Monday, December 7, 2009

SCN: With GORDOS, Daniel Sánchez Arévalo tackles the weight-loss game

How we look -- and how we think and feel about how we look -- chafes at writer/director Daniel Sánchez Arévalo, and that's a good thing for us. The two full-length features and one superb short that TrustMovies has seen from this writer/director over the past few years show a keen interest in and understanding of self-image and what it can do to/for us.

Among the many wonderful things about GORDOS, which might best be English-translated as Fatties), which premiered last night at the FSLC's Spanish Cinema Now, is that young Arévalo (well, he's 39), shown at right, is not content to give us inspirational platitudes about being the best we can be, or just being who we are, or even being who we want to be. His characters might be into this sort of thing, but by the end of his dark, warm, funny, sad and enormously appealing movie, he's covered all these variations and then gone back again. "We're constantly changing," he told us at his thoughtful Q&A following the screening, "so what's right today might not be tomorrow." Indeed. And how some of his people in this new film deal with one of life's bigger changes -- pregnancy, anyone? -- is by turns surprising, mystifying, amusing and profound.

One of the things I especially enjoy about Arévalo's work is that he's willing to take chances in his content and style. Gordos is glossier than his previous films (though nothing he does ever looks homemade), which makes sense considering that this film deals with TV shows and famous personalities among its several stories. His stylish camera movements reach an climax in the penultimate scene: a kind of reconciliation between one of his leading ladies (newcomer Leticia Herrero, above right) and her man, the ever-amazing Raúl Arévalo (above left and no relation to the director), of Blind Sunflowers, Seven Billiard Tables and all of this director's most recent work.) Here, actor Arévalo plays Alex, a can't-help-it cad in the thrall of a fundamentalist Christian sect, and Ms Herrero, as his chubby wife, gives a performance of such sweetness and luminosity that their penultimate scene together is sheer heaven, capped off by a circular camera movement that left me more moved by its combination of feeling and artistry than I have been in quite some time.

Gordos is an ensemble piece, however, and the Herrero/Arévalo pairing is but one gem. Probably the most attention-getting story will be the one featuring another actor oft-used by this filmmaker: Antonio de la Torre, who plays the fellow who, thin and svelte, used to hawk the weight-loss product at the center of the film until he gained a few kilos. The actor himself gained -- and then lost -- a ton of weight before, during and after the shoot. And lived to tell about it. De la Torre is sensational in his role and, interestingly enough, almost as sexy and attractive with the extra poundage (above, right) as without (above, left).

The other three stories concern a family of fatties, below (the father, mother and daughter: only the son is thin), a successful young professional woman in a relationship with a bi-sexual, and the leader of the weight-loss group, Roberto Enríquez (bathing, above right) who is having his own concerns with his school-teacher partner (Verónica Sánchez, above left).

In uniting these various strands Arévalo uses a rather complex structure including the four steps of the weight-loss plan, and within these a back-and-forth, present/past time frame, a very fluid camera, and some clever juxtapositions. The fucking/birthing combination, with its thrust/push, if not a visual "first" (and it may be) is certainly done with a fine irony here. For some, this scene will be too coarse but, to his credit, this director acknowledges the necessity of carnal pleasure, along with that of the spiritual, intellectual and emotional variety. As I say, that penultimate scene is as beautiful as any in recent memory, but the film's final scene may confuse you. I made peace with it to my satisfaction;
I hope you can too.

Gordos screens again at the Walter Reade this Friday, December 11, at 1:30 and 6:30 pm.


At his Q&A following last night's screening, Daniel Sánchez Arévalo and his lead actor Antonio de la Torre made a great team, as they fielded questions from the stage (the FSLC's Richard Peña moderated) and from the audience. The first question came regarding Antonio's enormous increase in weight. He told us that he gained a total of 72 pounds in a period of about four months.

TrustMovies asked the director to talk a bit about his concerns with self-image, and Arévalo obliged by explaining the it is all about finally taking care of oneself, even if that means completely changing-- because everything in life must change.

How did the filmmaker find his actors? Some he works with consistently, but Arévalo gave credit to de la Torre for beginning it all with his willingness to gain, then lose, that weight. Once he came aboard, the film was easier to cast. Two of his stars, the director explained, were first timers -- Leticia and Marta Martín -- and he had to work with them for four months before committing to them for these roles. "They had to be able to work at the level of the other actors, and we had to know that they could. Working with Raúl Arévalo helped Leticia so much because he is one of the best actors in Spain and is so generous. There was a lot of psychology involved in all this, too, because we had to make certain the two young actresses would stick out the entire shoot."

About the film's themes and ideas, the writer/director told us that he is rather obsessed with cycles: "Life itself is a cycle and you always end up at the same point you've begun, yet you have changed inside. You've learned. We hope that all these people, finally, will be less unhappy."

What about Antonio, one audience member wondered? Did the actor like his character and the changes he had to go through? "It was a very hard experience for me," the actor explained. "All that extra weight changed everything for me: I was tired all the time, my walk was so different -- I was walking like a pregnant woman." Were you afraid to gain the weight because you might not be able to take it back off, one woman asked? "No, it was more that I was afraid that I might not be able to gain the weight, and then we could not do the movie!" He started gaining it while in NYC two years ago, he told us. "I got to eat at all these great restaurants and not worry about the kilos! I gained what you would measure as a total of about 35 of the pounds by the end of that trip."

Regarding the differences between directing and screenwriting, Arévalo explained that he had to leave the screenwriter at home for this film. "I rehearsed so much with the actors, who were all so good and gave so much that we ended up using much of what they brought in the dialog. The result was much better than my original work," he said. "Some sequences were complete improvisations. It's good to be modest, and believe that your thing can be improved."

Why the religious component to the film, another audience member inquired? "Spain is a very Catholic country. Religion is so much a part of our lives. What happens in that religious cult we show may seem over the top to some of you, but it is not. We see things like this all the time. Using religion in the film for me was a good way to talk about some of the ideas and question the film raises. For me the whole idea is less like religion but more like something spiritual. I know that the ending is a problem for some people. You have to look at it as something spiritual. That is what is the true essence of the Alex character!"

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