Sunday, December 26, 2010

BLACK BREAD and MOONCHILD complete SCN's Agustí Villaronga mini-retrospective

TrustMovies caught up only at their final showing with the last two films -- BLACK BREAD (Pa Negre) and MOON CHILD (El niño de la luna) -- in the Spanish Cinema Now retrospective of five of the 14 films that filmmaker Agustí Villaronga (shown above) has so far given us. (You can find TM's coverage of the earlier three here.) Moon Child (from 1989) still remains unavailable on home video in the USA, but he hopes that Black Bread will at least find its way to DVD and/or streaming, if not to a deserved theatrical release.

In a way, it's probably a shame that this filmmaker's first internatonal success was the hugely transgressive shocker, In a Glass Cage, followed by another less shocking and transgressive movie, El Mare, which still packed quite a wallop. In the minds of many of us film buffs, I suspect, these movies marked Villaronga as a kind of classy, horror/slasher-meister, a description that -- on the basis of the fine little retrospective presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center -- shows up that description to be woefully inadequate. Simply by viewing Villaronga's Aro Tolbukhim: The Mind of a Killer, a wonderful mixture of documentary and imagination, it is clear that the filmmaker possesses seriousness and skill that go far beyond mere shock.

Black Bread, I think, brings together literally everything this man is best at: showing us the vulnerable lives of children, together with their surprising strength and resilience, and how a fascist society's use of power shapes its people into sheep -- some killers, most victims, but all finally in the same, sinking boat. Villaronga is also expert in combining past and present into films that show how the former, never really gone, effects the latter.

His most mature and skillful film so far, Black Bread begins in the woods with a scene of quiet foreboding that escalates into something so surprising and shocking, yet so visually stunning, that it becomes one for the books. (Horse lovers be warned: This will disturb your sleep for decades, should you live that long.) Then we get into the film's real content: a child's education and growth, under the Franco regime.

What distinguishes Black Bread is its array of adult characters, all more complex than a first glance might suggest and all riven by past compromises, soon coming home to roost. We imagine we know for whom we must root (the child, of course) but we soon find that history, one we learn it, darkens everyone here, particular those adults we initially found most positive. Holding on to one's ideals is given much lip-service, and quite beautifully, too. But where were these ideals earlier in the game when some important, urgent choices had to be made?

Finally, the film -- adapted by Señor Villaronga from the novel by Emili Teixidor -- is about how the relatively innocent child becomes the complicated, problematic man. The film's final scene, equally moving and unsettling, is as subtle and quiet as that opening scene was full-out and shocking.  Black Bread is by far this filmmaker's richest, most fruitful work to date.

Moon Child, on the other hand -- made 21 years ago -- shows the filmmaker in territory most comfortably occupied by Argentine metaphysical filmmaker Eliseo Subiela (the award-winning Man Facing Southeast and Don't Die Without Telling Me Where You're Going). Here, Villaronga offers us a fantasy/sci-fi fable full of symbolism (from that moon onwards) about a gifted, magical child and his quest.  Being early Villaronga, however, the film is also full of voyeuristic sex, some of it rather transgressive. Power and its use is front and center, as shown both by the boy himself, and the very fascistic cult of moon- worshipers into whose hands the kid falls.

Making the would-be heroine a rather slow-moving, drunken slut is a nice, if odd, choice.  The real heroine surprises us (and herself) as she slowly grows into the role. There's hair-breath escape, suspense, a chase, murder, and more -- all of it filtered though a story-book sensibility that is often quite charming and dear.  Plus there's a chance to see the fine actor Lluís Homar (who graced SCN with a personal appearance this year) in a small early role.

The print we viewed at SCN was not the best, but it evidently was the best available. Moon Child is no lost masterpiece, that's for sure. But simply for the opportunity to see this so-far unavailable film, we're grateful.

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