‘Breadcrumbs’ (‘Migas de Pan’): Film Review

Breadcrumbs Migas de Pan Still - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Xamalu Filmes
Efficient but unexciting.

Uruguay’s Oscar submission tackles the effects of that country’s dictatorship on the emotional life of a young woman.

“No misfortune lasts forever,” says a character in Breadcrumbs. But they can last a very long time. The Latin American dictatorships of the 70s and 80s continue to resonate both socially and filmically, and although these stories need to be told, new perspectives always need to be found. In its focus on a woman’s choice between political activism and motherhood, Manane Rodriguez’s Breadcrumbs indeed finds one. But the film’s worthy commitment to the historical truth feels like a brake on its full exploitation of this explosive material, and the project is not aided by the somewhat under-realized central character.

Broadly speaking, Rodriguez returns to themes she explored in 2001’s The Lost Steps, her take on the so-called “disappeared” Argentina’s Dirty War. Photographer Liliana (Cecilia Roth, a veteran whose work includes several stints with Pedro Almodovar down the years) is revisiting Uruguay for the wedding of her son, Diego (Ignacio Cawen) from whom she’s been estranged. “They’ve made me a mother without a child,” Liliana says, an example of clumsy dialogue that the film generally avoids, “but they won’t take my granddaughter from me.”

Without yet understanding why, we see Liliana literally sobbing at uploaded YouTube footage of modern-day Uruguayan soldiers raping a child. The reasons for her tears, and indeed for her yearslong estrangement from Diego and the rest of family, are made clear through the flashback to Uruguay’s so-called civil-military dictatorship of 1973-1985 that takes up most of the film’s length. (The fact that it is shedding light on this murky episode in Uruguayan history is of itself sufficient justification for the existence of Breadcrumbs.)

Following a highly implausible holdup, the 21 year-old Liliana (Justina Bustos) is arrested along with several others for her subversive politics, outlined here in the broadest brushstroke. She is taken to a military barracks and under the sadistic eyes of Major Garone (Quique Fernández) tortured and raped, in horrific, hard-to-forget scenes that fall just short of being graphic, cleverly judged so as neither to let the viewer off lightly nor rub their noses in it. Nothing that comes later can match these sequences for their intensity.

Far longer is spent in the detention center to which the women are moved, where they are able to generate some sort of passive resistance to the military. But the focus of Breadcrumbs on the women prisoners’ solidarity (the title itself refers to an unusual fact that women prisoners of the time would communicate their solidarity to one another), though laudable, ironically has the effect of bringing the younger Liliana out of clear focus and making her too much one of the group, and though it’s true that Liliana’s story is one of many from the time — which is presumably part of the script’s point — we lose our feeling for the woman at the film’s emotional heart.

The fact that there’s no score limits potential accusations of sentimentality, but nonetheless there are schlocky moments — as when the prisoners crowd round a motherless chick they’ve found, or when an empty bed is shown following a significant event. And despite some tears, Liliana, as played by Bustos, receives her punishments and humiliations with stoic dignity that often looks a little too much like mere passivity, making it hard to engage with her.

Meanwhile, the awful choice that Liliana faces — between her political ideals and her son, because the system won’t allow her to have both — is too much taken as read: a more nuanced script would have attempted better to understand other characters’ unwillingness to sacrifice their families for their political ideals. Breadcrumbs thus remains awkwardly straddled on the border between gritty realism and standard drama, and though it’s far better as the former than as the latter, it never properly settles into being either.

Production company: Xamalu Filmes, RCI Producciones
Cast: Cecilia Roth, Justina Bustos, Quique Fernandez
Director: Manane Rodriguez
Screenwriter: Manane Rodriguez, Xavier Bermudez
Producer: Xavier Bermudez
Executive producers: Chelo Loureiro, Cecilia Ibanez
Director of photography: Diego Romero Suarez Llanos
Production designers: Marta Villar, Daniel Fernandez Vaga, ‘Cappi’
Costume designers: Alba Cuesta, Eva Schroeder
Editor: Sandra Sanchez
Composer: Andres Stagnaro
Casting director: Bruno Aldecosea
Sales: Xamalu Filmes

No rating, 109 minutes