The Last Pintxo

in 52nd San Sebastian International Film Festival

by Horacio Bernades

Saturday, the 25th of September 2004, 21:30. As the ‘Good Film Reviewer’s Manual’ advises, I avoid, convinced of what I am doing, the closing ceremony of the 52nd International San Sebastian Film Festival. Or Nazioarteko Zinemaldia, to say it in Basque, probably the language less similar to Spanish that exists in the whole world. Then I put myself into what it would be my last cinema session, before my melancholic return back home. The chosen film is Innocence by Lucille Hadzihalilovic. Why did I choose it? Maybe because of the unpronounceable surname that comes with it, the fact that Lucille is Gaspar Noé’s wife (what points out that any kind of stimulating abnormality has to exist in her film), or even perhaps because Innocence won the Altadis-New Directors prize. Concerning this last, what attracted me was not so much the prize in itself. After all, out of every discussion, the best I have seen in San Sebastian is not directed by a 20 year-old boy but by an old man around 80: I am referring to Mooladé by Ousmane Sembene. No. What has made me decide in choosing Innocence as my own closing for the festival (a delicate moment to be discerned with supreme care) was the composition of the jury that gave this award. In it, among others, was Nick James, director of Sight and Sound, and my compatriot the writer, scriptwriter and cultural journalist Alan Pauls. Whose cinematographic taste is so exquisite that from Godard until today the cinema of all kind tends to appeal stupid, banal and not commendable to him. Something had to have Innocence if it had turned to be a remarkable one for them.

Of course that there was something in it. It had, in fact, quite more than most of the films that I have seen this year in San Sebastian. Specially considering that this last must have been the best San Sebastian edition in years. Innocence had more than Silver City, the new one by John Sayles, whose mockeries to Bush seem to have been conceived by a Robert Altman who was not in one of his best days. And that gives the Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 9-11 the status of a contemporary Plautus or Molière. It had more than the last film by Guédiguian, in which the Marius et Jeanette‘s director tries to solve his total creative paralysis with a badly armed bric-à-brac that becomes an apology to self-indulgence. Innocence had also more (or less, it depends on one’s own approach to it) than the glorified winner of the Concha de Oro, Turtles Can Fly, by the Iranian Bahman Ghobadi. This is a film set in a Kurdish refugee camp and starred by mutilated children, a girl of around 11 or 12 who was raped by Saddam’s soldiers a couple of years before and the result of this episode, a blind little boy whose mother tries to abandon or murder while he weeps, has a running nose and cries for help during the whole of the feature.

Bahman Ghobadi’s film, applauded, celebrated and glorified unanimously as no other presented in San Sebastian has been this year, includes the perfect equivalent to that ‘Kapo’s travelling’ that plunged Jacques Rivette into indignation during the sixties, and later did the same to Serge Daney. This goes for a sequence of about 5 minutes, in which the little blind bastard walks through a mined field while focusing on his little feet among the mines. Until one of them explodes. If having been the Big Jury headed not by Mario Vargas Llosa but by Alfred Hitchcock, who never finished in regretting completely to have done such a similar thing in Sabotage (1936), another one would probably have received the Concha de Oro. Just at the Antipodes of that planet made from television allegories, run out speeches and brutalities made up to win prizes, Innocence resulted to be the balm that I needed before returning back home.

Innocence is Miss Hadzihalilovic’s second film (I expect to have written it correctly), a girl of about 6 feet 7 inches, taller than her husband but the same as him in not having as qualities of her own sociability nor talkativeness. The difference between Noé and H. is that, while the first tends to mumble the quickest possible, the second stays like petrified in front of who tells her, for example: ‘Congratulations for your film’. Innocence is based on a story by Frank Wedekind, Mine-Haha, or The Corporal Education of Young Girls, and its atmosphere (as it happened with the tone for Pandora’s Box, by the same author) can be described as filled with ‘a suffocated perversity’. Hadzihalilovic’s film builds a permanent and increasing sensation that something is going to happen, but in a slow tempo at the same time, which highlights its air of diffuse perversity. All these finally subverts its climate, because of its excessive complacency, in all those pleased half-smiles that the teachers show, as well as their pupils at the boarding school where the action takes place, a kind of fuori dal mondo in the middle of a forest somewhere. But nothing happens, beyond 3 or 4 small isolated and low-grade incidents. Besides the lack of sadism neither perversion shown by the governesses: the film by H. moves their viewers towards a state of suspicion, latency, conjecture, that never reaches to completely satisfy them.

In other words, the planet in which Innocence was situated had nothing to do with the one for a San Sebastian film festival, gained by the unanimous obviousness and denunciation. Neither it was the planet called One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, luckily. The audience’s reaction, the ones that filled the beautiful and big theatre in the Kursaal 2, was the expected: a progressive and sustained escape. The few that remained protested when the film finished and looked at each other while visibly snorting on their way out. I did what corresponds to the alone and absolute minority: I went away discretely and in silence, keeping for myself the flavour of the film that I just have watched. However, I did a mistake, in a bar nearby. When I was Ieaning forward to take my last Rioja and devour my last pintxos (those typical tapas in San Sebastian, overflowing with seafood) at the barra, I have noticed that my neighbour on the left was the same person that has preceded me when queuing up for the film. Perhaps I was mislead by this coincidence, because I excessively wanted to find someone of my kind, but I supposed that the boy was one of mine’s and who knows why I put on him the quality of an Innocence fan. ‘You were at the cinema, don’t you?’, I threw on him imagining that he liked the film. ‘Well, fuck’, he started. ‘A terrible one, isn’t it? I was just wondering if I have ever seen something worse than that before in my life, and the thing is that I believe I don’t!’.

At that precise moment it came to my mind that I have listened to similar things in my country regarding films like La ciénaga (The Swamp, Lucrecia Martel, 2001), La niña santa (The Holy Girl, Lucrecia Martel, 2004), Japón (Japan, Carlos Reygadas, 2002) or Intervención divina. (Yadon Ilaheyya / Intervention divine, Elia Suleiman, 2002). I finished my last glass of Rioja, ate my last pintxo made of crab, paid for both and went away with my hands in my pockets. I started to bitterly remember then that every festival is nothing but a bubble, and that, even in a film festival, best films can turn out to be a bubble inside a bubble. Plus that in the outside, there, in the street, life and films are just something different.

Horacio Bernades