A one-day general strike and the ongoing economic turmoil in Spain set a tone of urgency and resistance at this year’s San Sebastian International Film Festival. Despite the public spending cuts and the crisis however, the 60th edition offered an impressive selection of excellent films from both home-based and international filmmakers. Pamela Jahn reports on some of the festival highlights, which also screen at this year’s London Film Festival between 10-21 October.
Shot in beautiful, sharp black and white without any dialogue, Pablo Berger’s witty, imaginative Blancanieves aptly pays tribute to 1920s European silent film and its connections with theatrical, musical and comical forms. Set in Andalusia during the golden age of bullfighting, Berger’s Snow White extravaganza centres around the adorable young daughter of a famous matador who, after a long and painful childhood under the eye of her evil stepmother, escapes from home and finds company in a troupe of wandering, bullfighting dwarfs. Having lost her memory in an accident, she doesn’t realise where her talent comes from as she follows in the footsteps of her father to become a matador, but it’s not long before her past catches up with her. In addition to the excellent performances, what makes this wonderfully grotesque adaptation of one of the Grimms’ most popular fairy tales particularly exciting is the score by Alfonso de Vilallonga, which, if slightly excessive in places, perfectly complements the creepy and dangerous atmosphere of the story. Out of the many recent Snow White reworkings, Blancanieves may well be the only one that brings something truly new to the story.
In the House
With In the House (Dans la maison), Francois Ozon presents an entertaining portrayal of what might happen if a civilised but frustrated middle-class teacher gets too strongly attached to the literary talent of one of his pupils. Taking its inspiration from Spanish writer Juan Mayorga’s play The Boy in the Last Row, the story is carefully plotted and twisted, offering a joyously entertaining blend of genres that combines drama, thriller and comedy with some, at times eye-opening, lessons on art and the damage it can cause. The performances are exaggerated by Ozon’s playful direction and In the House works precisely because of its dramatic excesses, especially as it brilliantly blurs the line between reality and fiction. Typically for an Ozon film, some of the plotting hardly holds up to close scrutiny, but that’s part of the fun and contributes to making the film a compelling watch. Often hilarious, occasionally camp and but always incredibly smart, it’s a cut above the usual peeping tom creeper.
The Delay (La demora), the third feature from the Uruguayan Rodrigo Plá, the director of La Zona and The Desert Within (Desierto adentro), is painful to watch but for all the right reasons. The film follows a single mother to three kids who finds it hard to make a living and must also take care of her senile father. Too poor to put the old man in a home, too wealthy to qualify for benefits, she abandons him one day, struck by the idea that if she informs social care about a lost man sitting on a bench in the park, someone will eventually collect him and take care of him. Nothing much happens, but the ostensibly schematic story feels remarkably authentic: far from the suspenseful and stomach-churning thrill of La Zona, Plá does an impressive job of conveying the feel of the old stubborn man’s lonely wait, and slowly carves real and involving characters out of the pale figures in this rundown urban landscape. If only he had added a bit of a twist in the end to guide us towards a more ambivalent, and more satisfactory, conclusion.
The Dead Man and Being Happy
Another bold, darkly comic effort from Spanish director Javier Rebollo (Woman without Piano), The Dead Man and Being Happy ( El muerto y ser feliz) follows a dying deadpan hitman on his last road trip to nowhere. Perfectly echoing the man’s increasingly poor state of heath, the film starts off with a vengeance and slightly loses momentum towards the end, but Rebollo cares too much about his charming anti-hero to let him down. He teams him up with another lost soul, an equally secretive and oddball woman who suddenly turns up in his car at a petrol station and eventually, as they are cruising through the dreary Argentine landscape, becomes his patron saint. As road movies go, The Dead Man and Being Happy may not be the greatest ride you’ll ever take, but it’s a deftly scripted, gratifyingly awkward, quirky drama that quietly hits the target and offers some wonderfully tender insights beneath its gritty surface.
Surprisingly gripping and entertaining in equal measures, Argo is based on a true story about a fake Hollywood movie production that was used as a cover to help six Americans escape during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. It’s best not to know too much about the plot before watching the film, but it’s fair to say that, despite the typically cushioned ending, Affleck deftly acts and directs himself as the CIA agent Tony Mendez, who came up with the spine-crawling, daring ‘exfiltration’ plan. Affleck manages to keep it all convincingly coherent as the narrative shifts between savvy espionage thriller, self-mocking Hollywood flick and straightforward compelling hostage drama. A survival story full of real-life drama and filmic tension, Argo feels considerably more relevant than any of the contemporary economic thrillers.