Winging in from the Iberian Peninsula come seven Spanish films ready to roost at the 2011 Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF). I'll admire this flock in alphabetical order.
Anything You Want / Todo lo que tú quieras (Achero Mañas, Spain)—Landing in PSIFF's World Cinema Now sidebar, this Spanish dramedy had its International Premiere at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, where I had the chance to watch it. In her official description for TIFF, Diana Sanchez commented: "In a world where parental responsibilities continue to follow traditional gender roles, Achero Mañas's third feature imagines how a father might respond to being thrust into a role traditionally held by a woman." That opportunity arrives when four year-old Dafne's life becomes unhinged after the sudden death of her mother Alicia. Her father Leo (in a brave turn by Juan Diego Botto) tries to be both father and mother to her, but Dafne (adorable Lucía Fernández) really just wants her mom. Leo strives to be just that, and in the process, nearly loses his own identity. "As displayed in his previous work," Sanchez praised, "Mañas has the ability to strike an emotional chord that audiences can relate to, while also presenting morally complex situations with intelligence and compassion. His latest film conveys some wonderful messages about love, tolerance and acceptance. ...Anything You Want demonstrates the power of unconditional love."
It also—in my humble opinion—tests the power of unconditional patience. As much as I wanted to appreciate Anything You Want, I couldn't get past its fatuous and somewhat ingenuine premise. Dafne's handsome father Leo dresses in drag to help his little girl overcome the trauma of her mother's death and—in order to "look" the part—solicits the help of an aging female impersonator (who he can barely stand to be in the same room with) to help him dress and apply his make-up correctly. An admittedly sentimental confection—how can you not admire a father who wants to protect his daughter so earnestly? The "aw" factor is immense!—I doggedly kept up with the film's costume changes and gender acrobatics until the father promises his daughter the titular "anything you want" and begins to dress in drag in public all throughout his work day. This went beyond silly and began to feel insulting. I mean, c'mon.... What? Four-year-old Dafne's spying on Dad at work? I just couldn't accept that Leo wouldn't know the consequences of dressing as a woman in public. His naivete struck me as sheer parental irresponsibility, for which it appears he will be held accountable in the film's final sequence (as the sirens approach). Just what this little girl needs: to have her dad taken away for not respecting anybody's boundaries, including the film's audience. IMDb. Facebook.
Black Bread / Pa Negre (Agustí Villaronga, Spain)—Also situated in World Cinema Now, PSIFF synopsizes: "In the harsh post-Civil War years in rural Catalonia, a shockingly vicious attack takes place. Ten-year-old Andreu (Francesc Colomer) encounters the victims, a father and son. Leaning over the dying boy, Andreu hears him whisper "Pitorliu"—the name of a monster supposedly haunting the village. When Andreu's father is wrongly accused of the murder, the boy sets out to find the real killers and brings to light long hidden secrets. The film's violent opening is an apt foreshadowing of the brutal coming-of-age in store for Andreu in a world of adults nourished by lies, myths and wicked revelations. One of the most creative and individual Spanish filmmakers of his generation, Agustí Villaronga's adaptation of a novel by Emil Teixidor keeps the story moving relentlessly to dark and sinister places while questioning the decency of the human spirit. The breathtaking cinematography and a brilliant ensemble cast made Black Bread one of the best and most discussed films at the 2010 San Sebastian Film Festival."
Dispatching from San Sebastian to The Jigsaw Lounge, Neil Young notes that Nora Navas won Best Actress for her role as the put-upon wife of an anti-Francoist farmer in 1944 Catalonia. Over all, however, he found Black Bread to be "a fairly stodgy tearjerker with mild supernatural touches that nod to Spanish-language forerunners such as Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth and Erice's enduringly seminal 1970s classic The Spirit of the Beehive. Such comparisons are decidedly not to the advantage of Black Bread." Ronald Bergan suffers the same comparisons at MUBI, where he notes those movies "say much more in a less obvious and direct way" and complains that Black Bread is a "never-ending rambling melodrama which pretends to be making a statement on Franco's Spain, but muddies the water with a rights-of-passage drama, 'shocking' sequences, a folk tale of a monster, and a boy that wants to fly. Unfortunately, the film never lives up to its first impressive sequence of someone being killed by a hooded man, and a horse toppling over a cliff." Official website [Spanish]. IMDb. Facebook.
Born to Suffer / Nacidas para sufrir (Miguel Albaladejo, Spain)—Again, in PSIFF's World Cinema Now sidebar, this darkly humorous tale proves the bonds of family are stronger than those of commerce and that the suffering theatrics of mothers—especially in competition—have the strongest grip of all. Official website [Spanish]. IMDb.
