That most feared genre, the two-person talking-head European philoso-fest, gets a novel upgrade in David Trueba’s Madrid, 1987 (Spain, 2011). 1987 is a few years after some big changes for Spain; Franco died in 1975, with Juan Carlos ascending to King of Spain and fostering post-Fascist democratic reforms. Spain became a parliamentary constitutional monarchy, and in 1982, Spain joined NATO. That year’s elections were won by the Spanish Socialist Workers Party, securing a majority leftist government. Perhaps 1987 has a personal significance to the director, or maybe that’s just when he feels things finally leveled out, socioculturally, for the average urban Spaniard. (I’m happy to be corrected on that speculation.)
Miguel (José Sacristán) is a longtime journalist and columnist for one of the major Madrid newspapers who is to be interviewed by Angela (María Valverde), an aspiring young journalism student. They meet in a café that he frequents, and after some objective notes-exchanging on the business of writing in the real world and the hassles of aspiring to that in university, Miguel brings Angela to the nearby studio of his painter friend, Luis, who is gone for the weekend. Here he commences, whiskey and cigarettes in hand, to dazzle her with cynical aphorisms, persuade her to relax and loosen up a little, and show her his etchings (wink, wink, nudge, nudge…). In fact, he admits, it’s all he’s really been interested in doing with her; give an old writer a break, willya? On the surface, Angela seems sensibly reluctant to indulge this cranky and officious old blowhard, but there’s just enough charm underneath his proposition, and just enough mercenary opportunism on her part, to result in the shedding of most of her clothes. He teasingly smears her with some of Luis’ paint, she starts to think better of the whole circumstance, and she retreats to the shower before preparing for her departure. He attempts to join her there, and manages to lock them both, naked, in the small bathroom; the doorknob is hopelessly jammed, and there are no tools, devices or gadgets of any kind in the room to assist in an escape.
Locking two disparate people in a room for an indefinite period of time is one of those pure creative conceits that writers, actors and directors live for. It’s far more of a writerly, theatrical device than a cinematic one, but it ultimately hinges on the qualities of the characters in that predicament. Trueba, who wrote the film as well as directing it, makes Miguel a richly interesting character, using his accumulated wisdom and recall of social and cultural benchmarks to weave a pretty engaging near-monologue. Angela, it turns out, is the daughter of a pretty well-known military dignitary, and Miguel is familiar with her older sister, who gained some local favor as an actress and activist. But Miguel is nothing if not long-winded, and eventually Angela returns fire, berating Miguel for his cynical know-it-all nostalgia and just you wait, little girl condescension.
For its type, it’s very well done. The nudity’s novelty wears off very quickly – I didn’t find it to be particularly erotic - and is (almost disappointingly) tastefully handled by Trueba. Cinematographer Leonor Rodríguez navigates the enclosed spaces well – there’s, no doubt, the advantages of the soundstage involved, but you’d never know it from the seamless work here. It’s also a well-matched pair of actors: José Sacristán has been doing this since the early sixties, and he has easy command of his role. Maria Valverde has only been seen Stateside, I believe, in Jordan Scott’s Cracks (2009), opposite Eva Green and Juno Temple, but she’s an interesting and intriguing performer who makes a real impression here, and she should be quickly enjoying similar employment prospects to those other two. There may be smarter ways to intelligently waste two hours of a late Sunday afternoon, but few come to mind. I liked this ribald little chamber play of a film. But, beyond my recommendation, I suspect you already know whether this is a film for you or not.
‘Madrid, 1987’ will be shown on Sunday, March 17th at 5:15 p.m. and Tuesday, March 19th at 6:00 p.m.
