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pages from a cold island: THE SOUTH WILL RISE AGAIN

See I was born and I will die here 
And the seasons never change 
Scatter my ashes in the water 
The gods have smiled, all hail the new queen

The south will rise again
The Auteurs, The South Will Rise Again (1999)

I call it Brodkey Syndrome. A term deriving from a 1994 newspaper interview with the now-deceased Harold Brodkey—author of famously long-gestating novel The Runaway Soul—in which he recalls how, as a young man, he "lay in Central Park, looking up at the sky, thinking, 'If only I'd been tall.' He got up to walk home, and then remembered that he was."

My most recent example of this odd psychological peccadillo came a couple of days ago when chatting to an acquaintance who runs a profitable small business. This pal has recently returned from a long weekend in San Sebastian, the medium-sized, relatively affluent resort-city in northern Spain, just across the French border from Biarritz. This was his dozenth such jaunt, and for a moment I found myself envying this jet-setting, hedonistic, continent-hopping lifestyle—until I reminded myself that I, too, had just returned from several extremely pleasant days in exactly the same enviable location.

Of course my sojourn in "SanSe" (as it's called by locals who don't prefer the Basque-language name Donostia) was, I assured myself, work rather than play. I'd been asked to visit what has become Spain's biggest film-related event on behalf of a slightly smaller such jamboree in northern Norway. My mission: to track down a few features suitable for the Tromso International Film Festival, which takes place some way north of the Arctic Circle in the middle of January, just before the sun returns to the sky.

My only previous SanSe trip—in 2003—hadn't been without sun-related traumas. I was there for pretty much the whole of the ten-day festival that time, and the first half saw near-unbearable, unseasonable-for-September temperatures in excess of 30 degrees C. Then a thick sea-fog came in, cooling things down to around 15 degrees, ensuring that I returned home as pallid as I'd left.

On the plus side, such environmental extremes ensured that I spent plenty of time inside darkened movie-houses—escaping the intense heat or fleeing the clammy precipitation—and duly clocked up 32 features in ten days (no walk-outs!) the highlights of which were Achero Manas's puppetry-and-politics satire Noviembrea picture which was widely overlooked at the time and has never received a fraction of the attention it deserved—plus the structurally brilliant Unfaithfully Yours (1948) from the typically-exhaustive Preston Sturges retrospective.

Six years on, my Tromso-duties meant I had to concentrate entirely on non-archival features. But my determination to take sample as many titles as possible during the four full days of my attendance, plus the comparatively mild weather (mercury around the 20-22 mark), with hardly a rain-cloud in sight, did make walking out an all-too-tempting possibility this time around.

The non-cinematic pleasures of San Sebastian itself were additional, recurring prods exit-ward: knowing that there's a superb little place (or five) serving pintxos (the Basque-region's elaborate bar-top variant on tapas) merely feet away doesn't exactly give one much patience when labouring through a cinematic enterprise of questionable merit.

Nor does the proximity of such spectacular seaside vistas, from the remarkably ocean-like mouth of the Urumea river (which flows right next to the main festival centre, the post-modern giant-sugarcube-like boxiness that is the Kursaal Palace), to the Paseo Nuevo promenade that loops back around the hill which looms over the city centre, allowing walkers to gawp at the primal power of the green-blue waves as they smash onto vast, rugged breakwaters and how-did-they-get-them-into-place blocky rocks.

And the movies themselves? Well, a significant proportion unfolded at such a sedate tempo that certain impatient patrons were sent scurrying for fresh air long before the end-credits rolled. My bail-out tally was 5 from 22 by the time I jetted back (via Biarritz airport) to Blighty—exactly the same number, as it happens, of movies I considered "Tromso-worthy."

As befits what has become one of the world's leading showcases of Spanish-language cinema, only one of my favoured quintet was non-Hispanophone: Pelin Esmer's 10 to 11 (11'e 10 kala), a kind of Istanbul variant on Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, in which a crotchety octogenarian stands mule-stubborn firm against the brute forces of 21st-century progress.

