As one of the biggest and most important film festivals in Spain, SEMINCI (Semana International de Cine de Valladolid) is a perfect place to see excellent selections of films, since most of them, in varied and plentiful sections, come previously awarded from three mayor European festivals (Cannes, Berlin, Venice), which means the audience had the chance to view these smart-set movies, alongside many others: this year’s focus was on Irish cinema, and there were retrospectives devoted to Pier Paolo Pasolini and Juan Antonio Bardem. On top of that, SEMINCI unsurprisingly provided new feature, short, and documentary Spanish films. That said, the main feature competition was truly a bounty of films in different genres from all around the globe. The 21 movies shown in this selection diverge in many ways, so, to reverse a famous proverb, here quantity does beget quality. The focus of this article will be on two excellent movies: Return to Dust (which received the Golden Spike, the festival’s highest award), and Emotional Architecture 1959 (Arquitectura emocional 1959), which earned the award for Best Short Film.
The Chinese film Return to Dust (Yin ru chen yan), directed by Li Ruijun, is a simple and clear-cut story of a humble couple, inconspicuous Ma and shy Cao, who have been forced into an arranged marriage. Living in poor conditions, they have to combine their strengths to build a home and to survive. In the face of much adversity, an unexpected bond begins to blossom, as both Ma and Cao, aligning with the Earth’s cycles, create a haven for themselves in which they can thrive. Li tells a story about eternal love against the odds with cinematographic elegance: the movie is beautifully shot, with picturesque landscapes and the images of the shifting seasons; the editing is subtle and the story is conveyed effectively; it has strong artistic atmosphere and the actors embody their characters very well. One of the film’s main features is its rhythm: this is a slow film, because it tends to its characters carefully, telling their story in such a gentle way as to leave viewers with a bitter sorrow. This is not only because of the film’s focus on disadvantaged groups in rural China, whose existence is easily ignored because of their generally low education level and erasure from mainstream media; it is also a powerful portrait of a loving couple who appreciate the small joys of life while peacefully accepting life’s hardships—this is why we are deeply touched seeing their society grind them into the dust in pursuit of questionable goals. This is the second layer of the film: it is a subtle but powerful critique of the Chinese government, revealing a relentless capitalist scuttle for riches in today’s China, despite its pronouncements of a communist “equality for all.” People are encouraged to move to colossal, inhumane apartment towers when their homes are demolished, farms are flooded for massive hydroelectric projects, and artisans are replaced by machines and factories. One of the best scenes in the film, which also appears on the film’s official poster, is when Cao lovingly cradles a little cardboard lightbox with holes that make their room appear like it is full of stars, and Ma places shells on her wrist in the shape of flowers. This humble box shows us that happiness is finding pleasure and wonder in everything that surrounds us, against all odds.
Emotional Architecture 1959, directed by Elías León Siminiani, tells the love story of Sebas and Andrea, first-year students at Madrid University. With gentleness and wit, Siminiani manages to show us how architecture ends up dictating emotions in a society where social class and ideology are insurmountable obstacles. The main idea of this short film is that architecture completely mediates our personal relationships, either creating conflicts or facilitating their resolution. The peculiarities of the urban design affect the protagonists’ daily lives and the love story that could arise between them. Using archival images from newspapers, photos, plans, and maps of the streets of Madrid, and combining them with staged material, or more precisely, dramatic reconstructions—i.e.: a relationship between people from different social background—Siminiani narrates a love story between two students who met during the 1958-1959 academic year thanks to the lonely bench in front of the faculty. The viewer then accompanies the characters on a walk through the city, revealing the luxurious building in which the woman lives, while the man withholds details about his own residence. We will later see that his dwelling is far from the city centre, in a part of town constructed for the purpose of easier access to housing for less affluent citizens. This is basically a story of how architecture, politics, and romance—seemingly unrelated concepts—are being inextricably linked, creating constant synergies both in the characters’ everyday lives and a larger historical context.
Edited by José Teodoro
© FIPRESCI 2022