for this week’s TRIBUNE : San Sebastian Film Festival report, part 1 (Spain and Latin America)

Published on: October 7th, 2010

“Julia, we’ll suck up to you here!”: so read a sign, partly optimistic, partly tongue-in-cheek, in a shop window in San Sebastián last month, during the fortnight when the northern Spanish resort hard by the French border – in the heart of the Basque country – hosts one of Europe’s biggest, fanciest film-festivals.
   The Julia in question was of course Ms Roberts, who breezed into town – or rather, the nearby airport of Biarritz, just over the frontière- one balmy Sunday evening to promote Eat Pray Love.
   Greeted by between 12 and 16 cars (depending on source) at the airport, Roberts proved predictable paparazzi catnip at this 58-year-old event which has long played up its Cannes-on-the-Bay-of-Biscay status. The festival combines Hollywood-style glitz (and a slightly awestruck attitude to movie stars) with a wide-ranging survey of contemporary and archive cinema in a gorgeous beach-fringed, surf-friendly setting notable for its many outstanding eateries.

   As usual, San Sebastián (‘Donostia’ in Basque) provided an invaluable survey of Spanish and Latin American film, and as usual it was Argentinian fare which hogged the limelight.
   Best of the whole Latino bunch for my money was The Invisible Eye (La mirada invisible) by Diego Lerman, adapted from Martin Kohan’s novel Ciencias morales (“Moral Sciences”). Set in a highly regimented Buenos Aires school for crème de la crème teenagers during 1982, it’s a concentrated chronicle of repression and oppression that uses the microcosm of the educational institution to dramatise the psychoses of a far-right state – think The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie meets Death In Venice with a whiff of If…
   The story itself isn’t anything especially new: when virginal, 23-year-old teacher (Julieta Zylberberg) develops a crush on a pupil (suitably cipher-like Diego Vegezzi), it triggers events which yield unfortunate consequences for all. However, superbly shot in chilly 35mm by cinematographer Álvaro Gutiérrez, and with a brilliantly moody score by José Villalobos, The Invisible Eye is an impeccably-mounted, intelligently-conceived and flawlessly-perfomed affair which deserves wider exposure.
   The other outstanding Argentinian offering was the disarming It’s Your Fault (Por tu culpa) directed by Anahí Berneri, and co-written with Buenos Aires Independent Film Festival’s widely-respected head Sergio Wolf. What starts off as a gratingly claustrophobic study of a middle-class mother and her two badly-behaved young children in a city-centre flat gradually shades into something more disturbing and gripping – a fine example of how low-budget cinema can make much from the slightest of ingredients.

      Painting on a wider social canvas, Argentina was also represented by classy soap-opera Mount Bayo (Cerro Bayo) by Victoria Galardi. Effectively a semi-remake of Robert Altman’s Cookie’s Fortune transplanted to a Patagonian ski-resort, it’s chiefly notable for the highly amusing performance from veteran Veronica Llinas as a penny-pinching, opportunistic former beauty-queen.
   Decidedly less commercial, but set in a similarly back-of-beyond Argentine locale, What I Love the Most (Lo que más quiero) is a very low-key, very talky affair – in the vein of recent ‘mumblecore’ enterprises from el norte - about the friendship between two women in their early twenties dealing with relationship issues and family bereavement.
   Selected for the London Film Festival, it represents a quietly promising debut from Delfina Castagnino – a sometime collaborator with the nation’s reigning poet of moody minimalism Lisandro Alonso (Liverpool, Los Muertos, Fantasma and La Libertad).
   Among the films from Spain – nearly all of which were from the semi-autonomous provinces of Catalonia or the Basque Country – an audience-pleasing standout was All the Night Long (La noche que no acaba), fourth feature from the Catalan writer-director Isaki Lacuesta.
   Whereas Lacuesta’s earlier works have tended towards the over-ambitious, slightly pretentious end of the arthouse spectrum, this study of golden-age legend Ava Gardner – concentrating on her years working and living in Spain – is a playful, accessible but engagingly unorthodox documentary exploring countless clips from the actress’s back-catalogue (impressively retrieved from the archives of American cable station Turner Classic Movies, which commissioned the film).

