Woman Without Piano -- Film Review

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SAN SEBASTIAN -- A fed-up, middle-aged Madrid housewife packs it in one night and leaves home while her husband is sleeping in "Woman Without Piano," a promising plot idea which Spanish director Javier Rebollo develops with controlled style and glancing, almost-not-there humor.

The underplayed approach, coupled with the small number events unfolding on screen, make for an admirably measured but ennui-ridden film that viewers will either love or walk out on. Rebollo won best director kudos at San Sebastian, a signal that film should have a long festival life and scattered art house sales.

Embodying the ordinary yet mysterious protagonist Rosa is Carmen Machi, a Spanish stage thespian popular for her role as a housewife in the TV show "Aida." Rosa works from home as a beautician while waiting for her taxi driver husband to come home for lunch and dinner. Her sex life is relegated to self-stimulation with one of her beauty instruments, which gets a laugh early on.

Apart from the fact she suffers from a nearly constant ringing in her ears, there is nothing wrong with her life except its banality. So it's a surprise when she dons a flirty black wig and packs a suitcase, which she carries out the door late one night. After drifting around town, she ends up at the central bus station.

There she meets a half-mad young Pole, Radek (composer-scriptwriter Jan Budar, a familiar face from Jan Sverak's films), on his way home with a huge wad of money in his pocket. The two are so dissimilar they have an oddball chemistry, which lends a pleasantly humorous tone to the rest of the film.

Rosa's night is filled with endless walking through the deserted streets of Madrid, waiting in line at ticket counters, smoking cigarettes and calling someone who never picks up the phone. Making professional use of her two props, a suitcase and a pair of shoes she finds in the garbage, Machi turns in an award-worthy if low-key performance. There's a tip of the hat to Buster Keaton and other clowns in her deadpan face, made even whiter by the black wig and harsh lighting. Her absurd normality plays off perfectly against Budar's absurd abnormality.

Rhythm is very slow. The actionless scenes drag on as they play out in real time, and the key moments, which suddenly illuminate the characters, are a bare handful. In one of these, Rosa tells Radek about a huge painting she removed from the bedroom before she left, depicting a hunter threatened by wolves. Her explanation suddenly opens up a psychological universe unexpected in the average housewife.

The other major character revelation takes place in a hotel room where Rosa takes Radek after he collapses on the street. She's physically attracted to his naked, freshly bathed body, and the scene is played out with great delicacy.

Santiago Racaj's cinematography is highly controlled, using color-drained greens and neon to convey an alien night world through which the protagonists roam.

Venue: San Sebastian Film Festival
Production companies: Avalon, Lolita Films, Noodles Production
Cast: Carmen Machi, Jan Budar, Pep Ricart, Nadia de Santiago
Director: Javier Rebollo
Screenwriters: Lola Mayo, Javier Rebollo
Producers: Stefan Schmitz, Maria Zamora, Damian Paris
Director of photography: Santiago Racaj
Production designer: Miguel Angel Rebollo
Editor: Angel Hernandez Zoido
Sales Agent: RTVE, Madrid
No rating, 95 minutes
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