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Manchester film reviews

Viva! Spanish and Latin American Film Festival

¡Viva! Opening Gala, Cornerhouse

Reviewed by Ian Betts March 2012


Why do we need foreign language film festivals? Should we even group films by the language they are produced in? There is an argument that movies should be judged on equal terms and not ghettoised by notions of national identity, or ignored because they carry subtitles.


Yet in Britain, we seem to marginalise foreign-language films by referring to them all as World Cinema and confining them to arthouse screens and the corners of DVD shops. Such is the prevalence of productions in English and the dominance of Hollywood that many have let this form of cultural imperialism go unchallenged.


You could argue that the award-winning lustre bestowed on The Artist suggests a shift away from mainstream cinema, and that it has serious international credentials as a French production. However, we must also recognise that it is a celebration of silent film and the institution of Hollywood itself. Perhaps it’s been so successful because no-one speaks French in it. In most cases, foreign language films are only acknowledged in separate categories at our awards ceremonies, and rarely held in equal esteem.


Hopefully, the recent popularity of L’Artiste (as we should call it) would suggest that modern audiences have an appetite for diversity, nostalgia and for re-appraising movements in culture that we have previously ignored or forgotten. It is such hunger that feeds the ¡Viva! Spanish & Latin American Film Festival at the Cornerhouse this month. Running in its 18th year, the festival is showcasing 19 films from 10 different regions - certainly a sufficient variety to satisfy cinemagoers who are tired of Hollywood’s global dominance.


The heady fortnight of screenings and events is a praiseworthy effort to champion foreign-language cinema, but programming a festival of films linked by language is no easy act. There are many tensions and pitfalls to consider, suggests festival organiser Rachel Hayward while we share a drink in the bar. “Spanish and Latin American cinema is so vast,” she explains, “that I wouldn’t dare to say in the few films we are offering, we have somehow captured the essence of the varied national cinemas and film industries that the festival features. There’s no way we can establish an oeuvre with just 19 films, so the focus shifts to showcasing great movies.”


While it may be difficult and possibly redundant to recognise unifying themes within the programme of films, Hayward suggests that there is an engaging diversity of works on offer. “Some, like Paper Birds, have as broad an appeal as something like The King’s Speech, while many of the films are deeply serious, political and delving into topics such as trauma, civil war, conspiracy and obsession.”


This may sound grave, but it is typical and reassuring of the Cornerhouse to screen progressive and challenging cinema, and such is the revelry in the bar on the opening night that you are unlikely to go home depressed. The regular crowd are an odd demographic to define; an interesting throng of enthusiasts occasionally characterised by scarves and moustaches, they seem united by a passion for film and imported beer, and also evident is their pride as members of one of Manchester’s most important cultural institutions. During ¡Viva! their numbers swell further, Latin voices join the excited chatter and a romantic fervour seems to take over the whole building. “It changes,” says Rachel, because “we couch everything with that sense of fiesta.”


Indeed, there is a wide-eyed wonder among those who venture upstairs, complementary bottle of Spanish beer in hand, to view the artistic showcase of Minerva Cuevas’ Landings in Gallery 1. The first two works are giant discs of colour, one a multi-pointed compass, the other a lurid target with a pesticide pump pointing to its centre; Cuevas has politicised these household symbols and tainted them with militaristic violence, a feeling which is amplified by warnings of ‘a global environmental holocaust’ in another malevolent image showing the silhouette of a bird’s skeleton. The eponymous installation film is a looped projection of printed illustrations depicting various experimental military aircraft that would look at home on the covers of comic books and teenage fiction from the 1950s.


Minerva Cuevas: LandingsYet for all this aggressive posturing, perhaps what is most appealing about this exhibit is its youthful endeavour; the planes and rockets recall a forgotten optimism about science and a childhood fascination with adventure. Moreover, several lantern projectors and an adapted microscope are used to project small images onto the walls in a secretive and collusive manner. The latter’s complex slide illuminates an intricate circular pattern that expands as a giant atom or plant cell on the wall, its corona as striking and complex as a flower or snowflake. While images of a chimpanzee prove goading and subversive, they are counter-pointed by the bold use of primary colours and there is an underlying impression of cynical ambition.


Such aspirational intentions are echoed in the film Pajaros de Papel (Paper Birds), about entertainers earning a living during Franco’s oppressive rule of Spain in the 1930s. We follow the return to the stage of comedian Jorge del Pino (Imanol Arias) after the deaths of his wife and son in a bombing raid during the civil war. He sets out to create a new act with his partner Enrique (Lluís Homar) and their recently-adopted ward Miguel, a scene-stealing pudge-faced thief and glutton who carries the film with his childish antics. Seeing this motley trio and their travelling company of performers finding the courage to entertain the public during times of violence and totalitarian control is rousing and impressive.


Clearly, the film has been a labour of love for its creator Emilio Aragón who wrote, directed, produced and even scored the music. During his introduction on stage, he explains how he was inspired by seeing actors entertaining each other on TV sets between takes, and by women who dared to be singers during a civil war when it would cast them out as disreputable. This passion is evident in the stage performances that occur during the film, and it is infectious; there are many genuine moments of laughter in the auditorium as we watch the three buffoons cavorting in the back of a horse-drawn cart, or playing a cello together as a slapstick trio. As the singer Rocío Moliner, Volver’s Carmen Machi lusts after a local mayor while joking of the discomfort she receives from haemorrhoids: how can you not laugh?


Yet there are some elements of the film which are disappointing. You can see how Aragón has poured himself into the film and at times his score is overwhelming, even distracting: as The Godfather III proved, sometimes less sound truly is more. In fact, the most generic scenes are the weakest; the opening sequence which establishes del Pino’s situation appears rushed and unnecessary, while a climactic moment in a train station where the heroes flee from armed guards seems perhaps too familiar and overplayed. However, these moments are easily forgiven as part of the machinations of an intriguing plot that is spirited, emotive and boldly entertaining. The final scene, when we see one of the characters return to Madrid as an old man to reflect on his life, validates and ennobles our experience of these entertainers, and reminds us of humanity’s ability to transcend conflict through humour and joy.


Pajaros de PapelIt transcends the language barrier too. Pajaros de Papel is a wise choice of opening film, one that explores a national story yet has international significance. Its narrative seems to articulate the heart of what ¡Viva! is trying to achieve: to champion artistic endeavour, and to recognise how performances can enrich our lives beyond the struggles we face. So it seems ironic that the title of the festival appears in one of the later scenes as the line, ¡Viva Franco!, reminding us that language is constantly shifting to the will of those who employ it, and that the ideals we celebrate in the present may well be disparaged in the future. It is worth mentioning that Franco’s rule ended less than a generation ago, yet del Pino’s anti-Francoist songs will still be contentious among some echelons of modern Spanish society.


So should we judge films based on the language they are presented in? Not at all. Language, like the cinematic frame, serves only to tell the stories we are prepared to witness. You can understand the organisers’ reluctance to cast these films in a singular light, or to try and dictate some sort of Spanish and Latin American canon with the ones they have chosen. ¡Viva! presents us with a rich and exciting opportunity to engage with a host of ideas from different cultures and countries, and it is one I would urge you to take.


Finally, if language is such an irrelevance, why is it so important to host this festival? For me, the answer becomes apparent while listening to the audience as we leave. Filing towards the exit, an effusion of Spanish accents intermingle with Mancunian idioms, and we hear many voices reliving the film’s events through a clamour of discussion. Outside, cigarettes are sparked alight while bicycle bells ring, and the night air is alive with the sound of laughter.

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