There’s some pretty intriguing narrative experimentation going on with Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl’s ‘Paradise’ trilogy; the second and third of these films are being shown here at the EUFF this year. Each of the three films examines specific life episodes of three connected women: a middle-aged working woman and mother who takes an ‘exotic’ vacation, the sister whom she checks in with before departing (and whom will tend to her cat while she’s gone), and the first woman’s daughter, who will spend the duration of Mom’s vacation time at a ‘fat camp.’ The first film, Paradise: Love, which was released last year, follows late-forties, early fifties-ish Teresa (Margarete Tiesel) to a seaside resort in Kenya, where young African men cater to the sexual indulgences of the predominantly older European women who make up their clientele. At the minimum, these women are looking for some decidedly zipless and unselfconscious naughty fun – there’s an air of spring-break abandon here, intimately promiscuous and alcohol-fueled, but it’s certainly not the usual cast of characters we’re used to seeing in these situations. But underneath the explicitly-documented carnal amusements lies a deeper wish to find some genuine love and appreciation that their everyday lives have denied them… all at a negotiated price, of course.
It’s understandable that some audience members will find these films uncomfortable to watch – there’s an extraordinarily frank intimacy on display here that many will find unfairly intrusive, even outrightly exploitive. (Despite their documentary style, however, and the undeniable credibility of the characters, they are, indeed, fiction.)
The second film, Paradise: Faith (Paradies: Glaube) (Austria, 2012) examines Teresa’s sister, Anna Maria (Maria Hofstätter), an extremely ascetic and devout Christian woman who, outside of her medical imaging day-job, completely immerses herself in her worship of Christ and in shaping her life according to his teachings and biblical example. We’re barely ten minutes into the film before she’s kneeling in front of her wall-mounted crucifix, stripped to the waist, flagellating herself. Earthly pain and humiliation, in her belief, is negligible compared to the suffering and sacrifice of Our Lord, and the self-administered tests and ordeals to which she submits throughout the film only serve to feed and strengthen her further resolve. While Teresa vacations in Kenya, it turns out that Anna Maria has taken some vacation time as well, but she uses her time to go door-to-door in her Vienna suburb to proselytize to, and hopefully convert, a varied succession of recent immigrants, neighbors, lone eccentrics, and, in one jaw-dropping sequence, an acutely alcoholic Russian immigrant (Natalya Baranova) who can’t decide whether to sapphically seduce Anna Maria or beat hell out of her for pouring her vodka down the sink. But these episodes aren't even the main action of the story – that would be the unexpected return of her former husband, Nabil (Nabil Saleh), after a two-year absence. He’s been left paraplegic after an unspecified accident in his past, and has returned to take his rightful place as Anna Maria’s Husband-With-A-Capitol-H. And did I mention he’s an orthodox Muslim?
Perhaps my take on this is a bit reductive, but I couldn’t help but think of the old story of the frog in cold water who doesn't know to jump out as the water starts gradually boiling. Seidl knows that the gradual path to what we might view as extreme behavior is paved with the same quotidian cultural forces and experiences that every one of us encounters in our own lives, and that we may draw very different lines and boundaries from these characters. Teresa enjoys her walk on the wild side in Kenya in many ways, but there’s always an undercurrent of shame and self-loathing that’s inescapable for her, no matter how hard she tries to transcend it. We might not be interested in that vacation, but we completely understand the impulses and motivations that led her to it. Anna Maria has fashioned a shape and structure to her life that protects and consoles her – Seidl isn’t specific about the events in her life that have channeled her into this extraordinary existence, but we have enough information to understand that her life experiences aren't all that different from ours. He’s unapologetically explicit about the details of where these women’s lives have led them, but his empathy is just as explicit. They’re very tough films to watch in their way, and I’d be reluctant to revisit them, but they’re very powerful and affecting chronicles of human nature, and the cultural, spiritual and animal resources we acknowledge, or deny, in unique personal measure, in creating meaningful lives for ourselves. It’s strong medicine, but I highly recommend these films.
‘Paradise: Faith’ will be shown on Sunday, March 17th at 5:15 p.m. and Thursday, March 21st at 8:15 p.m.
The third film, ‘Paradise: Hope,’ which I’ll review later this week, will be shown on Sunday, March 24th at 3:00 p.m. and Monday, March 26th at 6:00 p.m.