‘Marsella’ (‘Marseille’): Film Review

Courtesy of Latido Films
Well-played and morally intriguing but hobbled by a half-baked script, this road movie stalls long before the end.

Belen Macias’ second film dramatizes a tug of war between a biological and an adoptive mother.

Who has the better claim to a child: the struggling working-class biological mother unable to "properly" raise it — or the wealthy, middle-class adoptive mother who can? Does having money give you a greater claim on motherhood?

These are the questions posed by Marseille, whose script realizes too late that these are trickier issues than expected. It’s watchable to the end for its bravery, for its moral even-handedness and for a sterling performance by Maria Leon. But it’s badly let down by a half-baked drug smuggling plotline that wasn’t thought through, opening strongly before slipping into a series of contrivances. That said, despite its flaws, this take on a hot social topic by one of Spain's too-few female directors does merit festival bookings.

Andalucian Sara (Leon) had her daughter Claire (Noa Fontanals) taken from her while she was in jail for unspecified offenses. Claire has been raised by Virginia (Goya Toledo, still best known for her role as the broken-boned beauty of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Amores perros). But a judge — presumably drunk at the time, given later events — has decided that Sara’s now capable of raising Claire again. Reunited, happily for Sara, less so for Claire, mother and daughter set off to find the girl’s biological father in Marseille — but not before Sara, for reasons the film can’t credibly explain, has agreed to smuggle a stash of cocaine across the French border.

Marseille’s strongest, best-choreographed scenes are set in highway gas stations. In one, Sara bumps her car into the truck of tender-hearted, lonesome Jesus (Eduard Fernandez, who brings a little distinction to his every project). When Virginia arrives, having been called by Claire, real tension is played out on the forecourt. Virginia decides to accompany Sara and Claire to Marseille.

On paper, the idea of a developing relationship between a biological and an adoptive mother looks great. But this is one of those scripts which has problems getting its characters where it wants them to be. How can Claire give her precise location when she calls her mother? Why would Virginia go along for the ride?

And why smuggle coke rather than take the bus? Giving viewers nothing they don’t already know, the entire drug-smuggling plotline seems squeezed in to supply a few artificial thrills and could simply have been dropped. That would have made time for a more nuanced exploration of the Sara-Virginia-Claire triangle on which the film is constructed, enabling it to better drive home its central point.

Leon, as the terminally jinxed, irresponsible and defiant Sara, is an actress who never commits less than fully to a role. She’s entirely believable insofar as the uncertain script allows her to be. Toledo’s grace and poise offer the right contrast, and she delivers just the lines that a bourgeois Spanish mother would be expected to deliver, but without the note of irony that would have made her memorable. Fontanals is fine, and, to the script’s credit, entirely non-cutesy.

The contrast between Sara’s sweating, embittered family (her father, Armando, is played by the reliable Manuel Moron) and Virginia’s airy, sunlit home life is well rendered, and Aitor Mantxola’s efficient photography captures the flavor of the various locations with precision. Apart from a bouncy number sung by Fontanals over the final credits, Juan Pablo Compaired’s score is bland and uninspired.

Production companies: Tornasol Films, Messidor Films, Balada Triste de Trompeta

Cast: Maria Leon, Goya Toledo, Eduard Fernandez, Alex Monner, Noa Fontanals, Manuel Moron

Director: Belen Macias

Screenwriters: Belen, Macias, Aitor Gabilondo, Veronica Fernandez

Producers: Gerardo Herrero, Marta Esteban

Executive producers: Mariela Besuievsky, Javier Lopez Blanco

Director of photography: Aitor Mantxola

Production designer: Irene Montcada

Costume designer: Cristina Rodriguez

Editor: Alejandro Lazaro

Composer: Juan Pablo Compaired

No rating

95 minutes