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Spanish machismo is picked apart with surgical precision in Mariano Barroso’s engrossing All the Women, the most tightly-focused and emotionally penetrating film in a quietly formidable body of work from the director whose virtues continue to go largely unrecognized.
Featuring an immense performance from Eduard Fernandez as a middle-aged wreck seeking crisis support from the women in his life, Women is proper grown-up film making, pinging with emotional resonance as it subjects its unfortunate subject to a complex, beautifully-judged blend of compassion and criticism that remains accessible from first to last. A month after opening in Spain, the film, which by Barroso’s own admission was made with Tony Soprano in mind, continues to burn quietly on the back of word of mouth, and deserves further arthouse exposure.
In a wacky attempt to raise some easy cash, vet Nacho (Fernandez), a battered 43-year-old living on a financial slippery slope, has stolen five heifers from his father-in-law which he attempts to take to Portugal to sell. The plan falls apart in the first twenty minutes, when the truck carrying the heifers crashes. With his marriage to Laura (Lucia Quintana) on the rocks anyway, Nacho reacts by abandoning his young lover Ona (Michelle Jenner), with whom he dreamed up the scheme.
Presumably suspecting that any of the men who he could turn to for help are as dodgy as himself, Nacho turns to his women. First, to an ex, Marga (Maria Morales), whose first piece of advice — that he explain the situation and seek forgiveness — is ignored: Nacho has a problem with telling the truth, and prefers instead to try blackmailing his father-in-law.
Next up is his mother (Petra Martinez), who in the film’s most charged exchange offers Nacho moral support and half the money after smilingly suggesting that it might be for the best if he went to jail. The increasingly desperate Nacho seeks to weave his tangled web still further by then turning to his sister in law Carmen (Marta Larralde), who has a thing for him, and finally to a shrink, Andrea (Nathalie Poza). In each case, Nacho starts from the position that he’ll be able to manipulate the women, and mostly he fails. The reasons for his thinking are the film’s real point, and it’s a profound and valuable one.
“I’m not a bad person,” the suitably heavy-lidded, wolfish-looking Nacho tells Laura, in one of several phrases which many viewers will have heard themselves hopelessly uttering during domestic arguments, and it’s to Fernandez’s credit that despite his almost total moral destitution, the audience believes him. Approaching life in the manner of a permanently guilty schoolboy, he is the product of machista values which he now painfully realizes, have let him down badly. The women, too, have been carefully-drawn, and all of them are far more than the mere foils that Nacho would like them to be.
A surprisingly successful whittling-down of a mini-series, each episode of which focused on one of the women, the film is very wordy, but care has been taken to make the unfailingly intense dialogues sound as authentic as possible: there’s a semi-improvised, direct air about many of the exchanges which is further emphasized by Raquel Fernandez’s camerawork, busily employing documentary techniques such as wobbly hand-held or fast zoom.
Like the best work of David Mamet, the way a conversation will turn itself becomes a key source of suspense. The real drama here has nothing to do with heifers: it has to do with the haunted-looking Nacho’s painful struggle towards the beginnings of self awareness in the face of mountainous internal obstacles, and in the moments of tension which accumulate to surprisingly tense effect during his troubled conversations.
Venue: Cines Princesa, Madrid
Production companies: TNT Spain
Cast: Eduard Fernandez, Michelle Jenner, Marta Larralde, Petra Martinez, Maria Morales, Nathalie Poza, Lucia Quintana
Director: Mariano Barroso
Screenwriter: Alejandro Fernandez, Barroso
Producers: Domingo Corral, Rafael Portillo
Director of photography: Raquel Fernandez
Music: Ray Marhuenda
Editor: Pablo Mas
Sales: TNT Spain
No rating, 90 minutes
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