New narratives: Spanish stories at London Film Festival 2016

Five surprising films by Spanish and Latin American directors at this year’s LFF explored the consolations and tricks offered by storytelling.

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Callback (2016)

Callback (2016)


The overarching preoccupation of the Spanish-language films selected for this year’s London Film Festival was exploring different modes of storytelling, particularly their more playful aspects – and the traps that can be sprung on the unwary viewer. Of the five films I’ve chosen to focus on, two are in English, one in Spanish and the remaining two in Latin American Spanish. Callback, A Monster Calls, The Reunion, Neruda and The Untamed all share more than just a taste for the actual nuts and bolts of narrative and use stories – the ones we tell to ourselves, those we are told, and the ones we experience between the two.


1. Callback

Carles Torras, Spain-USA

My LFF journey this year started with a psychological thriller in the vein of Taxi Driver and Tony Manero. Callback, Spanish director Carles Torras’s fantastical and fantastically perplexing fourth feature (and his first in English), seems to be just as much the vision of the film’s scriptwriter and protagonist, Chilean Martín Bacigalupo.

If Hollywood has trumpeted one fairytale above all others, it has to be the American Dream. Which is exactly what thirtysomething Larry is in pursuit of, scraping by in a grubby, colour-drained, racist and cruel New York, an aspiring publicity voiceover actor who gets by working as a removal guy and on petty thefts.

Larry is forced to live under an assumed identity, as much because of his illegal status as to deal with the harshness of his fiercely lonely existence. Unsurprisingly, human contact in the form of a flatmate stirs an emotional response in him, and things soon start getting very weird. Permeated by the monumental awkwardness of a protagonist whose monotone speech is dictated by the publicity stunts he rehearses, this superbly paced and genuinely bizarre psychological thriller comments chillingly on the cruelty and isolation of immigration.


2. A Monster Calls

J.A. Bayona, USA-Spain

A Monster Calls (2016)

In his third feature, Spanish director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible) also opts to film in English for the second time in his career, and further explores one of his abiding themes, the bond between mother and child. A lonely, bullied 12-year-old English boy, Conor, imagines being visited by a millennial tree-monster (beautifully rendered in 3D) to help him overcome the trauma of losing his single mother to cancer. Keeping in check the raw emotions that characterise Bayona’s films (though they are still very much worn on the sleeve in the soundtrack), the other familiar element is a return to the psychological trappings of The Orphanage.

Except this time, instead of horror tropes, the story revolves around three animated fairy tales, Bayona’s supple handling of which really draws out their darkest qualities. The painterly quality of these breathtaking animated segments – a mix of watercolours and stop-motion animation – directly reference Conor’s vivid use of his own imagination in order to survive. He, like his mother, has a gift for painting, which he uses to transmute his pain, rage and anger into an artistic creation, as depicted in the film’s beautiful epilogue. So in the end it is the capacity of art to create something anew, to redraw one’s own reality, that triumphs.


3. The Reunion

(La reconquista) Jonás Trueba, Spain

The Reunion (2016)

The Reunion (2016)

From the stories we tell to ourselves to cope, to the stories we retell and relive if we happen to meet a past love. Who we are is as much how others experience us as what we ourselves experience, and there’s surely nothing more intense and revealing than our first adolescent love. This is the subject of the truly delightful The Reunion, Jonás Trueba’s fourth feature, in which he once more (following 2010’s Every Song is About Me, 2013’s The Wishful Thinkers and 2015’s Los exiliados románticos), yet this time rather differently, deals with the private, inaudible music that make relationships dance.

The film is divided into three acts, corresponding to present, future and past. In Madrid, beautifully captured by DP Santiago Racaj, thirtysomething Olmo and Manuela meet 15 years after they were together. Trueba uses a love letter Olmo wrote to Manuela when they were adolescents as the trigger for a Richard Linklater-style trip down memory lane, but in place of the latter’s verbosity, the pace here is dictated by silences and the smallest of gestures – like the subtlest hand caress slowed down and shown in extreme close-up – and an ambiguity and unpredictability that allows for a multiplicity of interpretations (think a very light Rashomon touch). The protagonists spend the night roaming the streets until the crisp magic hour of the next morning.

Refreshingly avoiding gender expectations, Trueba’s film relishes the ambiguities it sets up, and reflects on the impossibility of experiencing anything from a genuinely objective point of view. It is no coincidence that Olmo is a translator who “prefers to rewrite somebody else’s words” and Manuela is herself an actress. The very conscious decision to finish on the recreation of a past – or rather, on one of the many versions of its construction – which is as much scrutinised and questioned as it is idealised, foregrounds how much of the relationship between experience and memory is nothing more than an act of rewriting.


