Balada Triste

Alex de la Iglesia :: Spain, France :: 2010 :: 1h47

(UK: The Last Circus)

While still a boy, Sergio sees his father -a clown in a circus- taken away to fight the fascists in the Spanish civil war. Years later, growing up in the unpleasant world under dictator Franco, the boy, appropriately, takes on the role of a “Sad Clown” at a circus. But there it hits him like a human cannonball: the beautiful trapeze artist Natalia. Unfortunately, she is already entangled in a love-hate relationship with the cruel and violent head-clown Javier. Perhaps even more unfortunately, she has a desperate taste for danger. Through the turbulent and dark world in which they find themselves, the two rival clowns battle it out.

Let me be absolutely clear about this: this movie is captivating from the first scene to the end. If you have seen Dia de la Bestia, you know what the director is capable of. Well, here the dark humour is possibly even darker, the images even more outrageous and the story takes you places you would not believe if you were not there to see it for yourself. When a movie opens with a clown slashing through fascist soldiers with a machete, you know you are in for a ride! Expect no visual mercy from this perfectly crafted downward spiral of killer clowns into the depths of the imagination where anything can happen.



Roberto Caston :: Spain :: 2009 :: 2h08

Deep in the forgotten countryside of the Spanish Basque country, Ander (Joxean Bengoetxea), a balding forty-something, lives with his mother and sister on their family farm. If he’s not working the hilly land, running errands or doing chores, he’s at the factory nearby. His monotonous life is cut up by random meetings with a brutish neighbour with whom he can get drunk and visit the village prostitute Reme.

In a bid to keep up their traditional way if life, Ander’s austere mother shames him for not getting married. She does this not so much for concern for his happiness, but rather to bring in a helping hand on the farm. It has become even more of an issue when his sister announced she getting married. So, not only will she marry before him, but she will move out, leaving him all alone to tend to the business of the farm. To make matters worse, Ander breaks his leg in an accident. His brother-in-law introduces them to Peruvian labourer Jose, to help out while he’s down. The good-looking, gentle, perfectly mannered hard working young man fits in perfectly. Maybe even a little too perfectly.

Ander is thrilled by Jose’s company, not realising that he is falling in love with him. A sexual incident occurs sparking what could be the beginning of a relationship. Ander is consumed with fear and confusion. Attraction, rejection and frustration then battle it out in an internal conflict. And then, Ii his simple life was not already shaken up enough, his mother dies.

The story could be classed an unconventional homosexual coming of age drama, but the film offers much more. It is also a rare glimpse into a traditional rural Basque life, which may not be around that much longer. The film takes you through to the slow decline of a way of life, without regrets but without much accusation either. As the modern world permeates into the countryside, the old ways erode. Society changes – factory work complements farm incomes, the infiltration of drug issues, depopulation, traditional family structures and values change. Even language changes. While Ander’s mother spoke only Basque, her children are perfectly bilingual Spanish. And their children… may actually have trouble speaking Basque at all. There is a certain sadness in the ending of an old way of life, but it is also clear that the new way – more open to other family constructs, centred around feelings and desire rather than custom, speaking an international language rather than a local one – have their merits too.

The film manages to trace the developments of both Ander and the traditional rural culture around him without too much stereotyping. There are, however, some weaknesses too: Jose is too perfect to be real, manoeuvring his way through the cultural minefield better than a native and the brutish neighbour appears too brutish, even for a brute. These two imperfections cumulate in one of the last scenes which just crop up too suddenly in a film which has taken such care to be thorough. A pity, but I can forgive the blemish.

It has been a pleasure to watch a film which manages to portray Basque rural life so credibly, taking us through the challenges they face in the persona of Ander. An excellent first feature film for Roberto Caston. You can be sure that this is not the last time you are hearing of him.

El Niño Pez

El Niño PezEl Niño Pez
Lucia Puenzo :: Spain, Argentina, France :: 2009 :: 1h36

Lala (Inés Efron), the daughter of a judge, lives with her family in Buenos Aires. When she is 13 years old, a young outgoing Paraguayan girl by the name Guayi, comes to work in their house  as a maid. It is love at first sight, with their relationship blooming as they grow up. When they reach early adulthood their dreams of living on the shores of the Paraguayan lake Ypoa are on the verge of becoming reality, but a series of dreadful events changes everything, as they cascade into their lives. Going from bad to worse, desperation reaches Lala’s heart, fuelling her determination to get them out.

Two years ago, director Lucia Puenzo had surprised us with the intimate special-girl-growing-up drama XXY and her theme here seems to set off in the same direction. But El Nino Pez (The Fish Child) takes us off on an unexpected tangent. Although it starts off as delving into the complexities of love across the social class barrier, very quickly you find out that that is not where you are being taken. As the story unfolds, we see more and more of the general awkward relationship between the locals and their guest workers, actually sinking into the depths of depravity.

