Good Times: Spanish and Latin American Films By Wolfgang Martin Hamdorf

in 53rd San Sebastian International Film Festival

by Wolfgang Hamdorf

“Are you a Catholic”, a young woman asks her lover’s father. The immediate response is: “All Chilean people are Catholics. Are you?” A wealthy Chilean Family is going to celebrate Easter in their house on the beach when their only son announces that his first official girlfriend will take part as well. What, in the beginning, promises to be a perfect family weekend in harmony all too soon becomes a subtle psychological drama unveiling the gaps and conflicts between different generations in Chilean society. The Holy Family (La Sagrada familia), the first feature film of young Chilean director Sebastián Campos, shot in three days and based on a dialogue-less script of only ten pages, was one of twelve movies in the Latin American section in the San Sebastian festival “Horizontes Latinos”.
This presentation of Latin American films traditionally gives special consideration to new trends in creativity and selection of content. One example for this is The Hours Go By (Cómo pasan las horas), the second feature film of Argentinean director Inés de Oliveira Cézar. It is a dramatic family story, which manages to create a whole, poetic universe by using space, time, light, and the ebb and flow of the tides in its own particular way.
Headstrong, intense documentaries were also highly represented this year. Black Bull (Toro negro), for instance, which received an award at the “Horizontes Latinos”, illustrates the life and death of bullfighter Fernando Pacheco in the Maya Region of south-western Mexico. What is most remarkable about this film is the way it sticks close to its main protagonist. The same is also true for Mercedes Moncada’s The Inmortal (El Inmortal), an impressive documentation about a family torn apart by the Nicaraguan civil war.
Many films shown at the festival had already been aired in recent years in the series “En Construcción”, a collaborative forum for movies in an advanced stage of production. Of these, Tristán Bauer’s Enlightened by Fire (Iluminados por el fuego) was awarded the Special Jury Prize in the official section. The Argentinean director, who is a long-standing guest of this festival, tells about the suicide of a Falklands veteran as a result of the gaping wounds in Argentinean society during the last months of military dictatorship in 1982. But the war itself and the development of the protagonists are covered in an, all too often, superficial way. The old “buddy” stereotypes of so-called “anti-war movies” are still predominant, as is the jingoistic idea of a just and righteous war.
The second Argentinean entry to the contest, The Aura (El Aura) is the story of an armed robbery on a money transporter gone horribly wrong. By setting it before the backdrop of dark and gloomy woodlands, director Fabián Bielinsky manages to create an almost magical atmosphere in what could have otherwise been a one-dimensional genre film.
Spanish and Latin American films have been the festival’s main focus for twelve years now. This year, there were four Spanish films represented in the contest – a rather strong presence but unconvincing all the same, given how the films were hovering somewhere between the forged style of the typical Spanish author film and a conceited pose of elegant irrelevance.
Obaba, based on a novel bearing the same name and written by the successful Basque author Bernardo Atxaga, tells about a young female film student who intends to document the daily life in this unique village and eventually loses herself between the episodes. Obaba was the opening movie of the festival, and this was mostly out of political considerations: a Spanish film based on a Basque cult novel and created by a director from Navarra, which has its stylistic roots in the critical authors’ films of the late 70s (the last years of dictatorship), is a clear cultural sign for the beginning dialogue between the Socialist government in Madrid and Basque nationalists over ending terrorism and the future statute of the Basque country. Yet, this project about dealing with the past, laid out very much like a choral by its director Montxo Armendáriz, unfortunately loses pace between rural garrulity and what could have been pointing to the unspoken legacy, repressed past and ossified structures of an agonising dictatorship – if only it had been done 30 years ago. Today, the film comes across as aesthetically conceited, waveringly vague and atmospherically thin. Only the character of the German engineer, played by Peter Lohmeyer, gives some palpable evidence of the political background of the exile.
Alberto Rodríguez’ 7 Virgins (7 vírgenes) is about two friends living in the poorer suburbs of Sevilla. Even though it is a quite refreshing film and the 17-year-old actor Juan José Ballesta was awarded the “Concha de Plata” (Silver Shell) for best male actor, 7 Virgins is somewhat reminiscent of Spanish director Fernando León de Aranoa’s second feature film Barrio, which received the “Concha de Plata” for best direction in 1997.
Hard Times (Malas temporadas) describes the different paths of different protagonists living in Madrid and lost between immigration and depression. All too soon, though, the film itself becomes lost between emotionalising and emotional blunting. The fourth Spanish film, Sud express, by Chema de la Peña and Gabriel Velázquez combines stories of love and despair, parting and restart on the tracks of the legendary railway connecting Paris and Lisbon.
All four Spanish competition entries rely on political and social backdrops, but what they also have in common is a lack of willingness to risk anything aesthetically or content-wise.
In the “Open Zone”, on the other hand, there have been quite a few surprises: In his film The Taxi Thief (El Taxista ful), Catalan director Jordi Sol tells the story of a taxi driver who suddenly finds himself under the wheels of justice and ends up in the squatter scene of Barcelona . As a feigned documentary, The Taxi Thief brilliantly plays with perception and reality. Another, no less fascinating play between reality and the reconstruction of the past takes place in The Magicians (La doble vida del faquír), a piece about the reconstruction of an amateur film shot in a orphanage in 1937. By interviewing contemporary witnesses, the makers of this documentary, Elizabet Cabeza and Esteve Riambau, manage to paint a fascinating and vivid picture of the Civil War years, which is quite different from all the one-dimensional and monolithic attempts at historical remembrance bound to take place in the run-up to the 70th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War’s outbreak on 18th July, 2006.