Sunday 8 May 2022

SPANISH FILM FESTIVAL 2022 - Barrie Pattison reports on MAIXABEL (Iciar Bollaín) and HOUSE OF SNAILS (Macarena Astorga)

Bianca Portillo, Maixabel

After years of providing highlight viewing, the current Spanish Film Festival has proved a mixed bag. As an example, David Martín Porras’
La piel en llamas/Skin in Flames is pretentious and clumsy, a total contrast to Director Iciar Bollaín’s Maixabel. 

Maixabel offers maturity rare in a movie, one that picks emotional conviction over ideology. Though it centers on Spain’s ETA movement, which took eight hundred plus lives, there is minimal discussion of the cause, a separate Basque Communist state – just a passing reference to police murders. That’s going to get up a number of noses to start with. This would be a different movie to someone who is more familiar with the Spanish scene than I am.


The action movie opening, which gets disproportionate attention in the publicity, is set in Tolosa, Guipúzcoa (Basque Country, Northern Spain) and shows a 2000 ETA death squad murder the moderate former Civil Governor, while he eats in a restaurant - escaping as they pass a misinformed cop car on the road while listening to police radio and then burning their white Renault while the search had begun for a black Citroen. 


The victim dies before wife Maixabel (Blanca Portillo, in a bad red wig), was able to get to the hospital. The news reaches their teenage daughter María Cerezuela at her summer camp with young friends.


This is just the hook. The film proper picks up with jailed killers Luis Tosar and Urko Olazabal a decade into their thirty year sentences, now barely able to tolerate one another’s company though it is all they have, rejected by the old associates they detest, as well as the wider community. Once close friends don’t want to be seen with Tosar in the street while their children are with them. “Nada es normal.”


Transferred to Nanclares jail, where they can have day release to visit aging relatives, they work in the prison bakery (“bread is made at night”). Tosar’s attendance at the funeral of his grandfather - effectively evoked though he is only glimpsed in the flashback trial - begins his reconnection to the outside world.


This is already an arresting departure from the films we know, with the Prison Governor without hostility and scenes of the two leads scornful of the jail yard “mediocrities” who had sent them unquestioning on the mission that now corrodes their lives. 


Luis Tosar, Bianca Portillo, Maixabel

In the meantime, now broadcaster Portillo has headed up a committee to address the consequences of terrorist outrages, alienating support by extending their remit to cover victims of both sides of the conflict. Portillo is delighted when her daughter becomes pregnant, because she will now have an event more central in her life than the father’s murder. 


However, the girl lives in terror of losing her in the way she lost her father and begs Portillo to hire bodyguards. Portillo attends a meeting where the delegates assert that protection is the only reason they remain alive. 


The image of her going about her day with two burly men in suits a few steps behind her is one of the most haunting in a film that has more than its share - the defaced hillside granite monolith, the word “traitor” blood red on the wall outside Tosar’s mother’s flat, the bread machine churning dough as the prison motif, rather than barbed wired walls. 


The pivotal event comes in the offer of reconciliation meetings with the relatives of victims after the hooded ETA leaders renounce armed struggle on TV. It’s made clear that it will not have any effect on the convicted men’s sentences. The controversial gesture is withdrawn with the change of government but the governor points out that he can’t determine what they do in day release and a social worker arranges Tosar’s no-security visit with Portillo.


The key scenes in the film are Portillo’s two face-to-face sessions. The first, with Olazabal, introduced with a glimpse of him hammering the court glass partition and screaming “Fascist” at the judge, reveals him now crushed by what he now sees as his own stupidity and viciousness This is so powerful that it seems a film-making misjudgment - something they can’t effectively follow. However, Bolain and her team know where they are going and the second, facing Tosar, is even more resonant - his coming to terms with the possibility of forgiveness.


Maixabel is an analysis that is more probing than what we are used to seeing in movies (or journalism), though Oliver Hirschbiegel‘s 2009 Ulster-set Five Minutes of Heaven was a respectable try. The real Maixabel Lasa was involved in all stages of production which must have shaded the result. The finale with Tosar joining the leftist song (unsubtitled) which he knew in his youth is again pushing their luck but the film’s momentum is there to carry it.


The performances are exceptional. Heavyweight Tosar is now in the first rank of his country’s stars but Portillo has been around for a long time without registering as clearly. She does have a Goya award along with a significant career in theatre - which won’t mean anything to us. Javier Agirre Erauso’s camerawork offers the current low light level images.


Former actress Bollaín situated herself at the thoughtful end of the spectrum after appearing in the Ken Loach Land and Freedom and directing a couple of films by his writer Paul Laverty. On the evidence of her work to reach us, anchoring the content in a dramatic form has sometimes proved a challenge for her - 2003 Te doy mis ojos/Take My Eyes, the exceptional 2010 También la lluvia/Even the Rain (both with Tosar) and 2020 Rosa’s Wedding/La boda de Rosa. This time she’s really nailed it. The film is imposing.


It will be interesting to see if Palace pushes this one out into a commercial release and whether it will connect with the public it deserves. Best to home in on the festival showings just in case.


Along with the material I’ve already covered in Sprocketed Sources, I also looked at Macarena Astorga’s La casa del caracol/House of Snails,an irritating quasi horror film. 

Javier Rey, House of Snails

In the sixties author Javier Rey rents the remote and remarkably well-maintained villa on the road outside Andalusian Quintanar village, where his reception is pretty hostile - a little girl squashes a snail on his car window, a one eyed woman hints he doesn’t belong (“You don’t look like the type that has friends round here”) and the house keeper is sullen. Her daughters accuse him of being a Vimaro monster (he finds the obligatory book of mythology identifying it hidden in the house library) and the mean bar keeper who prompts him on local drinking etiquette leads a chorus of derision from the customers, when Rey uses up his stock of Mescal, and sells him local home brew instead. The man keeps a sadistic bald headed relative chained in the barn after it ate the heart of a cow - “his favourite cow.”


Following a call with his publisher which prompts Rey to rip the phone out of the wall, he starts incorporating all of this into his new book.


The news is not all bad however, realtor Paz Vega is a likely prospect but she won’t let him autograph his own book - confessing that it’s the library copy. Local priest Carlos Alcántara invites him to come fishing and loads a shotgun for his use, and the dog which he confronted on the road hangs about. The one eyed woman warns that any dog that people had thrown out couldn’t be any good. When he gets lost in the woods, Rey hears the sound of the wolves that don’t normally come down from the hills.


Vega invites him to the village festival with band and bonfire but won’t let him grope her. We find out why. As things develop none too coherently, the death of the girl in the wolf mask brings in shaggy outside police sergeant Pedro Casablanca, with the dismemberment photos, before the burial in a graveyard overrun with more snails. He registers as mundane and sensible in all this - and the dog fetches a folder with a news cutting that connects to Rey’s own past. The snarling wolf head on the wall, the ink rising off the girl’s drawing in a glass of water, do show imagination. They belong in a better, more connected film. The film’s erratic handling suggests that the director is still in the early stages of her career. 


Spain is after all the country that accommodated Paul Nashy despite Franco’s disapproval. We could have hoped that a new Spanish shocker would be better than this.


Still a week to go.

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