Of the remaining four, two were "local" Spanish productions—though both unfolded far away from San Sebastian/Donostia's chic, well-heeled environs. The nighttown of Madrid is the backdrop for —and, in a way, one of the main characters in—Javier Rebollo's exquisitely poised Woman Without Piano (La mujer sin piano), uninflectedly tracing a middle-aged beautician's impulsive peregrinations through nocturnal, decidedly Edward Hopper-ish zones of the national capital.

Rather more of a crowdpleaser is the Seville-set Me, Too (Yo, tambien)—one of those pictures that (like Manas's Noviembre) sounds decidedly unpromising on paper but proves a very pleasant surprise on celluloid. Set in the unfamiliar surroundings of the Andalucian metropolis Seville, this bittersweet affair from writer-directors Alvaro Pastor and Antonio Nahorro is an office-romance between two colleagues—he a bright, articulate chap who happens to have Down Syndrome, she a dyed-blonde Looking for Mr. Goodbar type.

Genuinely touching and funny when it needs to be, and hardly ever tipping into mawkishness or sentimentality, Me, Too is rather more "commercial" fare than one might expect to find in competition at an august and long-running film festival (it won Best Actor and Best Actress; Rebollo took Best Director), but is executed with sufficient confidence and uncomplicated freshness to more than warrant inclusion in such company.
Not that the "company" was so exalted - general consensus in and around the Kursaal was that the competition at the 57th San Sebastian International Film Festival (a.k.a. Donostia Zinemaldia) was a so-so affair. Perhaps the most keenly debated in the Old Town'scidrerias was Isaki Lacuesta's The Damned (Los condenados) - a Spanish production set in an unspecified country many interpreted as Argentina, dealing with the aftermath of 1970s/80s revolutionary politics. It took the FIPRESCI prize, and I could sort of see why, but couldn't get over the fact that (spoiler alert!) Jorge Luis Borges told pretty much the same story in about three pages - and with much more insight - as Theme of the Traitor and Hero.
In the end the main-competition jury, headed by Laurent Cantet, went for Lu Chuan's City of Life and Death, a 135-minute dramatisation of 1937's Rape of Nanking. This was widely regarded as something of a surprise, though in retrospect the fact that this was the longest film in competition, the only one in black and white, and the one dealing with the most harrowing and historically-significant subject-matter, made it seem something of a shoo-in.

City of Life and Death was never on my to-see list, as it had already been checked out by another of Tromso's programmers. Indeed, I ended up giving most of the competition a swerve, instead hunting out hidden gems in the sidebars—where, in a generally very mixed bag, I tracked down a couple of Tromso must-haves in the Horizontes Latinos section dedicated to Spanish-language cinema from all over the world.

These were Optical Illusions (Illusiones opticas) by Cristian Jimenez and Perpetuum Mobile by Nicolas Pereda: the former a Chile-Portuguese co-production shot in Valdivia, southern Chile; the latter a Mexican-Canadian co-production shot in Mexico City. Both are prime examples of the seemingly ever-burgeoning strength of Latin American cinema—although, given the vast, disparate geography and cultural eclecticism covered by that definition, it sometimes seems more a handy journalistic peg for film critics than anything else.

As well as operating at the far northern and southern ends of Latin America, these two films are radically different in almost every significant regard. Optical Illusions is a sprawling urban-connections affair in the genre of Magnolia, Lantana and Short Cuts, whereby we move between various sets of characters who are related to each other in tenuous, tangential ways. Here, the principal point of contact is that most of the individuals we see are somehow involved with "VidaSur," a mercifully fictional—but all too plausible—private health-care conglomerate, and/or a certain faceless downtown shopping mall.

