s left-behind crossword puzzles (hundreds of books full of them), which the camera gazes at, ever closer, in search of a deep clue to the past’s mysteries that cannot be there – and never will be there, no matter how furiously this ambivalently grieving son inspects them.


from Issue 6: Distances


© Adrian Martin, February 2016.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.