4. Neruda

Pablo Larraín, Chile-Argentina-France-Spain

Neruda (2016)

Neruda (2016)

Stories are the bread and butter of Pablo Larraín’s utterly brilliant Neruda, a film that needs to be watched more than once. Like a juggler, Larraín keeps in the air all the paradoxes and contradictions of the legend, the folktale, the myth and the man to (de)construct, in his own words, a Nerudian antibiopic of the Chilean diplomat, poet and Nobel prizewinner as working-class symbol, but also as a narcissist and a brothel habitué who is yet utterly in love with his wife.

He does so with a truly unsettling, mesmerisingly ironic panache that obliquely recalls Fellini’s  and Bertolucci’s The Conformist, as the surreal and burlesque go hand in hand with the rapid rise of fascism in Chile unfolding in the background. The opening shows Neruda’s trial after he publicly denounced the imprisonment of communist miners, which, carefully choreographed, takes place in the men’s toilets. Thus the demystification of any possible faithful representation – or indeed rewriting – of history is set up, captured perfectly by the tagline accompanying the film’s release in Chile: “Forget What You Know”.

Penned by The Club’s Guillermo Calderón, the result is a kind of discursive theatre of Grand Guignol that puts on display, at a very specific time in Neruda’s life, the paradoxes of his own doubts and obsessions about his role and identity, but also the contradictions of politics inside and outside Chile, which lead to an increasingly dictatorial regime.

The stroke of genius is the introduction of an ambitious, eager yet dim detective, Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal’s best performance to date), in pursuit of the writer-now-in-hiding. With a surname that sounds suspiciously close to peluche, or soft toy in Spanish, Peluchonneau is set up both as Neruda’s nemesis and also (for a delirious, paradoxical moment that leads to the detective’s own sense of (non)being) as his creation. The film becomes a homage to Neruda’s own favourite literary genre, but most notably, to the art of storytelling itself. After all, Pablo is also the name of the filmmaker.


5. The Untamed

(La región salvaje) Amat Escalante, Mexico-Denmark-France

The Untamed (2016)

The Untamed (2016)

Finally, what for me has to be the most mind-boggling film of this year’s London Film Festival. Mexican provocateur Amat Escalante has previously caused something of a stir with his use of graphic violence, particularly in the (in)famous Heli (2013). Escalante has declared himself unwilling to resort for the fourth time to his customary hyper-realism to depict the extreme moral degradation of contemporary Mexico. Instead, his magnificently obscure and baffling new feature turns his attention to family dysfunction in a film about domestic abuse, addiction, repression and homophobia (amongst other things). And this time the currency in which he trades is sci-fi/erotica/horror paired up with social realism. It’s not just the story you tell but how you tell it.

The Untamed is outstanding, even if it does take quite a while to arrive at a possible or plausible interpretation of what you are seeing (as well as a lot of head-scratching afterwards); it undeniably stays with you, for better or worse. It’s about gender violence filtered through a Lynchian house of mirrors – a tale of four people in their twenties. Nomad Verónica turns up in a hospital with what seems like a dog-bite and is attended to by Fabián, an out-of-the-closet homosexual who befriends her. His sister Ale has two young children and is married to Ángel, who regularly hits her and launches into homophobic tirades about Fabián. In reality, Ángel is having a relationship with Fabián, and the consequences of inner and outer repression (sexual, social, marital) soon have devastating results.

So far, so social drama. Eventually, though, all four are introduced to the cause of Verónica’s wound – a tentacled alien form that reached earth on a meteorite; a monster that nods to Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (which Escalante references in the credits). Kept in a cabin in the woods, this alien allegedly gives extreme pleasure to those it accepts and extreme pain to those it rejects. Superbly shot by Chilean cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro (Nymph()maniac), the very graphic, near body-horror moments are seamlessly blended with the disturbingly mundane scenes of marital abuse and an image reminiscent of Lars von Trier (or even last year’s Évolution) showing the crater where the meteor fell, full of animals fornicating. The wild region of the title thus becomes the liberation of our most basic desires.

In order to achieve the release and ecstasy that the tentacled alien gives, one has to be alone, in the dark, open to everything and allowing oneself to be penetrated (quite literally in this case) from multiple points of entry. Sexual connotations aside, isn’t this similar to the promise and titillating possibilities offered up by all the different strands, films, characters etc that constitute a festival? An experience so pleasurable that we’re momentarily lost in others’ stories? As Olmo’s letter puts it in The Reunion, we have the “gift to live twice”.

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