Strawberries In Pale Color

in 20th Black Nights Film Festival, Tallinn

by Senem Aytac

Winner of the FIPRESCI award, Gentle Breath (Suave El Aliento) is the debut by young Colombian director, Augusto Sandino. The film tells the interwoven stories of a few people from three generations over a single day. The almost black and white cinematography introduces us to urban Bogotá, where the emotional lives of several individuals from the same family and their relationships with their beloved ones comes into focus. The particular day in which the story evolves –even though represented as any other ordinary-day setting– is in fact a special day for Laura, the youngest of the family. It is her “quinceañera”, the celebration of her so-called “initiation into womanhood,” her entrance into adulthood. The rest of the characters are introduced through their respective relations to her and her birthday; yet it is neither the familial ties nor the particularly physical space-time that brings all these characters together. It is rather their feelings and certain themes that help us form a mental picture of everyone together in a single tableau. This is a tableau of not only a Colombian working-class family, but also a broader picture of gender relations and power structures embedded within relationships of all sorts across the globe. Therefore, although the events somehow revolve around Laura’s 15th birthday celebrations, the multidimensional characters are never portrayed all together in a single shot, but mostly as couples in their romance bubbles, or in their relentless loneliness regardless of their company.

Laura, finding out her pregnancy on this very day, has to find ways to deal with this burgeoning ‘womanhood’ in her life. Her mother, who runs a hairdresser’s and raises Laura on her own, is saddened by the feeling of not being able to communicate with her daughter. Her ex-husband Rafael, father of Laura, is suffering from depression for a very long time now; he has nothing to offer to his ex-wives and children, except a sad song he performs for her daughter. On the other hand, Dolores, the mother of Rafael and grandmother of Laura, is trying to make the most of her personal life, probably after years of raising children and taking care of everyone. She is now alone, making an effort to enjoy a new life with her long-time lover.

In each of these stories, a self-indulgent, self-oriented man blatantly appears when you scratch the surface a little. Either a 15-year old adolescent male in love with himself, or a depressed father, or an imprudent romantic of an older age, the men of Gentle Breath are so into themselves that they do not really see the women before them. But, Gentle Breath’s strength is found in its approach to these characters and in its compassion towards all of them, while remaining honest and truthful to the reality of their relationships.

In many scenes where lovers meet in single long takes, they are mostly surrounded by mirrors, as if they are being forced to see themselves through their reflection. The mirrors also seem to populate the setting for yet another reason: They create frames within frames and isolate each character from others so that they appear solitary even when they have company within the same shot. The mise-en-scène, thus, perfectly reflects the characters’ inability to reach out to each other.

Towards the end of the film, we see Dolores, the oldest and the most experienced of the women in the film, eating the strawberries gifted by her lover, in the bus alone when travelling to her granddaughter’s quinceañera. After what happens to be one of the most striking scenes of the film, i.e. a very long take where Dolores refuses an utterly delayed and therefore heartbreaking marriage proposal, she decides to enjoy the strawberries of her lover, no matter what. The pale color of strawberries, even though barely noticeable, somehow sets the film’s general mood: enjoying the faint color in a black and white world.

In this film, the inner experiences that the characters undergo, especially the women’s suffering due to the unnoticeably and unintentionally cruel treatment of their beloved men, are depicted in a very subtle cinematic language. Gentle Breath emits a modest and fresh breeze which unveils all the intricate ways of loving, caring, listening and seeing someone – that is, being with someone.

Edited by Steven Yates