in 18th Guadalajara International Film Festival

by Howard Feinstein

In her fifth feature, Poniente, winner of the first FIPRESCI prize in Guadalajara for Best Iberoamerican Film, Spanish director Chus Gutierrez courageously takes on a subject too infrequently, or too simplistically, addressed in contemporary cinema: prejudice toward immigrant laborers, especially those of color, in Europe. The few directors who have broached the topic have rarely integrated this heated issue so deftly with other dramatic elements in the narrative–an exceptional feat, since many facets are interior, focusing on the workings of the mind. The film is all of a piece.

Not that this is a single issue movie. Besides the racism and xenophobia inherent in the subject, Gutierrez lays on the table an anachronistic prejudice that has nothing to do with foreigners: machismo. She and her co-screenwriter, Iciar Bollain, have drawn a compelling portrait of a young woman caught up in this sociological whirlpool, and a psychological maelstrom of her own.

When her father dies, Lucia (the beautiful, superb Cuca Escribano) interrupts a long spell as a schoolteacher in Madrid to attend his funeral in her small hometown, on the Anadalucian coast, young daughter in tow. The prodigal returns, but she has been away too long to fit into this place of old-fashioned ways of doing and thinking: Her situation is the mirror image of the immigrants’ exile. Gutierrez makes displacement an issue both socioeconomic and metaphysical, and the blend works well. It is hardly surprising that Lucia strongly empathizes with the plight of these mostly Moroccan laborers, unappreciated “guest workers” who hold up the town’s economy by doing the dirtiest work in the greenhouses where fruit is grown year round. The locals even refuse to rent them apartments, to serve them in bars.

The workplace is the site of intersection of Lucia’s personal demons and the social conflict around her. Her father owned a group of greenhouses, and though Lucia is first in line to take over the business, everyone, including Lucia herself, assumes she will depart once again and let one of the male relatives assume the demanding responsibility of heading the company. Yet she feels the need to come to terms with her father’s rejection: He had unfairly held her responsible for the accidental drowning of a young daughter she had had in an earlier relationship before she left – and the reason she left – the town.

(The sea is an important element here: It is where Lucia’s tragedy occurred, yet is the route of enablement for North Africans full of hope for a better life in Spain – another of the bizarre mirror images that adds texture to a tight script.)

How does Lucia handle her oedipal dilemma? By becoming a “man”, by taking on the traditionally male role and remaining to run the enterprise – much to the chagrin of her sexist, and vicious, male cousins. She needs to prove herself to a dead man, whose ghost hovers over her like the sting of the hot ocean breeze.

She is appalled by the townspeoples’ hatred of the foreigners. She makes a special effort to have them treated more humanely than they are accustomed to in the greenhouses. She even dismisses an abusive local foreman, one of several locals she rightfully butts heads with, and who build up animosity toward her. A strong woman who refuses to judge, she has no qualms about befriending the town slut, shunned by everyone else.

Yet she becomes exhausted struggling against unsurmountable odds. She finally opens up to kind, gentle, and handsome Curro (Jose Coronado), the company’s accountant; they embark on a passionate affair. Curro is another “reverse exile”, a man who had left the town to live for many years in Switzerland, where he shed some of the worst characteristics of the local men. To her credit, Gutierrez does not subscribe to facile political correctness. Curro is imperfect: Prejudice seeps out every now and then, and he refuses to encourage Lucia’s losing battle to maintain a profitable business. Yet they love and accept each other.

Tension in the town mounts when the foreign laborers in all of the area companies attempt to organize into a collective bargaining unit. No longer is the villagers’ hatred kept under wraps. An unscrupulous male relative of Lucia’s, one of those who had thought he would inherit the family business, uses rogue foreign workers to destroy her greenhouses. Another brilliant social/psychological tie-up: The man’s son, whom Lucia is trying to help after he has his own paternal battle, is asleep inside when they set fire to one of the structures.

A complete conflagration ensues, meticulously orchestrated by the director and beautifully photographed by Carles Gusi. Not knowing about his son, Lucia’s cousin urges the others to physically attack the foreigners – not that they need much encouragement. Curro is the only one who tries to stop the townspeople from acting irrationally, but he is beaten up badly for his efforts. Although Gutierrez lacks the courage to take the romance to its logical, tragic conclusion, she ends the ugly social strife on a poignant, haunting note, without a tacked-on, unrealistic optimism. The worn-down immigrants, in circumstances very different from those of Lucia and Curro years before, also leave the stifling town. They walk on the beach, their earlier hopes dashed, on their way to boats for Morocco, where at least they and their families will find a safe, friendly environment – even if it means a return to impoverishment.