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Short proves sweet in Spanish writer-director Miguel Llanso‘s bizarro mid-lengther Crumbs, an outlandish and imaginative sci-fi miniature-employing film from Ethiopia whose $225,000 budget probably matches Jupiter Ascending‘s prosthetic-ear bill. Making potent use of spectacularly extraterrestrial locations in the country’s sunbaked far north around the ghost town of Dallol, the film takes an exotic and sometimes surreal approach to what’s essentially a simple, touching love story. And while not all of Llanso’s flights of fancy get very far off the ground, there’s enough going on here to ensure plentiful further festival bookings in the wake of a generally well-received Rotterdam bow.
If the 68-minute running time proves a headache for programmers, Crumbs has an obvious companion piece in Fanta Ananas‘ 11-minute Chigger Ale (2013), a similarly deadpan, berserk slice of lo-fi, Amharic-language Afro-futurism. Llanso is officially only credited as a producer on that film, but Crumbs may stoke suspicion that Fanta Ananas is in fact a pseudonym for the Madrileno provocateur.
Both works star the diminutive, charismatic Daniel Tadesse, who’s first glimpsed here running through a martian-desertlike landscape clutching an artificial Christmas tree. Dodging the attentions of a gun-wielding weirdo in a Nazi uniform, Tadesse’s Birdy hurries home to an abandoned bowling alley and the affectionate embrace of his partner, Candy (stunning newcomer Selam Tesfaye).
But Birdy must soon fly his unorthodox nest. A long-dormant spaceship, which has been floating in the sky for decades, has shown signs of reactivation; Birdy, who believes himself to be of extraterrestrial origins, reckons the clunky-looking UFO is his big chance to get back where he came from. Achieving this goal involves a perilous journey to a long-abandoned city, where he ultimately must negotiate with no less an eminence than Santa Claus.
Set in an unspecified epoch after a “big war” whose consequences have severely depopulated the planet, Crumbs posits a microcivilization where the mass-produced tat of the late 20th century is revered as valuable, even holy. Working on his biggest canvas to date, Llanso peppers his script with throwaway pop-cultural gags (referencing Michael Jordan, Justin Bieber, Stephen Hawking, Michael Jackson, etc.), which yield more in the way of chuckles than belly laughs.
More intriguing is the way Llanso provides a framework for his own outre production-design ideas and his application of fresh twists to what’s essentially a very familiar quest narrative. Nodding to District 9, WALL·E and E.T. along the way, Llanso and his collaborators convey a “strange universe” with minimal means. Israel Seoane‘s 2.35:1 wide-screen cinematography favors a muted, dunnish palette that ensures the human performers are never overpowered by the extreme beauty of their backdrops. Andrei Tarkovsky — hat-tipped here via the inclusion of a Bach organ prelude in the final moments — went all the way to Estonia for his idiosyncratic Wizard of Oz homage, Stalker (1979), and he’d surely be pleased that Ethiopia should have spawned the 21st century’s most vivid variation on similar themes.
Production companies: Lanzadera Films, Birabiro Films, Sergio Uguet de Resayre
Cast: Daniel Tadesse, Selam Tesfaye
Director / Screenwriter / Production designer: Miguel Llanso
Producers: Miguel Llanso, Daniel Taye Workou, Meseret Argaw, Sergio Uguet de Resayre
Cinematographer: Israel Seoane
Editor: Velasco Broca
Sales: New Europe, Warsaw
No Rating, 68 minutes
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