   Squarely and unapologetically operating in the more rarefied altitudes of high cinematic art, meanwhile, was 52-year-old installation artist José María de Orbe’s second feature, the highly demanding but rewarding Father (Aita), which was a boldly avant-garde choice for the festival’s main-competition section (won by Peter Mullan’s LFF-bound Neds). Very much a local production for San Sebastián, Father - another LFF title – was mostly filmed in and around the now-dilapidated mansion where de Orbe grew up as a child.
   A Basque/Catalan co-production, and a kind of exquisitely oblique take on the haunted-house movie which nods to de Orbe’s better-known peers José Luis Guerín (Catalan) and Victor Erice (Basque-born), Father mainly consists of documentary-style footage in which the edifice’s caretaker (Luis Pescador, playing himself) is seen undertaking various small-scale refurbishment tasks.
   But there are dream-like interludes in which decayed silent movies from the Basque country are (silently, mysteriously) projected on the crumbling walls, endowing proceedings with an air of effortless, transcendent time-travel.
   Jimmy Gimferrer – who has worked with the leading younger Catalan auteur Albert Serra on occasion – justly won the festival’s cinematography prize for his digital-video images, all of which seem to have been captured without the aid of artificial or external light.
   A rather more mainstream-oriented Spanish award-winner was the Catalan-language Black Bread (Pa negre), directed by Agustí Villaronga, whose Nora Navas won Best Actress for her role as the put-upon wife of an anti-Francoist farmer in 1944 Catalonia.

   Focussing intently on the couple’s ten-year-old son (Francesc Colomer), the film – based on an acclaimed, literary novel by Emili Teixidor – is 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, and a more pungent examination of war’s effects on young, innocent victims was to be found in Colombia’s The Colours of the Mountain (Los colores de la montaña) by Carlos César Arbeláez, who won the festival’s lucrative, €90,000 New Directors Award for his study of kids in a scenic, remote mountain-village that’s increasingly threatened by guerilla insurgents.
   The DV-shot picture is somewhat basic in its style and story, but is elevated by a sensitive approach to the problems of school-agers, plus an outstandingly fresh child-performance in the central role by pint-sized newcomer Hernán Mauricio Ocampo (a real find.)
   Indeed, Ocampo’s work was as good as anything I saw from an adult actor during my spell in San Sebastian – with one sole exception, and that happened to be in the one the movie which pipped The Invisible Eye as my favourite of the festival. Full details to follow next week, in the second half of my San Sebastian report.

Neil Young
28th September, 2010

written for the 6th October edition of Tribune magazine

ALL THE NIGHT LONG : [7/10] : La noche que no acaba : Spain 2010 : Isaki Lacuesta : 80m : seen at Teatro Principal, Sep.20. (video-projection; press show) : {18/28}
BLACK BREAD : [7/10] : Pa negre aka Pan negro : Spain 2010 : Agustí Villaronga : 115m : Kursaal, Sep.22. (press/public show) : {13}
THE COLOURS OF THE MOUNTAIN : [6/10] : Los colores de la montaña : Colombia/Panama 2010 : Carlos César Arbeláez : 93m : Teatro Principal, Sep.23. (press) : {15}
FATHER aka Aita : [6/10] : Spain 2010 : José María de Orbe : 86m : Kursaal, Sep.23. (press/public) : {17}
THE INVISIBLE EYE : [8/10] : Argentina (/Spn/Fr) 2010 : Diego Lerman : 95m : Teatro Principal, Sep.25. (press) : {21}
IT’S YOUR FAULT : [7/10] : Argentina 2010 : Anahí Berneri : 87m approx : Teatro Principal, Sep.23. (press) : {19}
MOUNT BAYO : [6/10] : Cerro Bayo : Argentina 2010 : Victoria Galardi : 86m : Teatro Principal, Sep.23. (press) : {16}
WHAT I LOVE THE MOST : [6/10] : Lo que más quiero : Argentina 2010 : Delfina Castagnino : 77m : Teatro Principal, Sep.24. (press) : {15}

all seen at San Sebastian International Film Festival, Spain
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