Battles of Honour and Humanity: Albert Serra's Quixotic Experiment By Mark Peranson

in 44th Viennale

by Mark Peranson

It takes a whole lot of moxie, or to use a phrase that’s appropriate for this context, cojones, to make superlative claims for your own work, but there was a defiant yet jocular Albert Serra proudly standing in front of a full house at the second screening of Honor de cavalleria (Honor of the Knights) at the Viennale making the claim that his feature debut was the greatest Spanish film of the last 30 years. (1) The film’s enthusiastic introducer did not disagree: two days prior, Argentine critic and former BAFICI head Quintin went about describing the film at its Austrian unfurling using the same over-the-top phrasing, to a less dense, but equally appreciably, crowd at Vienna’s most spacious theatre, the Gartenbaukino.

But this is a refrain that I’ve heard from a certain cadre of hardcore Spanish critics since the film was premiered at the Quinzaine earlier this year, soon after being released to an unsuspecting Spanish populace. I’m sure the average Juan had much to say about a director who dared adapt the most cherished novel in the Spanish language — none other than Cervantes’ Don Quixote — as a film that could pass for moving landscape photography, with first-time non-actors in the roles of Quixote (played by a retired tennis teacher) and Sancho Panza (a construction worker), spoken in Catalan, and shot on digital video for the price of a dinner for four at El Bulli, wine included.

Speaking of the Quinzaine, it’s where I first saw the film, or a fair chunk thereof, at an infamous, maybe soon to be legendary projection: it’s rare that one sings the praises of a film that one has walked out on, but circumstances took over on the Croisette. Nine in the morning is hardly a time to watch any film, but Honor de cavalleria was horribly served by such scheduling: the introductory scene takes place at night, as Quixote beckons to his portly squire to fetch him a laurel crown. As the light gradually dims over the lengthy real time shot, which approaches absurdity but skirts it ever so slightly, the audience’s reaction became more hostile and more hostile. Uncomfortable murmuring spawned the familiar sounds of seat backs slamming, rustling of bags, and, soon enough, mass exodus.

Such pandemonium is commonplace among the more artistically adventurous films at any festival. So it’s to the credit of the Viennale and the festival’s audience that this packed sophomore projection of Honor de cavalleria, likely the most successful screening in the film’s short life, lacked such obnoxious theatrics among impatient viewers. (As is it to the festival’s credit that it premiered at the Gartenbaukino, where its impressive images were well-served by the massive, curved screen.) But, yes, like many others I fled that pre-dawn Cannes show, out of fatigue but also out of protest, because at a certain point it’s up to the viewer to decide exactly how much to take when faced with an environment that no longer is inductive to the viewing experience.

Since that episode, I’ve seen the film twice, but this seeming aside speaks precisely to the point. A standout in the Vienna FIPRESCI selection and the jury’s unanimous selection for our award, Honor de cavalleria is a modernist, materialist, experiential film made with a supreme amount of confidence. It’s one of those films that periodically appears in a hostile, conformist environment—like a UFO landing—that causes viewers and critics to ponder the place of a movie theatre, or, how films operate on spectators. It has a kind of alchemic, transformative power, creating the type of displacement that is normally used to describe the effect of Hollywood blockbusters—you know the phrase, being “transported” to another place. Only in a film like Honor de cavalleria, because of its strangeness, because if the way it translates a literary text into pure visual terms, has more to offer than simply taking a viewer out of his or her body. Think of the film as both a time and space machine, and think of the cinema as an oasis, a place that serves up healing nourishment from the desert of the everyday.

If I have skirted around analysis of the film itself, perhaps it’s because Honor de cavelleria is that rare film that speaks for itself (actually, it enunciates), and should be experienced rather than read about. Despite consciously being situated in a genealogy of art filmmaking that includes heavyweights like Ozu, Bresson, Pasolini (Serra is a practicing Catholic, for what it’s worth), even recently Sokurov, Serra’s made a supremely odd and unpredictable work of art that stands on its own—because of the emotional relationship that develops over the course of the film.

More than a Borgesian reworking à la Pierre Menard (as has been suggested by Quintin, among others), it’s actually a pre-adaptation: Serra takes Cervantes’ literary constructs, and along with his two highly intuitive actors, imagines the humanity that went into their initial construction, and observes the special, tender relationship play itself out. It is as if we are eavesdropping on the real inspirations for the dreamer Quixote and the earth-bound Sancho as they moseyed across the gorgeous landscape centuries ago; their language is besides the point, it’s the body language that matters. And at a certain juncture they even come upon a kind of oasis of their own, and gain sustenance from the refreshing water. Full stop. Is it the best Spanish film made in the last 30 years? This is certainly up for further debate — one can point to Erice or Guerin as Spanish directors that matter, Almodóvar be damned. But I’ll sign off by saying the question should be raised again in 2007, precisely three decades after the production of the ultimate film from the greatest of all Spanish-born directors, a film called — yes, appropriately, for this context — That Obscure Object of Desire.