Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon May 10, 2021 9:37 pm 
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A nowhere town itching to burst its chain

Beatrice Loayza in her New York Times preview of this year's New Directors/New Films series heralded Ainhoa Rodriguez's distinctive and surprisingly mature debut feature Destello bravío as one of three good films in the 2021 series about older women. This one as she put it is about ladies of a certain age stuck in "a dead-end Spanish town" with their "idiot male components " with their "gloomy routine" periodically interrupted "by bursts of surreal eroticism, unsettling manifestations of their repressed desires." That is an overview of Destello bravío. But that doesn't convey the style and the wit of it.

What I like about this film isn't just its distinctive grayish look, painterly in village landscapes and positively Vermeer-ish in the interiors, but the natural flowing rhythm of its dialogue, which contrasts with the awkward, self-conscious scripts of other ND/NF first films.

There is nobody young here and there's no escaping the men are burnt-out old birds and the women have lost their looks, though some of the latter cover that with the elegance of piled up hairdos you want to see, careful makeup, and lizard skin high heels. This is Spain, after all. There is a solemnity and quiet grandeur even about the bourgeois living rooms.

This is a town in the Estramadura, a remote region of Spain near Portugal. Letterboxd reviewer Michael Sicinski specifies Tierra de Barros, and says with cruel wit that Rodríguez's version of it is "a universe where all the young people have moved on, and seemingly taken narrative development with them." Definitely, the focus here is a state of mind and state of society, not an event. The director isn't concerned with philosophical pronouncements à la Roy Andersson or scary evocations of weirdness à la David Lynch. There are characters. Perhaps it's true they aren't threaded through the film quite as clearly as they might be, but there are some potent sequences, notably a woman taken out and humiliated by men, left all night naked in the countryside to come back next day weeping. There is the big banquet of ladies who get drunk and start writhing and making out. Admittedly stylistic and technical decisions wind up giving most scenes their distinctive feel.

It's also clear that Rodríguez is concerned to bring out the hypocrisy of Catholicism and the deeply entrenched differences in genders, as she does by setting the action around Holy Week and switching back and forth between all-male and all-female gatherings. She is also more focused on a mood than on individual stories, an imminence of something dire that hovers over the near-nothingness. Leonardo Goi in The Film Stage notes the unnamed, unspecified town "juts into being from a fable, a land of almost biblical desolation and solitude." "The old folks marooned here." he writes, are the "last surviving members of an old species, but the film is so committed to its oneiric and sepulchral fabric that they may as well be dead already. Ghosts in a ghost town." They are half dead - someone even says so. Or they may be on the edge of an apocalypse, the sudden "mighty flash" of the title that a strange woman predicts, in one of her pronouncements to herself into a tape recorder, will one day suddenly possess the valley. Sound effects constantly predict something mad and strange - but it may just as well be only a collective desire for such a thing to relieve the boredom.

Maybe not everything comes together here. But this is work that makes you sit up and take notice. Forced to watch it at home, I switched to my big screen and turned up the sound. I wanted to hear the full resonance ofr those pungent voices and savor those colors and that fancy makeup of the vain ladies well past their prime. It would be very interesting to know how Rodríguez cast this film and how she got these balls-out performances from all these old people.

Mighty Flasy/ Destello Bravío, 98 mins., debuted at Rotterdam, showing also at FICUNAM (Mexico) and it was screened at home for this review as part of the MoMA/Film at Lincoln Center series New Directors/New Films (Apr. 28-May 8, 2021). Last Chance to Rent May 11, 6:00 PM ET.

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