I Am Curious, Orange: report from the 11th Seville European Film Festival 2014
Seville’s motto is the enigmatic ‘NO8DO’, but a less bizarre, less brain-teasing alternative could be William Faulkner’s dictum that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”. Capital of Andalusia, one of Spain’s poorest regions, this city of 703,021 is the nation’s third largest, behind the rather more internationally renowned Madrid and Barcelona. But, more than either of those metropolises, Seville —backdrop for films ranging from Lawrence of Arabia to Mission Impossible II and Knight and Day — feels like a living, evolving palimpsest of Spanish history.
Andalusia was for centuries part of the Muslim Moorish empire, whose impact on the cityscape surfaces in all sorts of unexpected ways. Take the 500-year-old cathedral—the world’s largest, and also the final resting-place of Christopher Columbus—whose most famous bell-tower was once the minaret of a mosque on the same site.
Long before the Moors hit town, the Romans held sway here. Their visible legacy includes two pairs of unassumingly grand, towering pillars at either end of the long, dusty, bar-fringed avenue known as the Alameda de Hercules. And a meander through the generously proportioned Old Town (no right angles among these narrow, capriciously intersecting thoroughfares) yields myriad glimpses into former epochs—a “dry Venice”. Turn an innocuous corner on Calle Marmoles, for example, and here are another three impressive Roman columns, tucked away in what looks like a sunken back garden.
Apt, then, that the highlights of Seville’s 11th European Film Festival, held from 7 to 15 November and run by the hyper-enthusiastic, nattily mod-attired Jose Luis Cienfuegos, should themselves have at least one foot in the past. In the main competition section, Mike Leigh’s magnificently multi-faceted Mr Turner—the surprise UK-arthouse box-office smash of 2014—found considerable favour among the jury upon which I served, taking the Best Director and Best Actor prizes. Deliberations regarding the latter award took seconds rather than minutes, given the breathtaking way in which Spall channelled Gerard Depardieu, Freddie Jones, John Houseman and Nick Nolte into that rare performance that feels like an instantly pantheon-worthy achievement.
In terms of sheer you-are-there verisimilitude, however, Leigh’s career-crowner was perhaps marginally eclipsed by the latest from Austrian writer-director Jessica Hausner—her follow-up to 2009’s Lourdes. Amour Fou imaginatively dramatises the strange, unsavoury and ultimately destructive relationship between 19th century German poet Heinrich Von Kleist and a young, married, physically frail admirer, Henriette. The quaint mores and modes of Berlin two centuries ago are explored with intelligence, sensitivity and no shortage of wit: as in Mr Turner, the leavening of humour proves a crucial ingredient in rendering the inhabitants of bygone eras as three-dimensional figures.
A little comedy also goes a very long way in Eugene Green’s La Sapienza, set in the present day but dealing with characters very much absorbed in temps perdu. A successful architect travels to Switzerland with his wife, partly with the aim of getting their marriage back on an even keel. A chance encounter with a young brother and sister leads to unexpected consequences: the architect takes the lad, who’s about to enter the same profession, under his wing. The duo journey to Florence where they steep themselves in the contrasting styles of Bernini and Borromini. Green, US-born but French resident since the 1960s, deals with the most high-faluting of concepts and philosophies, deploying an alienating style of performance and blocking which usually involves the characters declaiming their lines direct to camera.
But what could easily become an exercise in arch pretentiousness is carried off with a twinkling light touch that makes La Sapienza feel like a highly enjoyable, illustrated lecture on art, philosophy and morality. Green’s work, long celebrated among highbrow cinephiles, isn’t anywhere near as well known in this country as it should be—perhaps La Sapienza, which features Fabrizio Rongione from the Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night, might open a few doors in that direction.
In jaggedly refreshing contrast to Green’s poise, Kikol Grau’s The Most Macabre of Lives was perhaps the most notable new Seville title outside the main competition. A different kind of “period” film, it plunges us into the political and cultural tumult of the Basque country in the early 1980s, chronicling the chaotic career of Bilbao punk legends Eskborbuto.
Compiled entirely from “found” (or “stolen”) footage—mainly YouTube—this 51-minute blast of confrontationally uncouth energy is, thankfully, a world away from the current slew of music/arts documentaries that opportunistically celebrate radical practitioners using incongruously hackneyed, conventional formats. The film reminds how bands like Eskorbuto usually emerge from times and places of economic and political tumult—and the scruffily proletarian Bilbao, too “rad” to have an official motto of any kind, has long been a vibrant hotbed of protest and fiery fervour.
Such excitements aren’t what one primarily associates with orange-growing metropolis Seville, a hub of relative prosperity in a part of Spain that’s suffered disproportionately from the economic crisis. Glimpses into the elusive rougher side of Seville were available via Álvaro Torrellas’ 3 Minutes, a documentary on veteran boxing-trainer Antonio Fernández—a.k.a. ‘El Bigotes’ (“Moustache”). Occasionally straying from genial celebration towards the dodgier realms of cheerleading and hagiography, Torrellas profitably concentrates on El Bigotes’ paternal relationships with three pugilists for whom the ring has provided an exit-route from lives of crime, drugs and mental illness.
El Bigotes’ unwavering commitment to his charges recalls Seville’s unique motto. Ubiquitous all over the city from lamp-posts to manhole covers, NO8DO is officially explained as a rebus standing for the phrase ‘It has not abandoned me’ , referring to the fidelity shown by Seville towards the 13th century King Alfonso X (“The Wise”) when he faced a rebellion from his son—the ‘8’ representing a looping skein of wool. Speak to other Sevillanos, however, and a more mundane alternative will be advanced, that NODO is short for Nomine Domini, In the Name of the Lord, with the 8 simply a knot—nodo in Spanish. In either case, of course, subordination to some quasi-mystical higher power is implicit—never the healthiest of situations in such times of biting socio-economic strife. E pluribus unum! In cinema we trust! Venceremos!
24th November 2014
written for Tribune magazine