‘The Reconquest’ (‘La Reconquista’): Film Review | San Sebastian 2016

Courtesy of San Sebastian International Film Festival
Self-indulgent but sharp-eyed.

Jonas Trueba’s French New Wave-ish fourth feature is his most intimate yet.

The Reconquest is one of those fragile, sensitive films that find directness vulgar. Every carefully-composed frame seems to implicitly be begging viewers and critics to please be gentle with it, and probably they generally will be. Like the films of Eric Rohmer and the other French new wavers to whom it’s clearly indebted, Jonas Trueba’s fourth, which is full of words which their speakers don’t properly understand and which is dependent on viewers to make its meanings for it, is minimalist, intimate fare, perfect for people who love explaining to others what all this is about.

In its sincerity and its evident love of cinema, this is an ideal festival film, as Trueba’s others have been -- though it’s less lively, less fun (and funny), more earnest and a lot less interesting than, say, The Wishful Thinkers. The Reconquest could well conquer Spanish-language festivals and a few Euro arthouse territories. But it would be fun to see Trueba strike out in a different direction next time, to see how he works beyond his Rohmerian comfort zone.

Fifteen years is a long time in love, and at times in this slow-moving film, Trueba seems to want to unspool things in real time. Adopting a risky structure -- the film’s lengthy opening act is largely explained only by its final section -- means that through much of its first hour the film is unbearably low on dramatic rewards, with Trueba having apparently having come to believe that as an ‘auteur’, everything he turns his camera on will by definition be heavy with meaning and interest.

Manuela (Itsaso Arana) and Olmo (Francesco Carril), the former more interesting, the latter barely existing until about halfway through, meet in Madrid after fifteen years apart. He is a bearded, tousle-headed, soulful-eyed translator in Madrid, giving nothing away. She is kooky, chatty and nervous, back for Christmas from Buenos Aires to give Olmo a letter he wrote to her, the contents of which we do not learn until about about an hour and a half later; but, oh boy, we do watch Olmo reading and absorbing its contents. They go to a Chinese restaurant, where Manuela continues to chat; in a rare flash of humor, they share a poor racist joke about Chinese people’s inability to recognize the names of obscure Spanish liqueurs. Manuela, who has slept with a different person every night since she’s been back in Madrid, wishes to reconquer Olmo.

They attend a concert given by Manuela’s father, played by San Sebastian-based singer-songwriter Rafael Berrio, where they, and we, listen to three of Berrio’s pretty, slightly depressing songs in their entirety as they are a running commentary on the relationship between Manuela and Olmo: ‘I have lived my whole life’, Berrio sings, ‘as though it were a simulacrum’. If you don’t like the songs, then bad luck -- there’s no escape. We watch the often impassive faces of the listeners, on-screen reflections perhaps of the viewers of The Reconquest as they reflect on whether their own lives are a simulacrum. Later, Olmo, who has still said very little, expresses himself by dancing badly, like David Brent in The Office, except he feels better afterwards.

Watching The Reconquest, you come to realize that it would have worked just fine as a 30-minute radio play. Practically everything in in the dialogues; very few of its (often lovingly-composed) images are actually necessary. The visual and aural echoes start to look like a lack of creative energy; not only does everything take too long (witness Olmos’ dawn scooter ride home after his night with Manuela), everything happens three times. Madrid is beautifully-shot throughout in a highly-stylized version, heavy with rich pastel colors.

Olmo goes back home and talks to his girlfriend Clara (Aura Garrido, the film’s best actor, strangely onscreen for only ten minutes), a psychiatrist who mothers him. Olmo falls asleep, and his dream takes us back into the meeting and relationship of Manuela and and Olmo fifteen years earlier, in a slightly hyper-real, golden tinted Madrid (Pablo Hoyos and Candela Recio play the younger characters).

These scenes are lively, fresh, charming and skillfully done, charting the arc of the relationship with grace and skill, and putting the characters first: the young actors are not obliged to try and look interesting as the camera rolls unforgivingly on their reactions. This section, in which Olmo writes a letter declaring his undying love for Clara also illuminates much of what the viewer has seen during the first hour, works in retrospect to turn it into rather a beautiful, subtle meditation on love, loss and memory, but the recollection of those oh-so-long scenes is too strong, and it is too late now for The Reconquest to win us over.

Production company: Los Ilusos Films
Cast: Francesco Carril, Itsaso Arana, Aura Garrido, Pablo Hoyos, Candela Recio
Director, screenwriter: Jonas Trueba
Producer: Javier Lafuente
Director of photography: Santiago Racaj
Production designer: Miguel Angel Rebollo
Costume designer: Laura Renau
Editor: Marta Velasco
Composer: Rafael Berrio
Sales: Film Factory Entertainment

Venue: San Sebastian Film Festival (competing)

No rating, 108 minutes

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