Even the Rain / Tambien la lluvia (Icíar Bollaín, Spain / France / Mexico)—Though not officially listed in PSIFF's Awards Buzz program, Even the Rain is Spain's official submission to the Foreign Language category of the Academy Awards®. It had its World Premiere in the Contemporary World Cinema program at TIFF 2010, where—unfortunately—I missed it; I'm grateful to catch up to it at PSIFF. Essentially a film about hope, Diana Sanchez writes in her official description for TIFF: "Focusing on the continuing exploitation of Latin America, Bollaín shows the inspirational change that is possible when people band together to fight injustice." The injustice in question is the Cochabamba Water Crisis of 2000 when the Bolivian government decided to privatize the water company, resulting in a 300% increase in water costs. With its narrative premise being that of filmmaker Sebastian (Gael García Bernal) and his film crew arriving in Cochabamba to make a cost-effective film on Christopher Columbus's first voyage to the Americas and finding themselves mired in local protests, Even the Rain effectively blurs the line between fiction and film, past and present. As Sanchez writes: "Effective on many levels, this film within a film draws subtle parallels between the exploitation of the past and the continued exploitation of Latin America by richer countries and multinational corporations. Bollaín's thoughts on the introspection inherent in filmmaking, or in any work of art, are expressed through Sebastian. He has only the best intentions of denouncing the injustices of the past, but little patience for the present dilemma, especially when it starts to impede his shooting schedule."
At Exclaim!, Christine Estima writes: "This is a bad place we are in, you and I, make no mistake; the world darkens on a daily basis and it seems only a matter of time before the stars themselves go out. Most movies I see take perverse delight in screaming into the void, but while Even The Rain screams, it also attempts to make the void that much smaller." Official website [Spanish]. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.
For 80 Days / 80 egunean (Jon Garaño & José Mari Goenaga, Spain)—Situated in PSIFF's World Cinema Now sidebar, in For 80 Days the nuance of an intense childhood friendship is re-explored decades later when two old friends are unexpectedly reunited. While visiting their respective relatives in a shared room of a San Sebastian hospital, two women reconnect some 50 years after their childhood friendship commenced. Official site [Spanish]. IMDb. Facebook.
Garbo: The Spy (Edmon Roch, Spain)—Programmed in True Stories (PSIFF's documentary sidebar), Garbo: The Spy offers a fascinating account of an extraordinary Spanish double agent during WWII who helped change the course of history. Garbo: The Spy (aka Garbo, the Man Who Saved the World or Garbo: El Espia) premiered at the Rome Film Festival in October 2009 and concerns Operation Fortitude, codename for the deception operations used by the Allied forces during World War II in connection with the Normandy landings. Fortitude was one of the most successful deception operations of the war and arguably the most important, engineered by the Spanish-born double-agent Juan Pujol—the Nazis called him Alaric; the British called him Garbo.
As Julia Barbosa wrote in her program capsule for the San Francisco International Film Festival: "Garbo the spy successfully worked for both the Allies and the Third Reich partly due to the credibility he earned through his impressive knowledge of classified information—information he accounted for with reference to a web of 27 fictitious subagents, supposedly under his command. Honored as a hero on both sides at the end of the war, Pujol subsequently disappeared. Rumor had it he died in 1949 after contracting malaria in Angola—until he was discovered more than 30 years later living a new life, yet again, in Venezuela. Telling the incredible story of this secret agent, who British Intelligence named Garbo for being the 'greatest actor in the world,' director Edmon Roch relies on a collection of eloquent interviews that fluidly guide the viewer through the many lives of a true master at the art of deception. Imaginatively mixing these with archival footage and excerpts from spy films to create a suspenseful and witty tone, Roch constructs a narrative that not only deciphers a fascinatingly complex character but ultimately implicates the documentary process itself in its analysis of the truths to be won from a canny mixture of facts and fictions." Official website [Spanish]. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.
Paper Birds / Pájaros de Papel (Emilio Aragón, Spain)—Programmed in PSIFF's New Voices / New Visions, Paper Birds is a touching tale of the bonds of friendship amongst the members of a traveling entertainment troupe in post-civil war Spain. The film celebrates the lost art of vaudeville and features superb performances by Spanish acting royalty Imanol Arias, Lluís Homar and Carmen Machi. Winner, Audience Award, Montreal World Film Festival.
At the Montreal Gazette, Bill Brownstein enjoys synopsizing the plot and concludes: "As added bonuses, the acting is inspired, the choreography and costuming are stunning and the cinematography is exquisite." Official site [Spanish]. IMDb. Facebook [Spanish].
Cross-published on Twitch.