Sunday, March 02, 2008

La Spagnola

An unconventional film, it's another one in a line of those films which somehow only succeed in showing a woman helpless, in showing her in need of a man always. La Spagnola is for me the Australian version of Merci, La Vie. It's interesting that while both films show men always lusting after women, as lechers, yet it's the women who probably show up in a poorer light than men themselves - the unresisting, whimperous, confused beings that women are shown to be. While I would like to say a lot about the portrayal of women in these films and in general in the media, this, a film review, is not a proper place to do so.

The film, simply put, is brilliant. In spite of my reservations with both this film and Merci, La Vie for what they are trying to show, it has indeed to be said that both are designed to provoke thought. Which in itself is a good thing - for when you think, it is not a given that you're going to think only what the film-maker intended, you might very well run in an opposite direction. Opening with the shot of an un-Australian looking, un-charming teenage girl covering up the screen and the flat Australian barren landscape behind, the film sets its tone in the opening moments itself. While the husband is leaving the wife and house, and the wife is bickering and not at all ready to give way, the daughter is calmly looking, "contemplating" to use the right word, at the scene. As if she's not involved in it. Or, as we get to know her better, she's too sure of the outcome, and her love for her father and her hate of her mother's bickering ways are too strong to involve herself further in this scene in which she knows each will play out her part for sure, the father of leaving responsiblities, the mother of bickering and making herself a whore, the daughter of contemplating, self-discovering, and finally learning a woman's part in life.

The film's extraordinary charm lies in the success of the director to make an ordinary, everyday story transform into an unearthly phenomenon. Nothing seems real in the film, even though nothing is operating in the realm of fantasy or allegory as was the case in Merci, La Vie. Here, except one or two dream sequences, everything is rooted in the barren, desert landscape, everything in the stillness that surrounds these beings of a different culture in this inhospitable oasis. The hints are barely dropped at: there's just a school scene in which migrant children are being beat into "Australian dignity." And yes, most neighbours who La Spagnola consorts with now seem integrated very much in Australia, it's only La Spagnola who looks very much Spanish. And yet it is she who counts herself as Australian and has no professed sentiments for Spain, for it's "Australia that's feeding us." Beyond this, the film proceeds more on the tension between mother and daughter: tension created due to men, due to middle-class ennui, due to strikingly different natures of mother and daughter. A harsh camera and lighting arrangement, or an excess as for example when the mother's lover tries to seduce the daughter, makes the film even more disturbing. Silent studies of the daughter's contemplative face, taking in it all, and equally silent, relaxed, reassured movements by the daughter herself (brilliant acting by Alice Ansara) - all lead to this silent boil, for which we don't know where to put a finger on. On this heat and desolation? On lack of cultured or charming men? On their being migrants? On middle-class life? Or simply on their being women?

The two really striking things are in themselves are so small and yet so impactful. One is that the mother is always La Spagnola for everyone ("the Spanish woman"). It's strange that although the dialogue proceeds in Spanish, although she has relatives, so obviously there are other Spanish around, it's she who gets referred to as "the Spanish woman," the director probably pointing out to her lack of integrability to Australian lifestyle. The other is the strange bilingualness (or rather, multilingualness, for there are other languages too) of the film. The mother asks the question in Spanish and the daughter answers it sometimes in Spanish, sometimes in English. And a very heavy, lazy accented English. The film's bilingualness throughout works wonders, it does not let the viewer settle down in a zone, it keeps him on the edge. It is another of the several unpredictabilities associated with this film. The film in its climax again probably gives out the message that women must accept life as it is and thank life for as it is, for life even as such is something to be lived for. This might be a truth for many women. Yet, who dares to teach woman "acceptance"? It's here that I don't agree with both Merci, La Vie and La Spagnola, but yes I would recommend anyone to watch these films for sure. They will open a world of thoughts and a world of cinematic possibilities in front of you.

The film was the official entry from Australia for the Academy Awards for the Best Foreign Language Film category. This was in itself strange, insofar as it's a predominantly Spanish language film.

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