'Amama': San Sebastian Review

Amama - H 2015
Courtesy of Txintxua Films
In the end, the poetry beats out the pretentiousness.

This intense rural drama is the only Basque-language item in competition at San Sebastian.

"If you want to be happy for a day," says a Basque proverb, "get drunk. For a week, take a trip. For a year, get married." And if you want to be thoughtfully melancholy for a couple of hours in the presence of images of striking beauty, watch Amama. An intense generation gap drama set in a remote area of northern Spain's Basque Country, Asier Altuna’s visually sumptuous second feature about a family's struggle to break loose from its past is sometimes ponderous but more often poetic, rolling with a slow cumulative power which means that by the end, most early doubts about hollow pretentiousness have been dispelled.

Amama ("grandma" in Basque) is being talked up by a local, vocal Basque contingent as this year’s Loreak — the exquisite Basque language film which is one of Spain’s three Oscar nominees this year. The films also share crew. But Amama is actually very different, harking back to the fascinating abstractions of the early Julio Medem. Ambition may outstrip execution, but there's still enough going on to suggest that Amama, which is challenging but not unforgivingly inaccessible cinema, follows the earlier film out onto the international festival circuit.

The opening scenes reveal, at length, that a "secret, unspoken law" has determined that the stunningly located (and stunningly shot) farm where we’ll be spending the next 100 minutes must be inhabited only by the eldest son of the previous generation. There’s a load of other stuff too that strikes most of the family as superstitious mumbo jumbo, but which the current patriarch, Tomas (Kandido Uranga), continues to cling to. Tomas speaks little, but when he does it’s to angrily say things like "these seeds contain the wisdom of our ancestors"; his daughter Amaia (Iraia Elias), her mind on balancing the family's books, looks on aghast.

Never a candidate for the World's Greatest Dad, Tomas is an unfeeling disciplinarian who takes cantankerous stubbornness to a whole new level, and he’s quite capable of shooting an old dog without realizing that he himself is the old dog which must be shot. The problem is that Tomas’ eldest, Gaizka (Manu Uranga, a non-pro), isn’t interested in plowing fields and chopping wood for the rest of his life. He breaks the tradition of many generations by abandoning family and farm, and heading off for the nearby town.

Amaia, through whom most of the drama is focused, doesn’t find it as easy as Gaizka to break away. A graphic designer and filmmaker, she channels her feelings about her family through her work, which will be brought together in a truly powerful funeral scene later in the film, one featuring a stunning musical performance from Maite Arroitajauregi, aka Mursego. Amaia makes a vague attempt to persuade Tomas of the error of his ways, but it’s useless, and in the end, she too leaves. An accident in the fields by Tomas will open the way for potential regeneration, and before too long, he will be copying his daughter in fashioning art from his experiences.

Played by 83 year-old Amparo Badiola — whose first and last film this probably is (Altuna discovered her when he was sitting in a bar)— sits there, hard of jaw and impassive of attitude with a perfect bun in her silver hair, effortlessly embodying the eighty generations of ancestors which the script alludes to, following the Basque sculptor Jorge de Oteiza. But the exceptions of Amaia, wonderfully played by Iraia Elias, and Tomas — Uranga delivers a performance of almost towering proportions, and with the cracks inside him almost visible on his features) — the characters are given little time to develop far beyond the ideas which Altuna wants them to express. In this film whose people are definitively subordinate to its ideas, there’s little nuance at the level of characterization.

For Tomas (read "tradition)," for Amaia (read "change"), Spain is still a predominantly rural country, and the tensions between past and present continue to play out across swathes of the country which like the farm, have largely been abandoned. Javier Agirre’s images of sky, valley and farm, of wood and stone, are gorgeously mounted and seductive — and they’re not merely emptily poetic images, but weighty, considered ones which provoke reflection whilst advancing the story. They are a language. The forest and tree metaphors may be deja vu but are shot so beautifully, in rich deep focus, you have the impression that Altuna has managed to restore to them some of their primal force. In Amama, when a tree is cut down or a shoot grafted onto a tree trunk, it means something, and the alert viewer will know exactly what.

Though the film may ultimately question the continuance of Tomas’ way of life, Amama is also a celebration of it, via delicious close-ups of hands crafting wood or precision splitting tree trunks. But there’s empty flashiness, too, in for example ghostly images of Gaizka tugging on a rope whose other end is being held by a long line of ghostly Amamas. That’s just clumsy, as it is when we witness the symbolically colored interior of a tree trunk. Likewise there are quibbles over the pacing, with some images held in camera for a beat too long — even taking into account that this is a film about the glacial pace of generational change.

They are intercut with 16mm family footage, presumably taken by Amaia, of better times for the family. It’s in these images that the characters come most to life and are most themselves, since Tomas has imposed a nervous silence on the house which holds sway. That said, the outgoing, happy-go-lucky Xabi (Ander Lipus), does represent some intermitttent light relief. Almost incredibly given its intensely melancholic air, Amama was originally conceived as a comedy: little humor lingers, though one sequence nods directly at the winsome humor of David Lynch'The Straight Story.

Production company: Txintxua Films

Cast: Kandido Uranga, Iraia Elias, Amparo Badiola, Klara Badiola, Ander Lipus, Manu Uranga, Nagore Aranburu

Director: Asier Altuna Iza

Screenwriters: Asier Altuna Iza, Telmo Esnal, Michel Gaztambide

Producer: Marian Fernandez Pascal

Director of photography: Javier Agirre Erauso

Production designer: Mikel Serrano

Editor: Laurent Dufreche

Composer: Javi P3Z, Mursego

Sales: Golem

No rating, 103 minutes