Family United (La gran familia espanola): Film Review

Family United Still - H 2013

Family United Still - H 2013

Shot through with a distinctive wit and flair, the title cannily shows how it’s possible to straddle the mainstream/arthouse divide.

The twin Spanish passions of football and family are combined in Daniel Sanchez Arevalo’s wedding day comedy drama.

Spanish director Daniel Sanchez Arevalo delivers the best of his four features to date with Family United. Opportunistically set on what is probably the last time that Spain felt unequivocally good about itself -- the 2010 soccer World Cup final -- the film supplies little that's dramatically new, but the director's proven attentiveness and flair, combined with a range of engagingly complex characters, are enough to make this the most enjoyable Spanish comedy for a good while. Light of touch but also emotionally probing, United, one of Spain's nominees for the Academy awards, has a nicely judged contemporary air which should see its inevitable success at home being followed by a honeymoon in the offshore arthouse.

It's a big day in a village in the mountains near Madrid -- first because of the soccer,  but also because Efrain (Patrick Criado, with a surely deliberate facial resemblance to World Cup hero, soccer player Iker Casillas) is to marry Carla (Arancha Marti), his childhood sweetheart.

Efrain's father (Hector Colome), still heartbroken after his separation eight years before, has gathered his sons together from the occasion. They are depressive Adan (Antonio de la Torre, who recently wowed Toronto audiences with his performance in Martin Manuel Cuenca's Cannibal): sizeable but child-minded Benjamin (Roberto Alamo), touchingly locked into permanent innocence; and Daniel (Miquel Fernandez), underdeveloped as a character compared to the others.

A fifth brother, Caleb (Quim Gutierrez) returns from Kenya for the wedding after two years away to learn that his girfriend Cris (Veronica Echegui) has been having an affair with his brother Daniel. Other skillfully-handled plot strands include Efraim's wedding day indecisiveness about whether it's Carla or other childhood sweetheart Monica (Sandra Martin) who he should be marrying, Adan's desire to crack open his father's safe and get at the gold inside, and the father's angina attack during the ceremony: while all this is unfolding supposedly in real time, the other wedding guests are glued to the game. It’s a neat setup: as the rest of the country is going through its collective catharsis, the family must tackle its issues.

Doubling as an allegorical X-ray of Spanish society in troubled times, United has been calculated to be just about daring enough to maintain the interest of viewers tired of wedding comedies, but not so daring as to alienate the mainstream viewer. Curiously, it's is framed by scenes from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which may be an excessive way of paying homage to the Stanley Donen classic. But it does show Sanchez Arevalo's wish to have intelligent fun with audience expectations and to fold in something new wherever he can. The inevitable business with lost wedding rings is thus stretched out across pretty much the entire length, but always wittily, while the approaches of a sex hungry bridesmaid who often turn up in these comedies is neatly defamiliarized by clever use of jump cut.

But it's the performances which really stand out, the entire cast apparently having realized that what really counts here is the dynamic of the family as a whole, not the individuals. That said, Roberto Alamo's hilarious and touching Benjamin, a misfit among misfits, is a special pleasure to watch, his energy and innocence acting as a check on the others' excesses and confusions. Gutierrez has not had such a peach of a role since he stole Sanchez Arevalo's debut DarkBlueAlmostBlack, and takes full advantage, never allowing the viewer to forget that there might be something important bubbling beneath Caleb's apparently arrogant detachment. A committed Echegui is key to a film which is more about women than it might at first seem.

Switching easily from moments of high emotion to broad comedy, the film's pacing feels just right: one long scene in the later stages where family members bark out advice to the confused Efrain is a tour de force of editing which must have given Nacho Ruiz Capillas more work to do than the rest of the film put together.

Though alarm bells are raised by a pair of buttocks being pressed against a car window early on, the humor in this highly verbal item is mainly gentle and witty rather than cheaply vulgar. Visually, everything is clear-cut and perfectly mapped out in pastels which pulsate in the Spanish summer sunlight; at times, things take on a romantic, honey-ish hue. Soundwork is equally clean-edged. The soundtrack, almost entirely consisting of understated alt country ballads by Josh Rouse, are key to the emotional effect, at times excessively so. Costumer Tatiana Hernandez also deserves credit for dressing the family in a memorable, semi-formal combination of suspenders and Converse.

Venue: Cines Princesa, Madrid
Production companies: Atipica Films, Mod Procducciones, Antena 3 Films
Cast: Antonio de la Torre, Quim Gutierrez, Veronica Echegui, Roberto Alamo, Miquel Fernandez, Hector Colome, Patrick Criado, Arancha Marti, Sandra Martin, Sandy Gilberte
Director, screenwriter: Daniel Sanchez Arevalo
Producers: Jose Antonio Felez, Fernando Bovaira, Mercedes Gamero, Mikel Lejarza
Executive producers: Ricardo Garcia Arrojo, Simon de Santiago
Production designer: Satur Idarreta
Music: Josh Rouse
Costume designer: Tatiana Hernández
Editor: Nacho Ruiz Capillas
Sound: Carlos Faruolo
Sales: Film Factory Entertainment
No rating, 101 minutes