The Soul of Flies
Director: Jonathan Cenzual Burley
Summer has long been blockbuster season in terms of cinema, with this year the likes of Prometheus, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Dark Knight Rises dominating multiplex screens across the country and flaunting every cent of their obscenely colossal budgets – $125m, $200m and $250m if Hollywood observers are to be believed. So it’s heartening that a minute, self-funded, self-distributed picture can still edge its way into our arthouse cinemas – if only a small handful. And regardless of its merits or demerits the puckishly surreal Spanish road-movie The Soul of Flies (El alma de las moscas) is a vital DIY inspiration to young filmmakers everywhere.
Cobbled together for less than €1,000 by writer-director-producer-editor-cinematographer Jonathan Cenzual Burley – of Spanish/English parentage, born and raised in Spain, now living in England – it’s the episodic tale of two thirtyish half-brothers, Nero (Andrea Calabrese) and Miguel (Javier Sáez), who meet for the first time when they arrive in a rural backwater to attend their father’s funeral. But when they learn that the ceremony is taking place elsewhere in the province, they must embark on a haphazard trek that brings them into contact with all manner of whimsical weirdness.
Literary narration from an omniscient observer (Burley himself) wryly comments on the charismatic brothers and their quest, as they are “guided” through – and by – the sunbaked countryside, navigating their father’s “labyrinth of memories”. But while the early stretches have a beguiling quirkiness and a refreshing atmosphere of anything-goes freewheelery, this gradually ebbs into a more amateurish kind of slapdash slapstick and by the final act many viewers may lose patience with Burley’s brand of hipsterishly bohemian-flavoured sophomoric silliness.
Something of a slog even at 78 minutes, The Soul of Flies has a fairly low hit-rate in terms of its gags, and only occasionally displays much visual flair – a brief dream-sequence involving a dancing maiden, played in reverse, is the most notable exception. So while we must take our hats off to Burley for his achievement in getting the picture made at all, and his for his enterprise in finding it room in our arthouses, those seeking a much more rewarding and genuinely surreal example of contemporary Spanish picaresque cinema should seek out Catalan experimentalist Sergio Caballero’s fantasia of ghostly pilgrimage Finisterrae. A major prize-winner at Rotterdam in January 2011, it’s been delighting festival audiences on the circuit ever since but has still not been picked up for distribution in the UK. Puta madre! - or as they say in Catalonia, hostia puta!
Cluj-Napoca Film Festival report
The Romanian New Wave has been one of the success stories of European cinema over the past decade, as the Balkan nation with the Black Sea coastline – one of the EU’s less affluent members – has consistently punched far above its weight thanks to internationally acclaimed directors such as Cristian Mungiu, Cristi Puiu and Corneliu Porumboiu. The ‘wave’ arguably reached its peak when Mungiu’s second feature 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days took the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2007, but even in the intervening half-decade there has been a steady stream of noteworthy work coming from the land of Dracula, Ceauşescu, Comaneci, Nastaste and Georghe Hagi.
That said, by the time Mungiu presented his third film Beyond the Hills at Cannes this May there was some speculation that the Noul val românesc might be finally running out of steam. An overlong, overheated tale of passions and fanaticism in an Orthodox monastery, it seemed primarily designed to conform to external expectations of current Romanian cinema, lacking the bold freshness of Mungiu’s 2002 debut Occident and the controlled precision of 4 Months. The Cannes jury, however, were evidently impressed, handing Mungiu the Best Screenplay prize and – less controversially – splitting the Best Actress award between his two young stars, Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur (slightly rough justice on veteran Dana Tapalaga, outstanding as a cluckingly well-meaning mother superior.)
These awards were inevitably a major talking point at the Transilvania International Film Festival (TIFF), Romania’s biggest cinema-related event, which took place immediately after Cannes (1-10) in the historic, vibrant and resurgent city of Cluj-Napoca, capital of the semi-autonomous Transylvania region that borders (and shares much ethnic and cultural character with) Hungary. But attendees expecting to see and judge Mungiu’s film for themselves – his relationship to TIFF stretches back to its very first event in 2002 – were in for disappointment, as Beyond the Hills did not feature in among the 300 pages of the festival catalogue, apart from a two-page introduction by artistic director Mihai Chirilov entirely devoted to a rueful, shoulder-shrugging explanation of how Mungiu had elected to eschew participation.
