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Rosales paints a masterpiece of family grief

Catalan director’s ‘Sueño y silencio’ is an unconventional gamble that rarely puts a foot wrong.


Fresh from its premier in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar at this year’s rain-soaked Cannes, Sueño y silencio was originally going to be a very different film. Or rather, a very traditional one. Catalan filmmaker Jaime Rosales planned to shoot in colour, with professional actors and a conventional script. But as he prepared the film, all that fell away, leaving us with grungy, grainy black and white, non-actors, no script and a series of fragmentary scenes that sketch out, with aching and rare authenticity, a family in terrible crisis.

Sueños y silencia.

Channelling Bergman and Antonioni: a scene from 'Sueño y silencio'.

Oriol, an architect, and his wife Yolanda, a Spanish teacher, live in Paris with their two daughters. Their lives are comfortable and unremarkable. In early scenes we get quotidian details – Yolanda shops with the girls, Oriol grapples with his British boss. Then the family decamp to Spain, to visit Yolanda’s parents in the wide wetlands of the Ebro River Delta. On a car trip during the holiday there is an accident. Celia, the eldest daughter, is killed.

Echoing Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, we’re flies on the wall, looking on and listening in as the remaining family members try to cope. There are no scenes per se, merely excerpts from their lives. And, like all lives, those excerpts are about everything from conversations about lentils to children’s birthday parties. But Celia’s absence weighs heavily, albeit subtly, throughout.

The film’s style is as unconventional as its structure. Scenes are composed of lengthy single shots, often framing just one character, and close-ups are rare. Sound comes and goes.

Oriol reacts to the tragedy by forgetting. He falls into amnesia, as if his daughter never existed, and throws himself back into his work. Yolanda unravels more visibly, searching for ways to mitigate her pain and move through it. Rosales is clearly interested in how men and women grieve differently, and the way those differences can pull two people apart.

Despite working with non-professional actors, and despite apparently restricting himself to one take per shot, the director has extracted flawless, poignant performances. In a long scene after the accident, mother and daughter sit beside each other in a hospital waiting room. Yolanda, barely moving, not yet able to cry, appears sedated and dreamlike, dumbstruck by shock and grief. It’s pitch perfect.

Puzzlingly, the film is bookended by shots of Mallorcan artist Miquel Barceló painting ghostly shapes, humans hanging by their hands and feet and lizards pinned to a cross, on a canvas. What does it all mean? Who knows. But that’s Rosales. He’s a questions man and never offers many answers. This film, like The Hours of the Day, his brilliant debut about a dull clothes shop owner-cum serial killer, is obtuse and evasive. We’re handed the characters and a key event and then left to figure out the rest.

Some will find the approach trying (the old lady next to me slept loudly throughout), and, with the ending not quite resonating as it might, it’s tempting to wish the director had pulled some of his narrative strands together. But pinning things down might have knocked them out. Sueño y silencio’s power is in its unfastened, ethereal aspect. Days after, the characters and images remain, floating around in your head.

One scene in particular lingers. Late in the film, the family, now three, return to the Ebro Delta. They walk far out into the water but, despite being surrounded by acres of sea, and owing to the strange tides, are still only up to their ankles. Literally, they’re at sea. It sounds twee on paper, but the moment, channelling Bergman, Antonioni and others, is classic cinema, and it’s wonderful.

Sueño y silencio is released today in Spain. There’s no word yet on a UK or US theatrical run.

Follow James on twitter: @jamesblick78

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Published: Jun 8 2012
Category: Culture, Featured, Films, IberoArts, Spain News
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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