Thursday, December 23, 2010

SCN: ELISA K -- a child's trauma, then post-trauma, shown as indelibly as we've seen

When ELISA K sees its final Spanish Cinema Now appear-ance this evening at 5:30, TrustMovies would advise a visit. This is the kind of highly unusual film that may never find its way into US thea-ters again, or even onto DVD on this side of the Atlantic. Yet it's a stunner -- proving once again how very collaborative is the art of movies & how a satisfying whole can be created from a few well-chosen and executed scenes.

Dealing directly with a traumatic event that befalls the title character as a barely pre-teen child, the film moves from color prior to the day of the event to black-and-white from then until we see the girl again in adulthood, at which point we're back into a color palette. The co-directors Jordi Cadena (shown above, right, who adapted the film from a novel by Lolita Bosch) and Judith Collel (above, left, who gave us 53 Days on Winter a few years back) concentrate on the day of the event, its aftermath at home and in school, and then nearly fifteen years later, when Elisa, as an adult, suddenly recalls the event. Only 72 minutes long, the movie packs in a wealth of vital detail offered artfully and quietly -- until that adult scene, which is breathtakingly real and awful, finally providing an outlet for all the confusion, shame, guilt, fear, sadness and especially anger that has built up in the interim.

Cadena and Collell use mostly voice-over narration, a style of filmmaking that I usually do not like. Yet it works wonders here, helping to provide an uneasy calm and a sense of dread and impending disaster that is complimented well by the sumptuous black-and-white cinematography and a camera placed generally at enough distance to keep us separate but involved. (The cinematographer is Sergi Gallardo, who also shot 53 Days of Winter.) The filmmakers choose, wisely, I think, not to show us the event itself, nor to even describe it. This makes it worse in some ways, for we, like Eliza, try to figure how how it could possibly have happened. Her father was there, asleep on the couch, with her brother playing out on the terrace. And yet it did. And everything from that point on, has changed.

Elsa's parents, and her teacher at school, know something is wrong, but without cooperation from the child -- who has already repressed the event -- they can do no more than be present and offer their love and understanding, as they hope for the best. How the teacher handles things is especially moving and, under the circumstances, remarkably helpful -- a fact that Elsa somehow understands and appreciates as she grow older.

Elisa K is one of those films that bears out the less-is-more theory. Intelligent adult viewers, who have seen countless films and television movies dealing with this same subject, will bring their own knowledge to bear as they watch this film. Consequently its subtlety and pared-down scenario will force them to do a lot of the heavy-lifting. Yet, instead of seeming a cheat, this should enrich the movie for most viewers, engaging them in a much fuller manner so that the climax -- the scene of Elisa as an adult, coming to terms with the event -- will have that much more meaning and immediacy. This scene is amazing, by the way.

The actresses chosen for the young (Clàudia Pons, on the poster, top, and the two black-and-white photos, above) and older Alisa (Aina Clotet, one of the stars of 53 Days of Winter, shown in the two photos, immediately above) bear a fine physical resemblance to each other and each is riveting in her own way. The rest of the small cast does wonders with their limited roles. In some ways clinical -- showing us how the child thinks, feels and reacts in the time following the trauma -- the film is more often artful, as it places us in a situation that should chill the heart of any parent. It is movies like this one that make Spanish Cinema Now such a special -- and often surprising -- treat each year.

Elisa K plays again only this afternoon/evening at 5:30 at the Walter Reade Theater. Click here for more information.

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