'Not All Is Vigil' ('No todo es vigilia'): San Sebastian Review

No todo es vigilia Not All is Vigil - H 2014
Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

No todo es vigilia Not All is Vigil - H 2014

Slow-moving but visually striking tribute to spousal affection, seasoned with droll humor

Prize-winning Spanish documentarian Hermes Paralluelo takes a step towards fiction with a portrait of his elderly grandparents

Catalan writer-director Hermes Paralluelo honors both his biological ancestors and his creative forefathers with Not All Is Vigil (Todo no es vigilia), a wryly ruminative contemplation of old age and enduring love. Profitably occupying that often-tricky middle-ground between fiction and documentary, the low-key drama sees the film-maker's octogenarian grandparents playing themselves with irresistibly charming and cumulatively moving results.

Warm critical responses could with careful handling justify a limited Spanish release, while outside the country the picture appeals as another solid festival proposition following Paralluelo's prize-winning, youth-focused, Argentina-set feature-length debut Yatasto (2011), although the cumbersome English-language version of the title isn't exactly a boon to its prospects.

Not All Is Vigil premiered in San Sebastian's New Directors competition, which carries a prize of just over $64,000 — a sum which picture's budget probably doesn't exceed by much, if at all. Indeed, it's yet another example of a noticeable and broadly positive trend in documentary and semi-documentary cinema, whereby cash-strapped directors are increasingly turning to their own senior family-members for inspiration — see also Valentyn Vasyanovych's mid-length Ukrainian variant Crepuscule. The resulting works are invariably memento mori to varying degrees, mortality-reminders which generally prove most effective when they're accompanied by some measure of leavening humor.

That crucial element is present throughout Not All Is Vigil, not least via the low-level bickering which constitutes the bulk of the conversation between 60-years-married Felisa Lou and Antonio. Not that the latter gets much of a word in edgewise during the amusingly extended monologue with which the film begins, as Felisa scolds her frail husband for wanting to relocate from their village house to a retirement home. While she has to use a walker to get around, Felisa is fiercely independent and dreads the prospect of nurses and caretakers interfering with her daily routines.

This opening sequence, which runs several minutes, takes place entirely within the confines of a hospital elevator — coincidentally, a near-identical setting to that of the climactic confrontation in Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa's Horse Money, which premiered at Locarno this summer and reaped enormous acclaim at Toronto. An avowed admirer of Japan's revered master Yasujiro Ozu, famed for his studies of senior marrieds (Tokyo Story, etc), Paralluelo has also cited Costa as a major influence: already palpable in Yatasto, and even more so here.

Paralluelo and cinematographer Julian Elizalde — making crisply immersive use of the Red digital camera — shoot the hospital where Antonio is being treated (for an unspecified cerebral disorder, illustrated by a couple of disorienting, fleeting coups de cinema) as a shadowy, cavernous, understaffed environment, full of weird, echoing noises-off, one that could easily slot into the oeuvre of both Costa and Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Here as elsewhere, Federico Disandro's multi-layered sound-design pulls its weight — and then some. In search of her husband, who facially resembles a great-uncle of Peter Mullan and/or John Malkovich, Felisa indefatigably clanks her laborious way down tenebrous corridors — Paralluelo's use of the Z-axis is a key strand of his confident visual approach — and into underlit rooms that seem like ante-chambers to the after-life.

The director and his collaborators build such a claustrophobic sense of ennui and stasis that it comes as a startling relief when, nearly forty minutes in, he abruptly cuts to snowy scenes of the bleakly scenic Spanish countryside. These form a stark prelude to the final hour, set in Felisa and Antonio's sparsely-decorated house, where we observe the couple's daily and nocturnal goings-on. And although at times Paralluelo's approach threatens to bog down into taxing longueurs, the pay-off for patient audiences is amply worthwhile via a delicate finale that's puckish, poignant and piquant.

Production company: El dedo en el ojo
Cast: Felisa Lou, Antonio Paralluelo, Jesus Cester
Director/Screenwriter: Hermes Paralluelo
Producer: Maria Jose Garcia
Cinematographer: Julian Elizalde
Editors: Ivan Guarnizo, Hermes Paralluelo
Sales: El dedo en el ojo, Barcelona

No Rating, 98 minutes