Saturday, December 11, 2010

SCN: Emilio Aragón's PAPER BIRDS tracks a 1930s vaudeville troupe under Franco's fist

After having just witnessed a troupe of circus performers laboring under the regime of Francisco Franco (in Álex de la Iglesia's The Last Circus), we now welcome another new film about vaudevillians attempting the same thing: PAPER BIRDS (Pájaros de papel), from noted Spanish television director Emilio Aragón. Yet no two movies could seem further apart in terms of style and execution. In outline and content, Señor Aragón has given us a rather conventional melodrama -- but, ah, the details. In everything from its picture-perfect sets, props and costumes (all so lovingly rinky-dink and dusty) to the two splendid performances from the film's leading men, the movie clicks into place early on and grows ever more powerful and moving as it unfolds. Here's yet another Spanish film that shows us the unending toll of that country's Civil War.

Bring a box or two of Kleenex to pass around, however, for Paper Birds is a four-hanky movie. Just as the audience at Spanish Cinema Now had finished drying its eyes in preparation for the Q&A with co-writer (with Fernando Castets) and director Aragón, the filmmaker (shown at right) informed us that the character of the young boy (who provides the cement that links the movie's people and events) was based on that of his own father. Splat! Those tear ducts opened right back up. Little wonder the film was such a box-office success in Spain. It would seem to have everything -- history, war, suspense, comedy, romance and even music. This movie has one of the most beautiful themes, heard at both its beginning and finale (and composed by the filmmaker!), to grace the screen in quite some time.

About those grand performances: They come from two leading men who, together, have amassed over 150 film and TV roles between them: Imanol Arias (above) and Lluís Homar (below). They complement and play off each other like fine musicians perfectly in control of their instruments. Watching them is a consistent delight.

In addition to the leads, Aragón has assembled a well-chosen cast of actors who play the various vaudeville performers (below) and the military men who constantly invade their space. A fine third major performance comes from the young boy who plays the catalyst, Miguel: Roger Príncep (shown below, center, with Señor Homar).

There's a lovely, rigorous and very "lived-in" performance by Carmen Machi (below), as the troupe's leading chanteuse.  And there are surprises along the way, as well as several events that simply do not conform to Hollywood's happily-ever-after syndrome.

With all this, it would seem that the film should be a shoo-in for US distribution. But maybe not. The Spanish-Civil-War theme does not resonate with most Americans, yet it is central to what happens in the movie and why -- including the extremely moving coda that closes the film. Despite this, I hope the film does see some US distribution, at the very least on DVD or VOD. What a shame not to give the American audience a good tear-duct workout, the likes of which it won't have experienced in quite awhile.

Paper Birds plays one more time at the Walter Reade Theater -- Saturday, December 18, at 4:20.  You can view the entire Spanish Cinema Now program by clicking here.

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