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KARLOVY VARY – A minimalist drama for an age of austerity, The Sad Smell of Flesh unfolds in real time in a single unbroken shot. Filmed on the streets of an unnamed Spanish city by the Chilean-born writer-director-producer Cristobal Arteaga Rozas, this stark experiment in low-budget social realism takes place against the backdrop of the current financial crisis. Southern Europe has been hit especially hard, with Spain suffering records levels of unemployment, foreclosures and forced evictions.
The film’s theme is both ultra-contemporary and as old as poverty itself, updating The Grapes of Wrath or Bicycle Thieves for the 21st century. Following its world premiere at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival last week, more festivals seem highly likely. The topical subject matter and unorthodox format could stir niche theatrical interest, though this harrowing Eurozone glumfest is easier to admire than enjoy.
An actor whose gaunt and haunted features say more than a thousand words of dialogue, Alfredo Rodriguez stars as Alfredo Barros, a middle-aged father in a state of anxious agitation. We first see him lingering outside a private house, entering without permission to make a pitiful plea that falls on deaf ears. After this cryptic clue to the film’s dramatic pay-off, he returns to his car and drives his young daughter (Sabela Vasquez) to school. Then he continues into the city for a series of increasingly fraught encounters with garage owners, pawnbrokers and storekeepers that all add up to a picture of severe financial distress. It slowly transpires that Barros is newly unemployed and flat broke, with a life of quiet desperation that is about to get a whole lot louder.
The Sad Smell of Flesh is filmed in a single unbroken shot on real city streets, a feat of choreography that involves an impressive amount of mutual co-operation between film-makers, bus drivers, bartenders and random pedestrians. The restless hand-held camera hovers constantly on the protagonist’s slumped shoulders and haunted face, stalking him along every alleyway and sidewalk. But while this is a technically skilful enterprise, it is not necessarily entertaining. A large chunk of screen time is spent watching Barros riding in buses and taxis, or trudging glumly through shopping arcades. Real-time movies like this are often counterintuitive tributes to the skills of editors.
In its final minutes, The Sad Smell of Flesh becomes a potent protest about the human cost of economic meltdown. Recurring clips from a state-of-the-nation speech by Spain’s prime minister, mostly heard on car radios, also serve to underline the film’s political message. Rodriguez gives a compellingly intense performance, and his young co-star Vasquez is superbly naturalistic given the shooting conditions, but the real-time format ultimately feels gimmicky and restrictive. By saving his killer punch until the last moment, Rozas also risks viewers drifting off into baffled boredom beforehand. A bold experiment, but does the cinema of austerity really need to be quite so austere?
Production company: Deica
Producer: Cristobal Arteaga Rozas
Cast: Alfredo Rodriguez, Ruth Sabuceda, Sabela Vasquez
Director: Cristobal Arteaga Rozas
Writer: Cristobal Arteaga Rozas
Cinematographer: Pablo Kaufman
Sales contact: Cristobal Arteaga Rozas
Unrated, 87 minutes
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