In the beautiful Basque country, the 71st San Sebastian Film Festival maintained its innovative spirit, and audacious political character.
This year’s the Golden Shell Award went to Spanish director Jaione Camborda for The Rye Horn. A film about solidarity and sisterhood set during the Franco regime. Maria, a solitary midwife, who lives on an island near Galicia, secretly helps young women terminate their pregnancies, but when one of her patients dies, she must flee to Portugal. The escape drives her out of solitude, as always, a woman comes forward to help. The whole movie merges landscapes and character with such force that, once seen, you will never forget it. A quiet, yet highly dramatic film, that doesn’t try for polemic but simply tells what looks very much like the unalloyed truth. Its win, however, was unexpected as it is fairly a conventional production.
The festival showcased a great swarm of contemporary Latin American movies; their strength and diversity have been evident in these three Argentinian movies: Puan, The Practise (La Práctica) and Blondie.
Puan by Benjamín Naishatat and María Alché, is the story of a university professor, Marcello Pena who has devoted his life teaching philosophy at the Public University of Buenos Aires. A prodigious thinker, but a clumsy man, living in a modest house with his activist wife.
When his mentor, Professor Caselli dies unexpectedly, Marcello is the most obvious candidate for head of Department. However, his plans turn upside down with the surprising appearance of another protégé, charismatic and sexy, Rafael Sujarchuk.
Extremely funny and light-hearted, the whole story seems to revolve around the empty seat of the head of the department, but the development instead sees the closing of the faculty, and the academic solidarity between students.
The result is a remarkable political film that offers strong support for the cause of public education. A highly entraining comedy, that has a powerful message against the Argentina far-right presidential candidate going into elections in October with Javier Milei’s plans to abolish free healthcare and privatise the education system.
Also, Puan has many clever references and reflections on Argentine society, the fixed idea of the subalternity of its thinkers, always in dutiful position regarding the philosophers of France and Germany, and the arrogance of considering themselves superior to the rest of the Latin America, revealed in a scene where Marcelo mistakes a Bolivian Professor for a cleaner.
Another Argentinian filmmaker Martin Rejtman escapes Argentina, setting his new film in Chile, as if to find a neutral terrain, far from the tumultuous political climate. The Practice sees yoga teacher Gustavo become obsessed with an absurd cult of wellness. An entertaining comedy, packed with jokes, but beneath the humour Rejtman makes deeper points. It seems impossible for Gustavo to escape tensions and problems, he must face a broken knee, earthquakes and most of all his scared to live.
Blondie is a promising début by young female director Dolores Fonzi who questions the role of the mother in modern Argentina. A teenage mother struggles to care for her daughter and seeks support from her mother and sister. Absent the strictures of fascist traditionalism, a new family balance has to be built, not vertical but horizontal, with a new assessment of responsibilities and duty, one based on solidarity and real bonds.
It is an excellent first feature because of its care and refusal to indulge its audience with either sentiment or melodrama. A wholly remarkable film, despite the imperfections of a debut. In fact, even the imperfections are significant.
It is a masterpiece of inventive animated fantasy, which very well captures the tragic end of a talented and innocent musician, who his accusation in the end seems to be his comradeship and intellectual ‘communist tendency,’ kidnapped and murdered on the way to buy a sandwich.
Born in 1953, San Sebastián Film festival increasingly had to balance tradition and innovation to survive financially while remaining a stalwart showcase for imaginative and challenging work.
Rita Di Santo
© FIPRESCI 2023