Perpetuum Mobile is much more focused in that it is has a single protagonist: a twentysomething, whippet-thin, mournful-faced lad named Gabino (played by Gabino Rodriguez) who lives with his overweight, kvetching, nagging mother in a poky city-centre flat. He works as a removal man with his pal Francisco (Francisco Barreiro), and the film is a collection of episodes in which we observe the fairly small-scale mishaps and misadventures he encounters at home, at work, and in between.

On the technical side, Optical Illusions—which is Jimenez's first feature—feels like the work of a mature film-maker with several movies under his belt. Shot on 35mm film and lit with slick, gleaming professionalism by cinematographer Inti Briones, the tripod-mounted camerawork operates within a notably sophisticated visual grammar. Great attention paid to colour co-ordination and symmetry in a manner that recalls Wes Anderson—and also his Swedish near-namesake Roy Andersson, especially in the surprisingly "Nordic" deadpan wit of Jimenez's script (co-written with Alicia Scherson, herself responsible for another fine Chilean feature, Tourists [Turistas]).

Indeed, a couple of the characters look like they could easily have strayed from the universe of Aki Kaurismaki, Jimenez conjuring similar zones of mild, quietly unsettling strangeness in which the oddest of behaviour may pass without eyelash-flicker. Overall, the film that it reminds me most strongly of is, coincidentally enough, that of another Cristian: Cristian Mungiu's under-appreciated 2002 debut Occident, which painted a similarly gloomy view of contemporary consumerist society through deftly-handled interlocking plots.

Perpetuum Mobile, third feature from Pereda after 2003's Where are their Stories? (¿Dónde están sus historias?) and the little-seen Juntos from earlier this year, is a much more rough-and-ready affair in terms of look and feel. Shot on lowish-definition video, with hand-held cameras whose focus occasionally drifts in and out, and a dusty, dunnish palette of greys and browns, it has the air of a no-budget documentary in which we peep, semi-randomly, into the lives of Gabino and his intimates. But there's a definite structure here—the picture is bookended with extended sequences concerning an elderly woman eventually revealed as Gabino's grandmother—which helps the picture build an odd, beguiling kind of momentum that's cumulatively amusing. Perhaps even hilarious.

The title, for example, works as a joke on at least two levels (maybe three or four), given Gabino's profession, his lack of education, and the atmosphere of stasis within which he's enveloped. Superb on the quotidian dynamics of the workplace (Gabino and Francisco playing impromptu basketball with a bucket in the back of their truck) and the home (Gabino's mother letting off steam with her dog Ramon on top of her bed), the scoreless film has an a disarming directness that proves unexpectedly absorbing.

Just as Optical Illusions dangerously skirts mannerism in its just-so depictions of offbeat ordinary lives, Perpetuum Mobile will strike some as yet another arthouse example of slowness for slowness's sake, a 33 1/3 r.p.m. evocation of torpor. But there's a certain quality to Pereda's approach that marks it out from the general run of "film festival fodder": partly his intriguing, on-the-hoof visual sense (transcending the budgetary and technical limitations of what was evidently a lo-fi production), partly his judicious sprinkling of dry humour, partly his sensitivity to just how long each scene needs to be in order to pull its weight.

I emerged from the darkness of the Teatro Municipal Principal very thankful that I'd disobeyed the heretical impatience that had led to me, a couple of years back, giving up on Where are their Stories? after 25 minutes or so (and which has since sent me raking through various boxes in search of the DVD.) I wandered along to the old port—actually not that old, though it feels redolent of deep antiquity - and gave thanks to San Sebastian's presiding spirit.

No, not the ostentatious Rio-like arms-outstretched Christ on the hill-top; rather the much more humble sea-level, quay-side statue of the man known as Aita Mari. Born Jose Maria Zubia Zigaron in 1809, this "Grace Darling" of Donostia staged countless life-boat rescues during the mid-1860s which made him a kind of secular "patron saint" around these parts. He himself was drowned during a particuarly evil squall in July 1861—but "used several times his skill to take the fisherman from the paw of a furious sea."

***

pages from a cold island is a monthly dispatch from the European film scene by Neil Young.

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