19 August, 2008

Spanish Cinema Highlights Toronto Film Festival

Empty Nest

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

Although it is not an official sidebar to the Festival, the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival is highlighting a dozen new films from Spain. In fact, Spain is the European country most represented at the Festival which opens in two weeks. With a mix of straight-out Spanish productions and a host of co-productions with Latin American partners, the accent is on the continued vitality and strong international impression of contemporary Spanish cinema.

"This is an especially exciting year for Spanish-language cinema," says Diana Sanchez, Latin America and Spanish Programmer for the Festival. "What makes this year's selection so unique is the diversity of themes and genres, from teen comedies to compelling documentaries, and from experimental and avant-garde films to gripping dramas. This diversity is significant, and we will continue to see a burgeoning Spanish-language industry."

Spanish cinema is represented in all the major Festival categories. Among the most anticipated is Empty Nest, the latest film from Daniel Burman. The film, which screens as a Festival Gala, is a co-production with Argentina, France and Italy. Superbly imaginative and entertaining, Empty Nest offers a heartfelt look at the marital tensions between Martha (Cecilia Roth, All About My Mother) and Leonardo (Oscar Martinez) as they struggle to maintain a fresh and exciting marriage after their youngest child marries and leaves Buenos Aires.

In the Contemporary World Cinema section, Spanish film standouts include Blind Sunflowers by José Luis Cuerda, a historical drama set a year after the end of the Spanish Civil War, starring Javier Cámara (Talk to Her) and Maribel Verdú (Pan's Labyrinth). The film tells the story of a family forced to lie and keep up appearances as they become divided by internal struggles and external pressure. With a carefully crafted script based on Alberto Méndez's novel of the same name, José Luis Cuerda explores the darkness of the post-civil war era, the effects of repression and the terrible consequences of the abuse of power.

Horn of Plenty by Juan Carlos Tabío, is making its World Premiere in Toronto. The Spanish/Cuban co-production is a wonderfully crafted comedy set in contemporary Cuba as descendants of a group of Castiñeiras nuns fight for their inheritance of a treasure deposited by their ancestors in a British bank several centuries earlier. Buoyed by the promise of wealth, Castiñeiras descendents throughout Cuba band together to try to prove their eligibility as legitimate heirs. The film stars Jorge Perugorría (Strawberry and Chocolate), Laura de la Uz and Mirtha Ibarra.

Also making its World Premiere in Toronto is The Window by Carlos Sorin. This co-production with Argentina focuses on Antonio, an ill 80-year-old man, who wakes up at his house in the country on what will become the last day of his life. As the day goes by slowly, Antonio carefully contemplates each moment, each light variation while waiting for his son's visit. Stunningly shot and wonderfully acted, The Window is a profound meditation on solitude epitomized by Antonio's last day of life.

Another meditation on mortality, although much more comedic, is explored in Radio Love by director Leonardo de Armas. The film, which also has its World Premiere at the event, is the tale of 36-year-old Carolina, a successful hostess on the program Radio Love. The discovery of her first wrinkles and the appearance of a beautiful young woman ready to take her place at work drive Carolina into a profound existential crisis. Radio Love is a hilarious reflection on Western society's obsession with self-realization and the constant search for happiness.

Another world premiere is presented with Return to Hansala by Chus Gutiérrez. In 2001, an inflatable boat filled with Moroccan migrants shipwrecked off the Spanish town of Rota. Thirty-seven migrants drowned, 13 of whom were from Hansala. Inspired by this tragedy, Return to Hansala is a touching road movie that follows Martín, manager of a struggling funeral home, and Leila, the sister of one of the drowned boys, in their journey to bring the bodies back to Hansala.

The Visions section of the Festival is devoted to more expressionistic works that take visual and thematic chances and ask the audience to work a bit harder. The Spanish film in this arena is Birdsong by Albert Serra, which has its North American premiere at the Festival. Stunningly shot using only natural light, El Cant dels Ocells is a contemplative reinterpretation of the Biblical journey of the Three Wise Men in search of the newborn Messiah. With a cast of non-professionals performing an improvised script, Albert Serra's second feature builds on his ongoing interest to cinematically express real time through the exquisite exploration of earth and sky.

The final roster of all Toronto titles (numbering more than 250 features) is yet to be announced, so do not be surprised if more Spanish films or co-productions are included in the mix. One thing is certain....this is a bellweather year for Spanish cinema and Toronto is the launching pad in North America for these intriguing and diverse films. May they find critical acceptance and that most coveted of prizes....a good North American distributor.

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