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Hassan's Way (El Rayo): Goteborg Review

El Rayo Film Still - H 2014
Altube Filmeak

The Bottom Line

Though it doesn’t live up to the promise of its premise, this is still a charming and thoughtful record of one engaging and remarkable man’s strange odyssey.

Venue

Goteborg Film Festival (Debuter)

Directors

Fran Araujo, Ernesto de Nova

 

The Straight Story, with a political twist.

“Your country is the country that feeds you, not the one where you were born,” a friend of the hero of Hassan’s Way tells him, but Hassan Benoudra doesn’t agree. On the one hand, this contemplative, happily unsentimental documentary about a man on a 600+ mile journey home from southern Spain to northern Morocco by tractor is engrossing, even though it’s sometimes more slow-moving than the tractor itself.

But on the other, at times it feels like an opportunity lost, as though its first-time directors, Spaniards Fran Araujo and Ernesto de Nova, have not fully exploited what is, after all, a remarkable story. But the single-sentence blurb being used to sell Hassan’s Way states simply: "The Straight Story, in Spain” and finally the film lives up to the pitch. Hassan’s tractor has been making regular festival stops since its premiere in San Sebastian, with more to follow.

The film is effectively a recreation of a trip that its hero Hassan had undertaken once before. Hassan has been traveling around Spain and working as a rural laborer for thirteen years, but the work has dried up and now it’s time to return to his wife and four children in Morocco. Basically his only possession is an old Massey-Ferguson tractor which, after a bit of a party in which a lamb’s throat is graphically cut, he boards and sets off.

There are shots of Hassan alone, riding impassively along, consulting his battered road map, or, in practically the only scene in which the danger of his situation is felt, trying to get rid of the night-time wild animals which have come sniffing around the tractor. (“May God transform you into something else,” Hassan curses a deer that’s bothering him.) Sometimes he’s filmed in aerial shot, his tractor comically small and vulnerable against the winding roads and rolling, magnificently-shot landscapes: as well as being about Hassan, this is a film about the land he’s been working.

When its hero interacting with others, Hassan’s Way is at its most interesting. A couple of brushes with local cops forbidding him from riding on the road seem to end up with him continuing anyway: he is seen deliberately covering the tractor in dust and grime so he can lie that he’s traveling between jobs.

This may be a film about the human results of political decisions regarding immigration and labor, but the emphasis is definitely on the human, rather than the politics, which are worn very lightly. Hassan’s attitude to most of the misfortunes that have beset him is not to fight, but just stubbornly to get on with the job at hand and show a rather engaging stoic resignation. Even when he encounters casual racism in a bar, he meets it with his usual sad half-smile.

The film’s cool approach to its loaded subject mirrors Hassan’s own, a strategy with both pluses and minuses. On the plus side, the film is never in the slightest sentimental, never exaggerating or heightening the drama to extract emotional capital. But on the other, the viewer is left wanting to know more about both Hassan, who only occasionally talks about himself and his feelings, and the nuts and bolts of his existence.

It’s clear that Hassan's tough spirit is the result of a tough life, but the viewer is left in the dark about the telling, enriching details of his past. There are other questions of a more practical nature, too.  If he has no money, where is he sleeping, and what’s he eating? If he’s quite rightly being helped out by the crew who traveled with him on the journey, then the script never says so.

Perhaps the most heavily-freighted exchange comes early on when he stays in the house of an acquaintance who, like Hassan, has decided to return to his roots and with whom he compares stories. It suggests that the film might go on to explore its subject more revealingly, but that never really happens, since when Hassan meets people, it’s mostly to ask for help. Indeed, one of the film’s feel-good charms is that, leaving aside Hassan’s perpetual optimism, the people in it are mostly good-hearted – unlike, it is distantly implied, the sorts of people who have made his life as tough as it is. At one point en route, he has to take a job as a factory sweeper to raise the $150 he needs to repair the tractor.

The film’s Spanish title is El rayo, which means “lightning flash." “El Rayo” is the name of the tractor, which he cares for as he would his absent family and which, as Hassan himself seems to do, rolls imperturbably along at twenty miles an hour.

Production: Altube Filmeak, Malas Campanias, Ukbar Filmes, Dosde Catorce
Cast: Hassan Benoudra
Directors, screenwriters: Fran Araujo, Ernesto de Nova
Producers: Antonio Hens, Pandora da Cunha Telles, Pablo Iraola, Julio Diez, Jorge Beltran, Guillermo Rojas
Executive producer: Ohiana Olea
Director of photography: Diego Dussuel
Production designer: Maria Zapico
Editor: Pablo Gil Rituerto
Music: Ana Villa, Juanjo Valmorisco
Sound: Nacho R. Arenas
Sales: Cinema Republic
No rating, 85 minutes