Friday, December 10, 2010

SCN's retrospective on Agustí Villaronga -- ARO TOLBUKIN: THE MIND OF A KILLER, EL MAR and IN A GLASS CAGE

This year's Spanish Cinema Now tribute to Majorican-born filmmaker Agustí Villaronga (shown at right) offers five of his films, including his newest (and probably destined to be his most successful in terms of box-office) Pa Negre (Black Bread). The first of his films seen by TrustMovies (and, he suspects, most Americans who are familiar with the man's work) was the ground/barrier-breaking Tras al cristal (IN A GLASS CAGE from 1986). This movie -- which another ground/barrier-breaking filmmaker John Waters has declared a great film, but one that he is afraid to show to his friends -- is so very transgressive that in describing the film, it's hard to know where to begin among its many transgressions.

Yet when you meet the man himself, as did the press yesterday morning at a Q&A coffee-and-breakfast-klatch hosted at one of SCN's co-sponsors Instituto Cervantes, he seems -- shy and sweetly self-effacing -- to utterly belie the title of the FSLC's tribute (The Savage Eye: The Films of Agustí Villaronga). Speaking briefly with him after the Q&A, seeing his shyness up close and hearing him tell me that my Spanish (which is abysmal) was better than his English, I really wanted to hug him to me, tell him not to worry and assure him that everything would be all right. (You'll be happy to hear that I refrained; at 6'8", any sudden movement I make tends to scare normal folk out of their shoes.) Despite Señor Villaronga's kind persona, In a Glass Cage is an ugly and frightening movie, strange and complex, revealing its secrets of the past slowly, amidst torture and pain. It's unmissable, yet I can't quite recommend it -- until, at least, I get that OK from your physician.  (The movie screens at the Walter Reade Theater on Sunday, Dec. 12 at 2, and again on Thursday, Dec. 16 at 8:40.)

The second of Villaronga's film in the retrospective that I've seen (some years back) is EL MAR (2000), another very dark movie in which the past haunts the present -- but one noticeably less given to gore and terror. (Don't worry: there's enough blood and death to sate dark hearts.) The Spanish Civil War, seldom far from this country's art, rears it head again as three old friends, who earlier experienced something terrible, now reunite to find that there is no closure for evil and its effects. Again, as co-writer and director, Villa-ronga beautifully weaves time periods, characters, longings and actions into a beautiful, deadly whole. El Mar screens at the Walter Reade on Tuesday, Dec 21, at 1 and Thursday, Dec. 23, at 3:10.

One of the big surprises for me at this SCN is the filmmaker's go at the documentary form. In ARO TOLBUKHIN: THE MIND OF A KILLER, Villaronga collaborates with two other writer/
directors, Issac P. Racine and Lydia Zimmerman, on a film about an actual Hungarian man who lived in Guatemala and is said to have murdered a number of patients in a village church hospital where he worked. Made in 2006, this fascinating film seems to me a precursor to many later documentaries that have combined fact and fantasy, trying to create some workable hybrid that pushes farther and farther the documentary envelope.  The amazing thing is that these filmmakers manage it so well: honoring the characters and their story, even as they combine history with imagination and psychology, memory with longing, and push childhood and adolescence into a full-bodied adulthood that still remains mysterious and elusive.

Combining documentary footage with many staged scenes, this hybrid film uses fine actors Daniel Giménez Cacho (above, right) as the adult Aro and Carmen Beato as the religious sister and nurse who befriends the man and unknowingly stands in for his own sister -- whom we learn of as the movie draws to its amazing and moving conclusion. When you get up from this 95-minute film, featuring some sumptuous black-and-white cinematography, you are likely to feel closer to the truth -- the emotional, psychological truth, at least -- than you possibly could after viewing any standard, facts-only-please documentary on this subject. Aro Tolbukhin: The Mind of a Killer screens at the Walter Reade on Tuesday, Dec. 21, at 5:15 and Thursday, Dec. 23 at 7:10

I'l be covering the final two films in the Villaronga tribute -- Black Bread and Moon Child -- as they are shown during SCN.  You can find the entire Spanish Cinema Now schedule here.

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