'Formentera Lady': Film Review

Courtesy of Fosca Films
Jose Sacristan in 'Formentera Lady.'
Warmhearted and refreshingly unpretentious.

Spanish actor Pau Dura makes his directorial debut with an old-dog, new-tricks drama about an aging island hippie left to look after the grandson he barely knows.

One of Spain's most-respected veteran actors and the character he plays both get the chance to show they still have what it takes in Pau Dura’s feature directing debut, Formentera Lady. An unfashionably quiet, effective and affecting drama about an aging hippie forced to face his responsibilities after a virtual lifetime avoiding them, the film is essentially a vehicle for Jose Sacristan, a survivor just as much as his character is. Lady's appealingly understated treatment of a storyline that’s all-too prone to cliche makes it one of Spanish cinema’s more notable debuts of the year so far.

Sacristan, who made his film debut in 1965, is 80 but looks and sounds younger in this role as Samuel, an old hippie who makes a precarious living playing the banjo in bars on the Spanish island of Formentera. Smoking dope, drinking too much, and happy to live in a beach house with no electricity, Samuel lives the expected lifestyle. Until one day, when his daughter, Anna (the reliable Nora Navas), turns up, revealing that she’s been fired from her job and is going to France in search of another — a setup that isn't handled too smartly. Cellphones, for example, are noticeably absent, and surely it borders on abuse to leave your child with someone as ill-prepared for the task as Samuel is. Nonetheless, Anna leaves her 10-year-old son, Marc (Sandro Ballesteros), in Samuel's incapable hands.

Cue sentimental comedy of errors, in which Samuel learns about the joys of father-son bonding from his cute grandson. Except that, thankfully, Formentera Lady doesn't play it so straight. In an amusingly ironic twist on the sexism behind peace 'n' love, Samuel makes the rounds of his old flames in search of someone who'll help him take care of Marc. (One woman reminds him that in his solitude, he himself has become an island.) But since Samuel last looked, feminism has happened, and all his former lovers tell him where he can go. Further blows arrive: He learns that the bar where he's been plying his trade is to close down, and he's hospitalized. In the meantime, Marc almost burns down the beach house.

The story proceeds at an appropriately unhurried pace, not unlike that of Samuel's battered old Land Rover, and is enhanced by lovely — but not over-the-top lovely — images of the island, aptly shot by D.P. Miguel Llorens with an air of realist melancholy. The Balearic Islands, so often unambiguously portrayed as an Eden, are here a paradise in decay, the tail end of the dream.

But there's something anodyne about Formentera Lady, meaning that both the film and the performance generate admiration rather than love. This is true despite several touching scenes in which Samuel, forced to re-engage with his past by the arrival of his grandson, checks out old Super 8 footage of himself and Anna's mother, presumably the lady of the title, whose fate we never learn.

Unlike many Spanish actors, Sacristan is a follower of the less-is-more principle, an approach that serves him in good stead here. He delivers a contained, nuanced, credible performance, aided to a large degree by the twin props of sunglasses and a battered straw hat, in which he becomes increasingly and movingly aware of the depth of his failures as a family man. The moving paradox at the heart of the film is that it's a meeting with his family that sparks Samuel's retrospective realization that he's been lonely all along.

This is perhaps too much Sacristan's film, and Samuel's relationship with Marc — indeed, the character of Marc as a whole — consequently feels underdeveloped, leaving Lady lacking the strong central relationship that would have grounded it more solidly. This becomes most evident over the last 20 minutes, when matters become predictable. Jordi Sanchez, as fisherman Toni, Samuel's faithful friend, is responsible for most of the story's comedy.

The title is stolen from a song by the British '60s-'70s progressive rock band King Crimson. Unless auds happen to enjoy meandering ditties about lizards in the sun and other Spanish cliches, they are likely to find its use here overly intrusive. The bluegrass coming from Samuel's banjo, though, is terrific — despite Sacristan's  uncoordinated fingers.

Production companies: Foscafilms, Sunrise Pictures, Good Machine Films, La Periferica Producciones
Cast: Jose Sacristan, Nora Navas, Jordi Sanchez, Juli Mira, Ferran Rane, Nuria Mencia, Sandro Ballesteros
Director-screenwriter: Pau Dura
Producers: David Ciurana, Ramiro Acero
Executive producer: Nacho Tejedor
Director of photography: Miguel Llorens
Art director: Joan Sabate
Costume designer: Cristina Martin
Editor: Lucas Nolla
Composer: Josep Sanou
Sales: Foscafilms

85 minutes