El Nino Pez gives a bleak view of Argentinian society, as  a nation collapsing under the weight of its impotence to protect its people. The corollary of such anarchistic society is that it brings out the worst in people – through the actions of some and the silence of others. You can take comfort in the power the love story, but their love also proves one other thing: that it is not enough for us all. (

La Vida Loca

LaVidaLocaLa Vida Loca
Christian Poveda :: France, Mexico, Spain :: 2009 :: 1h30

In stark contrast to the tranquility of the little painted houses in a tree-lined suburban housing estate in El Salvador, a violent gang culture permanently kills, maims or has jailed the young of the community. With a rate of 9 murders a day amongst the young, the country is caught in a massive gang feud. The gangs, and the feud, originate from the 1980s run-down south central Los Angeles. The problem could have been contained, considers Poveda, were it not that in 1996, the US government (under Clinton) decided to send 100,000 convicted gang members from US prisons to central America. Combined with a foreign policy of supporting dictatorships and financing civil wars, the scene has been set for human tragedy.

The fearless photographer and documentary-maker Christian Poveda submerges himself into central America a decade later, into the underbelly of society. He managed to get permission from the Salvadorian police and one of the gangs, the “18”, to follow them in their lives. Four years later, La Vida Loca sees the light, taking you along the path of violent outcasts of society. And it is very different to what you might imagine.

The documentary takes us from the unfolding of someone’s life to their funeral after a shooting. It is an endless spiral of gang violence, with seemingly no point to the gang war whatsoever, other than that of having an enemy to unite them. Joining a gang is not even an alternative employer for the poor, as the gang does not offer any external symbols of success (wealth, privilege, whatever). In fact, the gang does not seem to offer anything at all but the prospect of death, jail or invalidity. Hardly the attractive option, but these youths are already broken by their lives. And change becomes inevitable with the gang tattoos (voluntary or forced) marking their allegiance. Once you are have your face covered in tattoos, you can no longer send your CV anywhere. They can not back down.

The film lets the youths talk for themselves. They talk about their broken pasts, of growing up without the guiding support of a family. They speak of the love they get from the gang. They talk, with a peculiar detachment, of passing from one social service (juvenile detention) to another (jail), exposing an existential loneliness at the impoverished fringe in which they live. The gang might not offer the flash of fast cars, bikinis and swimming pools, but it does offer loyalty, stability and a shared suffering. The love of the gang is a love which fills an emotional void, giving them a sense of belonging amongst their peers. The gang is so much an end in itself that its members do not even fear death for it, but rather they expect it. The gang is not the path to wealth, status or happiness but rather a goal in itself. An end. But their fearlessness does not come from a feeling of superiority, what you might expect, but rather from an all-round stunted emotional development born out of their misery. They are phlegmatic, almost accepting their fate as a given. And hence they can tattoo themselves, as a confirmation of their fate, as whatever should befall them would befall them anyway.

But some do try. Christian Poveda follows a re-insertion programme, where ex-gang members try to set up a bakery. We see them, the tattoo-ed ex-bullies, kneading the dough, we know they are serious about doing the right thing, of trying to improve their lives despite expectations. We see them pray, and talk with priests, but it is as if the words just float over their heads. When push comes to shove, who knows what they will do.

As tragic as the lives of the gang members are, as surprising it is to see that there is a normal society outside the walls of their lives. When they get hurt, they find themselves in a capable hospital, with all health services paid for by the state. When they find themselves in court, they are confronted with seemingly capable legal actors. When they are confronted with the police, they seem professional and organised. You might expect the gangsters to be aggressive ego-tripping characters, perhaps even with dubious contacts in the judiciary, but they are not like that at all. At least, they are not presented that way. When they are stopped by the police, they let themselves be searched or taken. When in court, they hear the court’s verdicts stoically, accepting their fate as givens. Of course it is that same stoicism which makes them untouchable, even from punishment. Everything is pointless.

Seeing the film today, so shortly after director Christian Poveda was shot dead in El Salvador, makes the film all the more moving. It is a unique chance to meet people you will never meet, and hear words you will never hear spoken. A look into a violent, criminal subculture normally hidden from view. A testament to a culture which so badly needs understanding, to, hopefully, one day rest in the past.

Etreintes brisées

Etreintes briséesLos abrazos rotos

Pedro Almodovar :: Spain :: 2008 :: 2h09

Harry Caine (Lluìs Homar) is a writer living his life comfortably in Madrid with his agent and friend Judit and helped by her son Diego. But his blindness, which hides the visible world from him, also protects him from seeing his tragic past. Till the fateful day they are confronted with Ernesto Junior, a figure set to re-awaken the life they once had.

