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A trio of sterling performances and an unwavering eye on emotional authenticity are the hallmarks of Spaniard Lino Escalera’s intense feature debut, Can’t Say Goodbye. This grim but moving study of two daughters’ differing reactions to the news of their father’s impending death is direct and unvarnished in its portrayal of uncomfortable emotions, yielding a family drama about the damage that can be done when feelings long unexpressed finally have to be confronted. Austere, thought-provoking and wonderfully acted, the film took several awards at Spain’s Malaga festival, including best actress for cast standout Nathalie Poza; it merits, at the least, further festival exposure.
Surly and uncommunicative other than in brief flashes, widower Jose Luis (vet Juan Diego, an unfailingly valuable presence on any project) is clearly on his last legs, coughing and spluttering his way through a wince-inducing physical performance that must have put quite a strain on the actor’s 74-year-old frame. His daughter Carla (Poza, recently featured in Pedro Almodovar’s Julieta) is a middle-ranking exec seeking refuge from her tedious, bad-tempered workdays with evenings fueled by alcohol, cocaine and aggressive flirtations with men 20 years her junior.
By contrast, Carla’s sister, Blanca (Lola Duenas), is a seemingly upbeat, optimistic figure, despite the limitations of her marriage to Nacho (Pau Dura); she’s the kind of person who, still, despite being a mother in her 30s with an unemployed husband, dreams of becoming an actress. Reunited by the news of Jose Luis’ impending demise, the sisters have different takes on how to deal with it. Blanca is happy to take the doctor’s advice to minimize her father’s pain and offer him palliative care, but this angers Carla, who doesn’t want to give up so easily and seeks to submit him to further, obviously pointless tests. Jose Luis, it’s fair to say, doesn’t seem too bothered either way, resigning himself to becoming a point of struggle for his daughters.
It’s in the context of these differing attitudes about death that the sisters, in this quietly philosophical film, learn something about their own lives. As Blanca points out, the issues at stake largely have to do with what goes unsaid between family members — with what has, until now, been left hanging, unspoken. It’s significant that Carla, who issues volleys of words like protective machine-gun fire, fails to understand her sister’s comment.
Despite the multiple meaningful silences, and the exchanged glances across rooms and around tables, Goodbye is mostly dialogue-driven fare, broken up into short, often punchy scenes, which frequently fade to black in a way that could feel contrived, but actually feels right for material of such intensity. A couple of these scenes, including the final one, can legitimately be called devastating, thanks to the performers’ grasp of the nuances of Pablo Remon’s carefully worked script, which keeps the focus squarely on the emotional truth.
Though it’s Jose Luis who’s dying, this is more Carla’s film. Poza, an actress whose talents have not often enough been rewarded with leading roles, ramps up what could have been a standard-issue midlife-crisis part into something much more powerful — something at times genuinely painful to watch, as the abyss between how Carla sees herself and how others see her starts to come into focus for her.
A host of solid secondary performances deliver psychological context for our understanding of the sisters, including those by Miki Esparbe as a co-worker of Carla’s who’s apparently romantically interested in her and Noa Fontanals as Blanca’s daughter, Irene, critically observing these supposed adults making a total mess of everything.
Cinematographer Santiago Racaj opts for a dampened-down visual palette and stark, fixed-camera framing. Miguel Doblado’s editing is crucial to the slow accumulation of intensity, while Pablo Trujillo’s appealing score is sometimes piano-, sometimes violin-driven, but always, given the matters at hand, suitably melancholy.
Production companies: Lolita Films, White Leaf Producciones
Cast: Nathalie Poza, Juan Diego, Lola Duenas, Pau Dura, Miki Esparbe, Cesar Bandera
Director: Lino Escalera
Screenwriters: Pablo Remon, Lino Escalera
Producer: Damian Paris
Executive producers: Sergy Moreno, Lino Escalera
Director of photography: Santiago Racaj
Production designer: David Fauchs
Costume designer: Bernardino Cervigon
Editor: Miguel Doblado
Music: Pablo Trujillo
Casting Director: Tonucha Vidal
Sales: Inside Content
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