LFF Sunday 23 October

On Sunday morning (I got up at 7:30 and attended the 9:30 service) we saw a ground-breaking Spanish film called The Sleeping Voice. Followed by a less than successful coming-of-age film Corpo Celeste and finally a film that I consider is a Requiem to small-scale farming Last Winter.  A long day but worth it.

The Sleeping Voice is a film placed in and around the women’s prisons in Madrid in the years immediately after the Civil War, ie:1940, when Franco was busy annihilating the Communists – men and women – the full horror of which has only recently been talked about because of the tacit agreement throughout Spain not to ‘remember’.
The film shows (implicitly) why this non-remembrance was so important, for in the principal relationships of the film: the two sisters are on separate sides; in a middle class family the husband, a doctor turned accountant, is a Communist sympathiser and his wife is a Franco-ist, his father-in-law is a General in El Caudillo’s regime.
Maybe some of the characterisation is stereotypical.  The heroes and heroines are beautiful. The villainous prison warders are brutal caricatures, as are the woefully un-Christian nuns.  But then cinema similarly treats German war personnel in this way – I suppose we NEED to be reminded that ordinary people became both heroic and brutal, the difference is that these are Spanish.
It will surely get UK distribution and when it does I urge you to take time to see it. This is an important film in many ways, but we will not get the full measure of its importance if we don’t contextualise it historically – for that I urge you to read Antony Beevor’s brilliant book, re-worked in 2005 and published as The Battle for Spain. (The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939).  There is also, of course, Hemingway, George Orwell and another new book called The Disinherited. (The exiles who created Spanish culture) by Henry Kamen which goes back centuries but covers this period in the final chapters.
Corpo Celeste is a strange film, very uncomfortable to watch in many ways, with occasional flashes of brilliance.  We follow a young girl (Yle Nianello) called Marta, recently arrived from Switzerland and finding it hard to settle into her new community and undergoing Catechism Classes prior to Confirmation.
There are two principal themes going on here – one is the importance of Catholic rituals in small urban communities in Southern Italy – the other is the decline of the Church in the rural areas – the padre from the first goes to collect a Crucifix from a church in the countryside which has disintegrated through non-use, in fact the whole village seems to have been abandonned.  The rebellious Marta is involved in all these events.
Furthermore, there is a Church/Political thing going on which is not explained, but is clearly somewhat clandestine as the Padre is getting his congregation to sign up support for a candidate whether they understand what it is they are signing up to or not.
There are amazing flashes of genius in this debut feature film by director Alice Rohrwacher (ANOTHER woman) and Yle Vianello is superb in the role of the young girl but a film that needs to be explained  in the Q&A is a film that has failed in some respects since later audiences will not have this privilege.  I am glad to have seen this film and it certainly drew praise for its presentation in Cannes.  Great things may come later, but not I think with this film.
Last Winter is another debut feature film by a documentary director turned feature film maker, the American-born John Shank.  However, this is a European film – its outlook, its message, its style and its content are fundamentally grounded in Europe.  It is a film about the land, the people of the land, the landscape and the ancestral ties that bind people to place.
Filmed in the Massif-Centrale in France (shades of Terrence Malick in the sweeping wide angle landscapes) the film is about a young farmer who is struggling against the tide.  Johann (Vincent Rottiers) belongs to a co-operative (a common feature of the French farming community) set up by his own father.  Things are not going too well and an offer comes to change over to raising calves for the Italian veal market, Johann is against this and the vote goes his way.  However, he experiences a personal disaster from which there is little hope of recovery and although he hides away from it, in the end other factors take over.
On a personal level too, we find that his sister (Florence Loiret Caille) has mental problems and his relationship with his neighbour (Anais Demoustier) founders because of his own inability (bordering on neurotic) not to face up to things.  The Wake for the death of a local landowner (both father-figure and opposition to Johann) is the culminating theme in this film – the (Verdi’s Requiem aeternam as the sound track) endgame so to speak for Johann and implicitly for the whole community.
In the Q&A John Shank sounded a more hopeful note for farming like this, but as Johann says in the film changing one thing in farming alters the whole way of farming.  So in bovine agriculture, if you fully wean your calves for market as meat you do not have to milk the cows; if you separate the calves from their mothers for raising in batteries then you have to raise more calves AND milk your cows – even if you don’t market your milk.  Either way, the physical structure of the farm buildings has to change, the feed pattern and the head of cattle raised has to change and in changing that you have inextricably altered small-holding and there is no going back.  So in an oblique way this film is also a requiem for farming on a small scale.

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