Saturday, December 10, 2011

SCN: Memory & locale -- Spanish Civil War lives on in Alberto Morais' film THE WAVES; plus a short interview with the filmmaker

Spanish Cinema Now, 2011 edition, appears to be a year for learning lots of new things about the Spanish Civil War. From Ispansi! we discovered the thousands of Republican children sent to Russia as the war was being lost to theirfamilies; from 23-F (which I'll cover tomorrow), we see the attempted military coup during the post-Franco period to unseat the democratically elected government; and now, with Alberto Morais' quiet and serious film THE WAVES (Las Olas) we learn of the concentration camp that held so many Spaniards in Nazi-occupied France during WWII. We don't see the actual camp, except in a oddly endearing photograph, but we experience it via the mind and spirit of the 80-year-old man Miguel, as well as his best friend Fernando, both of whom were prisoners there.

With this, his first narrative feature, Señor Morais (his earlier documentary is titled A Place in the Cinema) seems determined to make us experience the importance of place -- location -- as well as that of memory, in movies. (For more on this, see the short filmmaker interview below.) To this end he unspools his movie very slowly. We spend a lot of time with Miguel, played by the fine old Spanish actor Carlos Álvarez-Nóvoa (shown below, from Scandalous, Elsa & Fred), recently widowed and now puttering about, spending time with family and finally vowing to go back to that camp on the beach where he was imprisoned. Finally, despite one difficulty after another, he does it.

This movie take some getting used to; in fact, for me, it took more discipline than usual to force my attention onto the screen and Miguel.  There is a lot of coming and going, especially driving in automobiles, and not much dialog to fill in the blanks. Eventually, however, if you stick with The Waves, you will, I believe, becomes attuned to the slow pace and the lack of story/events. You may, as Morais might like, become immersed in "place" rather than "pace."

Along the way, Miguel meets Blanca (the always fine Laia Marull, below, right, from Black Bread, Pretextos and Take My Eyes) and the movie picks up a bit. Then even more so, as Fernando enters the picture and we get a dose of history (Fernando does not want to go back to the location of the camp.) Those waves (of memory, really) crest and finally break when Miguel makes it to France and connects with someone who also remembers. The meeting is quiet, short and resolutely unsentimental. But I dare you not to feel something strong and memorable by the close of this "reunion/reconciliation."

The Waves screens twice only at the Walter Reade Theater: tomorrow, Sunday, December 11, at 9:15 pm and Monday, December 19, at 3:30 pm.


We meet with Alberto Morais (below) immediately following the press conference for Spanish Cinema Now at the New York chapter of Instituo Cervantes. In the following dialog, TrustMovies appears in boldface and Señor Morais in standard type.

I liked your film, but it took me awhile to get into it because it is slow – with a lot of driving and a lot of silence. That takes a certain discipline in the viewer. What was interesting to me, as an older man – I’m 70 and your character is 80. He clearly went thru what was a horrible time in the concentration camp – so horrible that his friend won’t even go back to it now -- so this was yet another look at the Spanish Civil War. But in a very different way: As memory, and as coming to terms with the event much later.

The point is that in Spain, most of the films that approach the Civil War or the people that came off of the country, they do this as melodrama, and they put the geography and history in the background.

Sort of Like Ispansi!?

Perhaps. I did not see it.

It’s wonderful, but it is melodramatic.

It is a more typical representation.

Right. And yours is not.

No. Because you cannot approach history if you cannot approach geography as a character.

Geography as a character? Wow!

Yes, that is the point of my film. This is something I have learned from the films of Ingmar Bergman and Theo Angelopoulos from Greece. They put history in the first term and that is what makes it a little slow, the film, but you have to see the places, the locations, because they are the main characters. And also, because Miguel is 80 years old, and his movements are slow. He is slow. And this is his first trip anywhere in 60 years, since the war.

His first trip ever?

Yes. Because when he came to Valencia, he married, and he has lived a gray life.

Gray? Gray, as in… boring, fuzzy, plain, tiresome... obscure?

Yes. (He points to a place on the wall of the room that is sort of... gray.)

He was happy with that life?

No. Not at all. He feels that he is in a country that is not his country. Without nothing. And in a time that you feel is not your time.

Wasn’t life under Franco gray. Life in general, for many of the people. Particularly those who either fought, or would have fought against Franco.

Yes, but most of the films about Franco-ism post-Francoism, where events are very dramatic and costume-filled, the are like theatre.

Oh, you mean theatrical. Overdone.

Yes, and when a filmmaker does that, it is very difficult to see this gray life of these gray people of this gray country. So that is the point of the film. They are in a present that is not the present. So they cannot deal with their past injuries. These are not open injuries. There are no scars. But they are injuries nonetheless.

This is a kind of post-traumatic stress. But not the normal kind we hear of now in Irag where you were bombed by and IED. These are other kinds of post-traumatic stress. The kind you cannot see.

For example, people who came from Vietnam here came back, and said, I was in hell. But nobody cares about their reality. So they are disapppointed and become aggressive. But in Spain there were 40 years of this happening.

Forty years of gray!

What I tried to say before, we have problems in Spain, and the filmmakers, too, because of these, and today you can see the repercussions from all this. Films that had to be done years ago are being done now.

Is this sort of like the films of Almodóvar becoming such a strong reaction against what had come before?

Almodóvar is the main case of a country that comes from tatters but does not want to review its past. Turning out a kind of film that says this is the life of joy, as if we were in New York! But Madrid in the 80s was not like New York in the 80s.

No, it was just recently post-Franco, and in fact, there was that attempted coup in what, 1980? The one that the movie 23-F explores.

The first real elections were in 1978. And this coup d’etat was in 1981.

But it didn’t work.

It didn’t work because they were a very Spanish type of doing it – very hilarious. But very serious, too. And very grave.

If someone like Franco has been in charge, it probably would have worked.

Of course, of course.

So after this attempted coup, then democracy really settled in?

One year later were the general elections.

(At this point we’re interrupted by the publicist, 
who asks us to wrap things up.)

I am so glad to have spoken with you, just to hear about the “gray” Spain!

Yes, gray, but there is a point in the film that is the only light. The Blanca character: She brings some light. And played by Laila Marrul. This character made real choices. And so she can bring some light. So this it the story of a gray person who goes to a place where he knows he cannot deal with the past.

But he knows he must do it.

Exactly. He must do it, to maybe close it.

When he gets to France, there is more light in the film, too. Literally and metaphorically. Because it is a different place, a different country, so there should be.


  (And then, unfortunately, our time is up.)

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