The serene Harry Caine was not always Harry Caine, and he was not always blind either. In his previous life, he was a talented movie director with the name Mateo Blanco. And it was this Mateo who had fallen hopelessly in love on the set with the beautiful actress Lena (Penélope Cruz). Unfortunately, she was already claimed by a desperately jealous tycoon Ernesto Senior, who seems to spend more of his time guarding over Lena than he does managing his empire. By now you will understand that the movie-in-the-movie has become a ticking time bomb.

The film is made for people who love cinema, with direct references for real buffs. We see the young mistress of the manor dining with the old Tycoon as in a 50s film, we see her standing dangerously on top of a long majestic staircase, we see clips of the comedy Lila is filming as if they are clips of Almodovar’s Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Almodovar plunges you into a passion he shares with his audience, cinema itself, while pulling you into the emotional thriller provoked by the Lila’s uncontrolled magnetic attraction to Mateo. Although you are taken along in the unfolding story, the medium -cinema- and the choices made throughout -like the hairstyles– remain elements of pleasure and recognition for the viewer.

“Broken Embraces” is truly cinema, in its tense but playful form. It is passionate and cruel, true and fabricated, creative and destructive, figuratively both black and white and colour. It is a funny and challenging film which reminds you, lest you forget, of why you love cinema. And why you love Almodovar.

En Construccion

En Construccion
Jose Luis Guerin :: Spain :: 2001 :: 2h05

An invitation to watch the effects of an urban renovation in Barcelona, filmed over a period of 18 months. The movie opens with an archive film of a drunken sailor waving his way through the grand city. The contrast of the grandeur of the buildings and streets with the temporary presence of the drunken sailor set the tone. We are cut to the present day working class neighbourhood of El Xino, where we see drunks, day workers, prostitutes and the general bustle of the area crowd around the destruction of a few buildings in their midst. The neighbourhood today is presented as a timeless agglomeration in which people find themselves, as the sailor, looking out at the world around them. The temporality of their stay is both one of their presence and of the mutating reality around them.

For those who have seen Still Life, with its different social strata in a mutating urban landscape, there is reason for comparison. Both tackle the same subject matter, but China is experiencing a complete reboot rather than an urban refresher. Here, the transformation is slow and presented as a normal progression of the area, even if the inhabitants know that they are slowly being moved away. We see them looking through the cracks in the wall to see the outside world. We hear the word on the street as they discuss the inevitable. The new apartments will be cleaner and better than the ones they are replacing, but they will also exceed the budgets of the current residents – the silent onslaught of gentrification.

As is often the case with renovation, when you destroy a building, and look into the gaping hole, you will find the remnants of something much older: in this case nothing less than a Roman burial. The onlookers (with even bigger shadows) are all amazed to see the skeletons found in the uncovered building pit. Archeologists are unearthing the bones, with the local TV stations broadcasting the details, the children fantasising, the old people explaining… till the subject passes and everybody watches the new buildings rise up on the bones of the old. The whole process of transformation shows the urban tissue as a living entity. The mutation of the entity holds a certain ambiguity within it – renovation is necessary and an improvement, but it always hides a tragic part as well. The day labourers, as in Still Life, will always move on.

Dans la ville de Sylvia

En la ciudad de Sylvia
Jose Luis Guerin :: France, Spain :: 2007 :: 1h24

A young man returns to the city where he met a girl four years before. Her name was Sylvia. Her city, is Strasbourg. The young man checks into a small hotel and proceeds to the café of the drama school he thinks she studies at. Sitting at that table, with no other obligations on his mind, he looks around. He sees the others sitting and talking, and slowly he becomes absorbed in the little details of his momentary contact with the intimacy of others.

The young man could be anyone, wondering what happened to a potential path in his life. His heart is obsessed with an image of a woman he does not really know, one who appeared to him as in a dream which lingers before his eyes. The young man could even be the director looking for his leading role. To sharpen his senses, we see him draw those around him, to mark every little detail, encouraging the viewer to do the same. As his eyes rest on the different women around him, as he looks for his muse, we are both struck by their beauty and locked into the young lover’s dream.

Throughout his search, we watch the city unfold around us. We see the different characters living their lives side by side on the streets and through the windows. We recognise a passer-by every once in a while, not because they had a role in the narrative of the story, but because we had really seen them before. The film is a moving snapshot we are led to contemplate, with the sights and the sounds for immersion. There is one pre-requisite, however, for the lonely tourist in Sylvia’s world: you will need to un-rush yourself. But once you do, you can embark on an aesthetic journey with our flaneur.