Ibero-American romance and humor

As in the last Ibero-American film programme, the biggest name in this latest edition is that of the doyen of Spanish cinema, Carlos Saura

While last time we had the chance to see his stylized music documentary Fado, this time Saura arrives with the European film award for best actress (Almodóvar's favourite Carmen Maura) and war musical – drama ¡Ay, Carmela from 1990, which received thirteen Goya Awards. The film is an adaptation of a theatre play by José Sanchís Sinisterra, the role for which Andrés Pajares was awarded for Best Actor at the festival in Montreal. Although political, the singing and dancing are not always perfectly combined, and even though it lacks some depth and layers, the story of Carmela and Paulin skilfully balances between tragedy and comedy, satire and burlesque, humor and pathos, with a touch of cynicism. They are a couple of good-natured vaudeville entertainers, accompanied by a mentally traumatized and mute assistant Gustaveta, who are captured at the peak of the Spanish Civil War and forced to entertain Franco’s soldiers. Relying on interesting characters who manage to overcome their egotism, ideological indifference and the primal instinct for survival at any cost by changing and maturing, Saura successfully depicts a tragic dimension of national strife.

The animated romantic musical Chico & Rita, with an Oscar nomination for this year’s best animated film, owes its success to the collaboration of the renowned Spanish filmmaker Fernando Trueba (The Age of Beauty) and the acclaimed painter and designer Javier Mariscal. They met at the beginning of the previous decade, when Trueba hired Mariscal to design a poster for his jazz-documentary Calle 54, after which Trueba, the owner of the production company by the same name, developed an intense collaboration with Mariscal, and together they opened a jazz-restaurant in Madrid. Alongside Trueba, Mariscal had his first debut as a film director in Chico & Rita, with his younger brother, musician and animator Tono, as co-director. The idea for the story came from the songs and life of the late Cuban musician Compay Segundo. It is an emotional, atmospheric and lavishly colourful story about old Chico, a shoe shiner from Havana who reminisces about his youth and the end of the forties. A talented but unrecognised pianist, accompanied by his friend Ramón, Chico meets the attractive Rita in a bar. She is a singer with a strong voice who he starts performing with, and the two enter a passionate relationship. The skilfully narrated and dynamic story of their lives takes place against the recognisable backdrop of Havana, as well as the smoky bars of New York, Las Vegas and Paris, while the soundtrack recorded by Bebo Valdés includes the music of great jazz names such as Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Cole Porter.

The dark existential comedy-drama La suerte está echada is the debut of acclaimed Argentinean television screenwriter and director Sebastián Borenzstein, a work that impresses with maturity, suggestive directing, effective structuring of the two central characters and their intimate dramas, skilfully creating simultaneously tragic and humorous atmosphere and non-pathetic, highly emotional end. The story revolves around the timid and quiet Felipe (portrayed by the excellent Marcello Mazzarello), an ambitious but unsuccessful actor who, accidentally and in spite of his best efforts, fails to save a middle-aged suicidal man. He soon realizes that he carries the dead man’s bad luck when the role of Iago in a theatre production of Othello is taken from him, after which he misses an audition, and then experiences a series of minor accidents on daily basis. Finally he is informed that his severely ill father is on his death bed, which encourages him to contact his insecure and unhappy half-brother Guillermo after many years of mutual silence. Guillermo is a lonely man with his own set of problems, currently suffering from sleep deprivation due to the noise of a car alarm that keeps him awake night after night, and not knowing how to approach a girl he saw during a night out. Meeting and visiting with their father reunites Felipe and Guillermo again after many years, and they gradually start to analyze themselves and their lives. Quite atmospheric, calmly and suggestively directed, with excellent acting and a strong sense of empathy, the film elaborates in a fresh and original manner upon the thesis that we are the creators of our own happiness, and that we alone are responsible for our lives.

Dark humour also characterizes the satirical comedy El dedo by another Argentinean, Sergio Teubal. It is the story of a provincial village which, following the birth of its 501st inhabitant, becomes a town and organizes elections for mayor and other local authorities. The two-faced huckster Don Hidalgo seems to stand a good chance of winning the mayoral race. Surrounding himself with associates of loose morals and questionable honesty, he is determined to beat his main rival Baldomero. When Baldomero is found dead by the river, events take an unexpected turn. If they wish to keep their status as a town, the inhabitants can’t report the murder, which gives Don Hidalgo an opportunity to win over or blackmail voters. However, his plans might be ruined by Baldomero’s younger brother Florencio, the quiet and honest owner of a local shop who cuts off his dead brother’s finger and stores it in formaldehyde, determined to find the murderer. Upon discovering that the murderer is a local butcher whose wife Baldomero had seduced, the dead man’s finger suddenly starts moving, which is read as a sign to release the culprit. Baldomero’s finger soon becomes very popular and locals come to it for “advice”, which gives Florencio the idea to have the finger run for the position of town mayor as Don Hidalgo’s rival! The film is characterized by a gallery of more or less effectively portrayed picaresque protagonists, steadily ironic detachment, a skilful combination of empathic comedy and drama, as well as solid directing.

Among romantic comedies in this programme, Se Eu Fosse Você by Brazilian co-screenwriter and director Daniel Filho and A Bela e o Paparazzo by Portuguse António-Pedro Vasconcelos particularly stand out. We should also mention the musical My Voice by Flora Gomes, another Portuguese work. The renowned 75 year old actor, producer (City of God), screenwriter and director (Time of Peace) Daniel Filho once again, in the unpretentious and casual fantastic comedy If I Were You (Se Eu Fosse Você), varies the familiar plot of switching bodies. This time it happens in a fresh, imaginary and playful manner between a husband and wife, who despite their true love do not know one another well enough, especially the male and female nature of the other one. The director of A Bela e o Paparazzo deals with the contemporary topic of tabloids and media interfering in famous actors’ intimacy. The Bela in the film title is Mariana, a “wicked” character from a popular soap who everybody “loves to hate“. She is fed up with the false world of glamour and overly designed reality. In order to keep the media interested, Mariana fakes a relationship with her producer, staging scenes in public, displaying affection or having temperamental arguments. Paparazzo João is in charge of photographing all that, a talented photographer who works under the pseudonym Gabriela, and does the job to pay his rent. When during one of his assignments Mariana and João meet. They fall in love and quickly become aware of the need to change and reorganize their lives.

And finally, My Voice, the musical awarded at the Venice Film Festival in 2002, starts with in Africa, depicting a young girl Vita whose parents forbid her to sing, fearing an old curse. But Vita has a beautiful voice, and when she takes off to France for university, she records a CD and becomes famous over night, only to have the fear of the curse mess it all up. The original title Nha fala could be translated as “my life“, “my destiny“ or “my path“, as they are all the theme of this positively directed, intriguing and visually often fascinating film. The music is composed by the renowned saxophonist and vibraphonist from Cameroon, Manu Dibango. (Josip Grozdanić)