'Cloudy Times' ('El Tiempo Nublado'): Film Review

Courtesy of FILM REPUBLIC
Powerful, intimate and uncomfortably voyeuristic.

Paraguay’s first-ever Oscar submission, the bravely self-revelatory record of a daughter’s struggles with her mother’s infirmity, has seen regular Euro festival play.

Seeing an ailing mother through her final years has to be one of life’s great emotional, spiritual and practical challenges. A Paraguayan filmmaker living in Switzerland, Arami Ullon has made an intense, and intensely personal, documentary about her own mother’s decline which provides unflinching insight on the subject, weaving the challenges into a record of her mother’s decline which inevitably makes for valuable, if uncomfortable viewing. Cloudy Times has found a natural home at Europe’s edgier, socially aware festivals, including Karlovy Vary and Locarno.

"Why are making this film?" Arami asks both the viewer and her mother Mirna, suffering from Alzheimer's disease and epilepsy, in the film’s opening words. Mirna’s answer, "to help you recover," pretty much nails it, since at least in part the film is therapy for the director. She lives in Switzerland with her (very patient) boyfriend Patrick, but decides to return to Paraguay to help out her mother.

Arami’s father, separated from Mirna, is around to offer advice, but not much in the way of practical help. Mirna’s housekeeper-cum-nurse, Julia, is finding the isolation too much. The script does spend time focusing on the practicalities — the finances, the difficulties of finding a residence — as well as on the emotional and spiritual toll which events are taking on not only the often-smiling Mirna and her daughter, but on everyone else as well.

The powerless sense of claustrophobia which has entered Arami’s life spills over into the film itself, rendering it as oppressive for the viewer as it is for her. These are indeed cloudy times for Arami in both senses: that they are dark and sunless, but also that she can’t see her way through to a clear decision about anything. Why is she doing this at all? Guilt? Is she really expected to have to throw up her Swiss life with Patrick to look after a mother who soon won’t recognize her? (The film stops short of the terminal stages of Mirna’s illness, and though she’s pretty far gone towards the end, she does retain her dignity). What is it about the mother-daughter bond that creates these irrational obligations, these guilts and fears?

These weighty subjects and others are discussed via brief, hesitant conversations which at times are startlingly soul-bearing: after all, we’re eavesdropping not only on a family conversation, but a family conversation about impending death. (Interestingly, the cameramen did not speak Spanish, which made it easier for them to film the conversations, and they were under instructions not to stop recording even when Ullon told them to, as we can imagine her doing through the scenes when she breaks down in tears. The editing throughout is a superbly-controlled counterpoint to the emotional excess, with each scene clicking to a close at precisely the right moment. One thing that Cloudy Times is thankfully free of is interminable close-ups of people thinking about things.

There’s plenty in Cloudy Times to identify with for viewers who have gone through something similar, and plenty to learn for viewers who have not, and it is all very artfully and respectfully put together. From the hour mark on, it becomes extremely touching.

But there’s no escaping the sense that this intensely claustrophobic project is indeed basically an exercise in self-help for the director which, despite her best attempts to cut out the self-indulgence, and the absolute refusal to take the easy dramatic option and paint herself as a heroine, doesn’t always manage it. Self-defeating in this respect are the shots of Ullon running through streets and parks, presumably seeking to briefly escape the pressure. But the pressure of what, the viewer may wonder? If it’s so tough to look after your ailing mother, why inflict upon yourself, and on her, the extra pressure of making a film about it?

There is very little in Cloudy Times that’s celebratory: there’s little to celebrate in the sight of one human being disintegrating while another, who loves her, knows she cannot do enough. However, the film’s very existence is indeed a celebration of the relationship between Arami and Mirna. Because at some point, Arami must have asked her mother whether she would mind if she put her declining years on record, with all the complexity and potential humiliation which that implies. And Mirna’s agreement to the idea can only have been because she loved her daughter very deeply indeed, and wanted to turn her own decline into the cinematic parting gift for her daughter which Cloudy Times so touchingly and thought-provokingly is.

Production company: Cineworx Film Produktion

Cast: Mirna Villalba, Arami Ullon, Luis Ullon, Julia Gonzalez, Patrick Oser

Director, screenwriter: Arami Ullon

Producers: Pascal Trachslin, Arami Ullon

Director of photography: Ramon Giger

Editor: Mirjam Krakenberger

Composer: Marcel Vaid

Sales: Film Republic

No rating, 92 minutes

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