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‘Schimbare’: Montreal Review

Schimbare Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Ficcion Producciones

The Bottom Line

A disturbing but flawed look at what happens when love itself becomes morally indefensible

Venue

Montreal Film Festival, First World Films Competition

Director

Alex Sampayo

The illegal trade in human organs is the background to Alex Sampayo’s debut about a couple breaking down

In Schimbare, a Spanish couple abroad find themselves facing a darker and deeper moral dilemma than they can handle. A little too obviously taking its cue from the Romanian New Wave and the Dardenne brothers in its willfully downbeat, unsensational treatment of complex human issues, this is haunting, claustrophobic fare that’s at its most rewarding and draining when striving for emotional intensity, though the demands it places on the viewer are not always rewarded. Alex Sampayo can add his name to a list of younger, festival-friendly Spanish auteurs -- Gabriel Velazquez and Alberto Morais among them -- with the ability to turn a social conscience into potent drama.

Elvira (Candela Pena, unleashing the same visceral quality and commitment as she showed in Isabel Coixet’s Yesterday Never Ends) and Luis (Luis Zahera, playing against type) are a middle-class driving to Budapest in a state of palpable tension which only increases when they receive a phone call telling them to pick up a child en route to their destination. At this stage, the viewer still has no idea what’s going on, but Elvira does. She hits the Benzodiazepine and explodes, revealing herself to be not so much on the verge of a nervous breakdown as already drowning in it. Whatever they’re up to, it has traumatized their relationship deeply.

For the rest of their uncomfortable journey, they are accompanied by the eight-year old, significantly unnamed (the radiantly talented Sandra Mokrzycka) to a large house where a rendezvous has been planned. Elvira refuses to deal with the girl, leaving her to play with an profoundly shocked Luis. The don’t-blink revelation shockingly justifies all the fiery emotions that have preceded it: the couple are in Hungary to illegally buy a kidney for their ill daughter back in Spain, and the kidney will be harvested from this very girl.

Having successfully sustained the all-important note of nightmarish truth unfolding, Schimbare unravels somewhat with the arrival of the mafia over its faster-paced final half hour, and the cheap tricks of genre unfortunately start to invade as things move beyond the confines of the house.

Schimbare seems less interested in exploring the wider moral complexities which have led Elvira and Luis to this sorry pass than in exploring their effects on them. Literally and metaphorically, Sampayo focuses tightly on the couple, drawing from each riveting, grueling performances through scenes which, however, sometimes feel overstretched. The dynamic — basically her out of control, him struggling to calm her down — feels emotionally authentic: after all, they are painfully learning, like the parents in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, that there may be limits to what you should do so save your child’s life.

But even the considerable skills of Pena and Zahera, sometimes apparently improvising, struggle to keep it interesting. If there are a couple of risible moments, then perhaps that’s the price you pay for all the intensity.

There are moments of troubling surrealism, as when one of the criminals who visits the house tries to put on a magic show for her in a thoroughly joyless playroom — for precisely what dark purpose is unclear. Aesthetically, Schimbare is extremely stripped back, its exteriors recreating the dull monotony of Eastern Europe under rain, its interiors exploring the dark expanses of the suitably gothic mansion in which these terrible events unfold.

The title signifies “change” in Romanian, here fleetingly used as a dark euphemism. And meanwhile, the nameless little girl — whose story some will say this should really be — wanders the house in the swimming goggles she's found, forgotten and alone. Unlike Elvira and Luis, and unlike the anti-heroes and heroines of the Dardennes, she is not there of her own choosing.

Production companies: Ficcion Producciones, Television de Galicia
Cast: Candela Pena, Luis Zahera, Sandra Mokrzycka
Director, editor: Alex Sampayo
Screenwriters: Sampayo, Borja F. Caamano
Executive producers: Julio Casal, Mamen Quintas
Director of photography: Juan Hernandez
Production designer: Curru Garabal
Costume designer: Eva Camino
Sales: Ficcion Producciones
No rating
87 minutes