In the absence of Beyond the Hills the prize for best new Romanian feature went to Radu Jude’s Everybody In Our Family, which had premiered at Berlin back in February. An increasingly silly tale of a desperate father’s attempt to gain access to his child, its wayward tone and regurgitation of established New Wave tropes sent out perhaps the strongest indication to date that the movement is entering a decadent, terminal phase. Among its rivals for the Cluj prize, Adrian Sitaru’s Best Intentions was the pick of the fictional features, a formally gimmicky story of a dysfunctional family on the verge of crisis, preferable to (festival head) Tudor Giurgiu’s broad-strokes comedy Of Snails and Men and Anca Damian’s animated documentray Crulic – the Path to Beyond. With these exceptions, the fictions on offer were a sorry bunch, and your humble critic bailed out on Florin Piersic Jr’s Killing Time, Dan Chisu’s Chasing Rainbows, Radu Gabrea’s Three Days Till Christmas and Silviu Purcărete’s woeful Somewhere In Palilula before the half-way stage.
But it’s not all grim out east, and if the val is to keep rolling then it’s perhaps through the field of documentary. The best new Romanian films at TIFF 2012 were non-fictional, including another film with heavy Tudor Giurgiu involvement (among international visitors, some eyebrows were raised that the head of the festival should have his own movies in competition, in gala slots and even as opening-night picture) namely Alexandru Belc’s admirably no-nonsense, empathetic chronicle of working women, 8th of March which Giurgiu co-wrote and produced.
Even better was newcomer Bogdan Ilie-Micu’s shoestring-budgeted A Dream’s Merchant, in which three engrossing hours of real-life motorcycle diaries build into an instant classic of modern travelogue as viewers are taken through a 16,000-mile trip from eastern Europe to Mongolia. Though inevitably destined to enjoy the tiniest fraction of the audience and attention that Walter Salles’ Cannes-premiered Jack Kerouac adaptation On the Road is receiving as it opens across the world this year, A Dream’s Merchant ironically gets much closer to capturing the spirit of the Beat icon’s timeless wanderlust poetics.This rough-edged ode to the open highway follows, largely via narrated stills, a continent-straddling itinerary that emphatically justifies – even demands – Ilie-Micu’s 172-minute running-time, and instantly recouped half its reported $2,500 budget when landing the festival’s prize for the Best Romanian Debut.
Achieving similarly remarkable results on evidently limited means, Dan Curean’s Gone Wild chronicles the plight of the free-roaming “mustangs” of the Danube Delta on Romania’s Black Sea coast. A contemplatively beautiful but ultimately alarming dispatch from one of Europe’s last unspoiled frontiers, the film expands Curean’s 52-minute Blue Danube and Wild Horses from 2009, updated to include highly dramatic developments from the last couple of years. The horses in question – descended from farm-stock left to their own devices after the collapse of Communist state collectives in 1989 – became the subject of national attention after their numbers were judged threatening to protected forests adjoining their wetland habitat. This prompted drastic government action, and harrowing images of the horses’ rough handling make for some difficult but necessary viewing – a climax all the more potent for after an hour that mostly consists of the horses at glorious liberty in magnificent surroundings.
Covering an area of 2,000 square miles, the Delta provided the breathtaking setting for Ruxandra Zenide’s very fine 2005 drama Ryna and, more prosaically, 2008′s TV-movie Anaconda III starring David Hasselhoff. Zenide was a rare female element in the bloke-dominated New Wave, which made her “silence” after Ryna all the more regrettable. But word is that Zenide has started work on her follow-up, a Swiss production provisionally entitled La cosmétique du bonheur, suggesting that even if the nouvelle vague is coming to an end, talented Romanian voices will continue to enrich the cinematic landscape for some time to come.
3rd July 2012
written for Tribune magazine