In conjunction with their showcasing Almodovar's latest "Julieta", reviewed below, the British Film Institute asked the director to curate a selection of Spanish-made films that he most admires. Of his seven choices I had only seen two ("Jamon, Jamon" and "Thesis" -- both excellent), so promptly booked seats for another two that sounded most promising. My selections provided interesting viewing, if not quite the entertaining prospect I had envisioned.
First up was "It Happened in Broad Daylight" (1958), a true Euro-pudding of its day. Directed by the Hungarian Ladislao Vayda who was living in Spain, written by Swiss Fredrich Durrenmatt, shot in Switzerland with a German-speaking cast and three of the continent's leading actors of the day -- the French star character actor Michel Simon, Gert Frobe (six years before "Goldfinger"), and the stalwart of German cinema Heinz Ruhmann. That's a lot of talent but not necessarily put to the best use.
It's yet another story of a child-killer on the loose, a la "M", but is really more of a policier, as retired cop Ruhmann strives to find the real culprit after Simon hangs himself when falsely accused of the crimes. Simon's wandering peddler is in fact the movie's most watchable character, so his early demise was unfortunate. Frobe of course makes a suitably creepy pedarest, but the whole business of catching him in the act -- including putting a sweet little girl in real danger as bait, is all somewhat pedestrian, with the pastoral scenery overwhelming the action, as Ruhmann plods through his paces in this overlong film.
I was curious to see "El Sur"/"The South" (1983), since it is the second of only three full-length features in director Victor Erice's highly considered career. His first movie "Spirit of the Beehive" (1973) is esteemed as a brilliant look at impressionable childhood (although I have never quite been able to warm to it) and his last film, the documentary "The Quince Tree Sun" (1992), I found an interminable bore. Otherwise he has only directed shorts and segments of longer films. And interestingly, "El Sur", now a feature, is actually only a segment of the full movie he meant to shoot.
He budgeted for an 81-day shoot for a two and a half hour movie, but the rug was pulled from under him after 48 days, when the footage was edited into this 95 minute film invited into competition in Cannes. Set in 1957, like 'Beehive' this begins as another tale of childhood with the 8-year old Estella living in the snowy north of Spain with her sickly mother and adored father, who was forced (by mysterious reasons to her) to relocate from his exotic and mysterious South. We subsequently learn that Franco's politics played their part in his exile. He is an enigmatic and charismatic figure, a doctor at the local hospital, who also water-divines with his magic pendulum, but who spends his spare time locked in the off-limits attic of their home.
The story continues with the 15-year old Estella still trying to come to terms with her beloved but distant Dad, especially after she learns that he has been besotted with a B-movie actress called Irene Rios. After a final lunch together, we discover that this was to be their last meeting, and that he has put an end to his yearnings and misery. A voice-over throughout by the now adult Estrella, narrating this sad story, tells us that she will be sent to the Utopian South to live with her Grandmother and her father's former nanny Milagros, whom we have met only once at the young Estrella's first communion, but the film ends there. What Erice intended or what may have transpired subsequently is something that we will never know.
This isn't quite in the category of other open-ended films where the viewer must decide for himself, but rather a case of an uncompleted project. What we are left with is a quite watchable yet unsatisfying narrative.