‘Alba’: Film Review

Courtesy of Caleidoscopio Cine
A quiet little heartbreaker.

Ecuadorian Ana Cristina Barragan’s award-winning feature debut tracks the pre-teen travails of its terminally shy heroine.

The claim of Ecuadorian cinema to a higher international profile is strengthened considerably by Ana Cristina Barragan’s Alba. A mostly wordless, beautifully understated study of the multiple growing pains of a cripplingly shy 11-year-old girl, the film follows a series of Barragan shorts on the theme of troubled childhood. It is loaded with weepie potential but diligently shuns the facile at every turn, playing it for an emotional truthfulness which is embodied in a fine, trembling central performance by Macarena Arias and in its sensitive, empathetic script. Alba has been garnering festival plaudits, most recently at Toulouse’s Latin American film platform, but deserves more.

Alba (Arias) lives with her divorced mother (Amaia Merino), ill and bedridden and part-reliant on her daughter for practical help. Following a collapse, her mother is hospitalized and committed to the care of Alba’s loner father Igor (Pablo Aguirre), who looks as though he’s been having a rough time of it: In one touching scene, Alba is shocked to discover a picture of him soon after her birth, looking radiant and handsome.

The business of living is already painful enough for someone as excruciatingly inward-looking as Alba, even without having to go and live in the run-down apartment of a father who appears as damaged as she is (in Igor’s case, his inability to communicate sometimes comes across as indifference towards his daughter) and whose best as a parent is actually pretty useless.

But Alba’s real sufferings take place at school — a costly-looking establishment place, presumably funded by the mother’s side of the family -— where all the other girls seem well-adjusted and confident. Alba is the butt of their cruelty, bus sometimes of their kindness, too, and seems equally baffled about how to deal with both. Out of the blue, a classmate called Eva (Fernanda Molestina) befriends the girl, and she is invited to party.

This major event in Alba’s limited life, which becomes the film’s main focus, brings with it a whole separate set of pressures to deal with, pressures guaranteed to raise troubling memories in the minds of viewers whose own childhoods were plagued by the same maelstrom of psychological and social insecurities as Alba’s is.

The shyness, of course, means little dialogue — Alba speaks to nobody but her mother (and herself) until 25 minutes in, and the narrative advances through the accumulation of telling scenes. Several, for example, have Alba stealing small things of significance from houses she visits to suggest that she’s seeking emotional bonds with a world beyond her own. But not all the symbolism is as subtle, and scenes featuring insects of beauty -— a ladybird being eaten by ants, a butterfly being crushed — come over as obvious and unnecessary, given the emotional authenticity of what surrounds them in a film whose mood is defined by the permanent threat of heartbreak.

It’s the delicately modulated subtlety of Alba that sometimes makes it so moving: On the day that he takes charge of her, there is a side-shot of Igor just closing his eyes, which is all you need to know about how unprepared and overwhelmed he feels about the task now facing him. Equally well-done is the in-car dialogue in which father and daughter accidentally learn that they have something in common, his daughter’s eyes full of wonder that such a thing could be possible.

Given that she’s playing a character who is all about isolation and solitude, Arias’ performance — she is present in every scene — is amazingly communicative, and it’s not just about the expressiveness of those large doleful eyes, or the frailty of a body that seems to want to shy away from all human contact, it’s about how well she has been directed by Barragan for the nuances.

Editing, unusually by a team of four, is sharp and cadenced throughout, delivering tension and, over the final stretch, pace to the kind of story which is too often presented with shots of lengthy self-indulgence — something which is never an issue here. The ending, as understated as everything that’s come before, is well-judged -— for a moment, the story becomes Igor's as well as Alba's — but feels a little too neat, failing to raise the rather huge question of what will be next for this socially maladjusted but intriguing couple.

Production companies: Caleidoscopio Cine, Leyenda Films, Graal Films
Cast: Macarena Arias, Pablo Aguirre, Amaia Merino
Director-screenwriter: Ana Cristina Barragan
Producers: Isabella Parra
Director of photography: Simon Brauer
Production designer: Oscar Tello
Costume designer: Ana Poveda
Editors: Yibran Asuad, Juan Daniel Molero, Ana Cristina Barragan, Jose Maria Aviles
Casting directors: Maya Villacreses, Julia Silva, Raul Teba
Sales: Caleidoscopio Cine

Not rated, 89 minutes