Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Apr 11, 2011 12:22 pm 
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A boy wades past fascism and rural poverty in a strong Catalan coming-of-age film

Agustí Villaronga wrote and directed this austerely beautiful Catalan coming-of-age film based on a novel by Emili Teixidor with echoes of Clément's Forbidden Games and Dickens' Great Expectations and a setting -- a child's rural world during the grim days after the Spanish Civil War (1944) -- that links it with Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. But while del Toro's film is Gothic and surreal, Teixidor's, apart dream sequences and flight metaphors, impresses in both its narrative and its imagery with a stark simplicity worthy of Italian neorealism, overlaid with greater layer of moral ambiguity. Again as in Pan's Labyrinth, Sergi López plays the local fascist Alcalde, this time a less clearly sadistic one.

At the center is 11-year-old Andreu (Francesc Colomer), who at the outset witnesses a shocking crime. He sees a hooded figure kill a man, toss him in a covered wagon, then blindfold the horse pulling the wagon and cast the lot of them all off a cliff with a boy also trapped inside. Andreu's father Farriol (Roger Casamajor) is suspected of this shocking deed, perhaps because he has an anti-fascist background and anyone not fascist is now demonized. Farriol goes into hiding and Andreu is sent to live with his grandmother (Elisa Crehuet) in a houseful of widows. Andreu's lean, handsome father gives his son many inspiring peptalks about keeping the moral high ground, but all the while his own character remains somewhat suspect. Eventually Andreu will also turn away even from his long-suffering mother Florencia (Nora Navas) when he is adopted by a rich, plump Miss Havisham figure, Mrs. Manubens (Merce Aranega).

At school the teacher is a monomaniacal fascist drum-beater and alcoholic (Eduard Fernandez), who even sleeps with Andreu's feral, maimed but beautiful cousin Núria (Marina Comas) -- her hand has been blown up by a bomb. Yet he is not without redeeming qualities, and Fernandez conveys complexity when he advises Andreu to leave his past behind and seek a better life. Núria and Andreu become frequent companions, and roam the mysterious forest together (this is the Forbidden Games part). Here also he meets an older boy (Lázaro Mur), first spotting him bathing naked in that forest, who has TB, lives in the monastery, and imagines he has angels' wings. The none-too-subtle bird imagery extends to a pet in a red wooden cage kept by Andreu's dad. Obviously Andreu is to fly away, and the comsumptive boy can only dream of it.

It's Andreu's mother who approaches Mrs. Manubens when Farriol has been found and taken away. Not much comes of that, and Farriol is taken to Barcelona and shot, but Mrs. Manubens warms to the idea of adopting Andreu.

All this happens with a kind of precipitous energy fueled by the intense but simple cinematography, the understated, compelling acting, the emotional scenes, and the prevailing sense of fear and moral ambiguity in which Andreau remarkably, with the innocence and determination of a boy, sails through unharmed, or at least capable of accepting adoption and going to a good school that will change his future.

It's not necessary to undermine the rich accomplishment of Pan's Labyrinth to praise Black Bread, but it does shine forth precisely because of its simplicity and completely lack of the kind of baroque flourishes del Toro relishes. There is some strong handheld camera work, but also long tracking shots. The cinematography of Antonio Riestra is classic and the editing by Raul Roman is smooth and swift.

According to Jonathan Holland's review in Variety (and I take his word), this is Villaronga's "most mainstream film" but still "retains his trademark subversive edge." Holland also points to the way "as a depiction of rural poverty" the film is "impressive: The darkly lit, richly textured interiors seem to be an extension of the beautifully lensed natural landscape." Something about the simple dignity of the people offsets the danger and moral uncertainty of events and gives one a sense of humanistic tradition even in a world where all's gone mad and main characters like Andreu and his parents reject the comforts of religion.

Black Bread/Pa negre, whose sense of style is timeless, understandably won many awards, an unusual number for a film in Catalan, both at its San Sebastián festival debut and with nine Goyas after Spanish theatrical release including best picture and best director and prizes to most of the main actors. Both Francesc Colomer, who plays the young lead, and Marina Comas, who plays his cynical pal Núria, won "most promising" awards. Colomer, who is in nearly every scene, has a limpid confidence that stays with you as a memorable presence long after the final scene.

The film showed earlier this year in the US at the Palm Springs festival. Seen and reviewed as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2011.

SFIFF Screenings
Fri, Apr 29 3:00 / Kabuki
Mon, May 2 6:00 / Kabuki
Wed, May 4 9:15 / Kabuki

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