Sunday, April 12, 2009

La Mirada 2009 in Review

I've mentioned more than once that La Mirada is one of my favourite film festivals. Partly it's the enthusiasm and organisation of the festival director, Rocio Garcia. Partly it's the festive atmosphere, with generous door prizes of DVDs, books, T-shirts, cosmetics, Spanish classes, free tickets, etc. (not that I've ever won anything). Sometimes there's five or more prizes per session. And partly it's the programming of films by Pedro Almodóvar, the director whose work I feel most ambivalent about. Yes, I have a love-hate relationship with his films, and I find they stimulate ample discussion over what I consider both their strengths and weaknesses.

Each year, I focus on the older films selected by Almodóvar, films that have inspired him. In 2007, his selections focused more on the canon, the classic Spanish films like Spirit of the Beehive and The Executioner. I was a little disappointed by 2008's selections, many of which I found melodramatic. But this had much relevance to Almodóvar's work, which is afterall, very melodramatic. In my opinion, it's the weak point in his films.

This year, the Almodóvar's selections were more serious and gutsy, and overall I enjoyed them immensely. I caught all five in this section, as well as Woody Allen's selection for the festival. Unfortunately I couldn't make it to the screening of Penélope Cruz's selection, but I did see 9 films in all. Here's my 2c worth.

Furtivos (The Poachers, José Luis Borau, Spain, 1975)
An intriguing story, very dramatic, with strong political overtones. It was, afterall, made in the dying days of the Franco dictatorship. I'm sure the story was very allegorical, but I couldn't translate what events were referring to in the political context of the day. In this respect, it was a little like the politics depicted in early Kieslowski films like Blind Chance. Australian films rarely depict politics, and it's something I like to see, even if I don't entirely 'get' it.

Bilbao (Bigas Luna, Spain, 1978)
A very gutsy film, and only the second by Luna. As Rocio Garcia mentioned in introducing the film, it can be seen as being pornographic, but it never feels gratuitous or exploitative. It does, however, challenge an audience with its graphic depictions of nudity, sexuality and sexual violence. This film clearly inspired Almodóvar's Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, but is of a completely different mood and style.

La lengua de las mariposas (Butterfly's Tongue, José Luis Cuerda, Spain, 1999)
This was Woody Allen's contribution as guest programmer. Apparently it's his favourite Spanish film. I wonder how the hell he would ever have become acquainted with the film, as it doesn't seem like a film that would have had a release outside of Spain. It's a fairly mainstream story with some character stereotypes, but competently made. Not really my cup of tea.

La buena vida (The Good Life, Andrés Wood, Chile/Spain/Argentina/France, 2008)
This is a sort of social-realist ensemble film, combining different human stories of people struggling in various endeavours. It has a fairly bleak, naturalistic look but feels compromised to appeal to a middle-class audience. It's a worthy film, but forgettable.

Arrebato (Rapture, Iván Zulueta, Spain, 1980)
A difficult film, drenched in drugs and delusion, historically significant. Almodóvar was involved - his voice is used to dub over an actresses lines at one stage. It also depicts a lifestyle of decadence that Almodóvar was very much a part of, that engulfed Spain in the wake of the downfall of fascism. I really liked that La Mirada has the guts to show films like this and Bilbao.

Surcos (Furrows, José Antonio Nieves Conde, Spain, 1951)
Visually fantastic film, a kind of cross of the aesthetics and characterisations of the best of New Wave and classic Hollywood cinema. While the film's political context was explained with an introduction, I was still a little confused as to why it was both such a propaganda piece for the government in some respects and yet provoked the ire of the censor with other respects. The capturing of a way of life all but gone in modern Spain is just beautiful. One of the most enjoyable films of the festival.

La casa de mi padre (Blacklisted, Gorka Merchán, Spain, 2008)
A contemporary film, set in the Basque region. It's gutsy for it's attempt to show both sides of the conflict between the ETA Basque separatists and the government stand. Mostly, it feels like a middle of the road family drama, but the political element puts it a level or two above what it might otherwise have been.

La mujer sin cabeza (The Headless Woman, Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2008)
A really interesting contemporary film, about a woman who may or may not have run over a boy and driven off. For 87 minutes, we suffer the claustrophic perspective of this woman as she suffers her guilt in silence. I have been in a similar situation and could really relate to the story.

Mi querida senorita (My Dearest Senorita, Jaime de Armiñán, Spain, 1971)
That sneaky Almodóvar, he had to sneak a melodrama in there somehow. This was it. It must have been a challenging film for its time, but is certainly tame by modern standards. I found it of most interest as an influence on Almodóvar though it tends to lack focus.

My pick of La Mirada:
Bilbao and Rapture for their gutsy depictions
Furrows for an engaging story and beautiful black and white visuals
The Headless Woman for an original and engaging story


Jurguens said...

Films in a language other than English never have the same opportunities. It's the way it is I guess, but it's a real shame. Ivan Zulueta's Arrebato is a powerful film that sadly is greatly unknown even in Spain. It would be quite different if it had been shot in English by, say, David Lynch. Anyway, great for La Mirada to screen it (and same goes for Bilbao).

Also, since I'm Basque, in regards to La Casa de Mi Padre, I liked how you said "attempt to show both sides of the conflict". He tried but didn't quite get there.

Cheers, and keep the reviews coming.

Paul Martin said...

Thanks for dropping by, Jurguens. What you say about Arrebato reminds me of some of my favourite Australian films, similarly unknown here (like Alkinos Tsilimidos' Em 4 Jay, also depicting drug addicts).

In the Q&A session after the screening of La case de mi padre, it was raised that the director was attempting to show something approximating both sides. The point is that it's not black and white, which is politically how most security issues are presented (be it Spain, Ireland, Israel, or wherever). I think it was said that the director lives in the Basque region and was sticking his neck out to tell this story. Apparently he has been threatened by ETA supporters, something I find pretty sad.

Jurguens said...

Good blog you have here Paul, so it's a pleasure to drop by. I take note of Em 4 Jay.

In regards to Gorka and his film... It's good to see someone making a film a little bit off centre from the official line. But I reject the notion that his film is balanced.

I don’t want to enter in to a political discussion. But having lived in the middle of it all of my life, as one who has studied history and filmmaking at University, and having always had a dialogue with all parties involved in the Basque conflict I find this film flawed. If only a bit of the honesty of Ken Loach was injected into this it would be a completely different film.

Paul Martin said...

Jurguens, I'm not disputing the politics or the balance. I simply don't know enough about the situation to have an opinion. Don't think it's an argument, so by all means, feel free to explain. One of the things I find fascinating about world cinema is the opportunity to learn about other societies. I knew from the film that there's more to the situation than meets the eye and am happy to be educated or at least given exposure to different perspectives.