There's Always a First Time

in 28th Toronto International Film Festival

by Sheila Benson

A first FIPRESCI experience has a trajectory somewhere between a love affair and Kubler-Ross’s five steps of dying. At first you are dazzled by the possibilities of what may lie ahead. Then, as you cross off one or another necessary quality that seems to be lacking in the beloved (style, taste, freshness, wit, coherence), the joy seems to seep out of the affair, and it’s straight Kubler-Ross time. Denial that a film this bad is in any festival anywhere; anger that your own hopes for a promising director have fallen apart so quickly; bargaining with the cinema gods (“Make this one work, and I’ll never write anything bad about Quentin Tarantino again”), and depression at having staggered to an 8:30 a.m. screening for this.

However, the last stage is where critics and Dr. Ross part: in our case, acceptance is a high point, not the despairing end of the line. To stumble upon one high, clear easy choice seems to validate all the hopes you carry for the cinema, year after year.

Achero Mañas’ genuinely provocative November was that validation: not only does it have freshness, style and exceptional performances, but its central message that art must remain free and independent if it is to be a real vehicle of social conscience seems more urgent today than ever.

In his story of a group of young Spanish would-be actors who reject the old-style psychological methods of the city’s prestigious acting school, and take to the streets, Mañas is particularly successful in the pungency and inventiveness of these street creations. They have to be good and they have to be performed expertly or our whole belief in this fledgling troupe, “November” collapses. Fortunately they’re brilliant: fast-paced pieces of outdoor theatre which are by turns funny, ribald, provocative, confrontational and even dangerous (following them, Juan Carlos Gomez’s camerawork is as nimble and fluid as the actors.) Among the bits, their piece based on the characters in Los Olividados is a witty highlight.

Sparkplug and conscience of the company is Alfredo Baeza, played by a slim, fox-faced theatre virtuoso, Oscar Jaenada, whose first film this is. Every member of the November troupe is exceptional, particularly Ingrid Rubio as Alfredo’s lover Lucia, yet the magnetic Jaenada has an extra bite of authority.

Contrasting the youth and energy of the young troupe are a chorus of commentators, speaking from roughly 40 years in the future. Functioning – and photographed — a little like the “witnesses” from Reds, these actors are themselves veterans of El Piojo Picon, a free theatre troupe of the Seventies (Angel Facio, Juan Margallo, Paloma Lorena and Juan Diego are among them.)

Most crucially, Mañas lets us see November’s actions through the prism of today’s sobering experiences, world-wide. So at the same time we might applaud Alfredo’s rap against art-as-business, our hearts are in our throats when he pulls out a prop gun, at a performance attended by a government leader. Mañas’ gift is such that even the most idealistic of us can see both sides, with terrible clarity.