Pablo's Winter (El Invierno de Pablo): IDFA Review

Beautifully shot on monochrome video, Chico Pereira's keen-eyed debut blurs the documentary-fiction divide with familiar but promising results. 

Chico Pereira's debut, a Scottish-Spanish portrait of a cantankerous former mercury miner and his village, was named Best Student Documentary at Amsterdam's IDFA festival.

Forbiddingly chilly at first glance but gradually yielding considerable warmth, Pablo's Winter (El Invierno de Pablo) is a likeable calling-card for 33-year-old Spanish writer-director-producer Chico Pereira and his talented German DoP Julian Schwanitz.

A deft fly-on-the-wall portrait of an ornery, retired mercury-miner and his economically challenged village, the Scottish-Spanish co-production has made an immediate impact on the festival circuit, landing minor prizes at DOK Leipzig and Amsterdam's IDFA in its first two outings. Likely to feature in many further documentary-oriented festivals over the next year, this nicely low-key affair will also prove popular as a small-screen choice as well as in educational settings.

The Leipzig award -- in the Healthy Workplaces category -- came under the auspices of the European Union's Agency for Safety and Health at Work, who will circulate 1,000 copies in eight languages across the continent thus further raising the profile of Pereira's heartfelt tribute to his home-town, Almadén.

Located in the south-western corner of Spain's arid central region, Almadén has been a major center of mercury-mining since the time of Christ. This long and remarkable history is touched on only lightly by Pereira, most explicitly in an end-credits dedication to the "2,000 years of work, struggle and sacrifice" by the miners and their families.

The mine closed over a decade ago, though its infrastructure remains in place, some of it having been turned into a tourist-attraction museum. But the atmosphere of grim decline is palpable: "This village is in a terrible state compared to what it was," grumbles the sixtysomething protagonist Pablo, surveying the scene on a particularly soul-sapping rainy day.

An unsmiling grouch who only seems to come alive when playing with his young grandson Jaime, Pablo is married to the long-suffering Josefa, a lady evidently well inured to her husband's stick-in-the-mud ways ("stop being a grumpy-pants," she counsels when the pair enjoy a rare evening out at a local dance.")

Having suffered his fifth heart attack two years before, Pablo, who toiled for decades in the hazardous underground mine, is now advised by his doctor to cut back on drinking, smoking and bad food before it's too late. "The more you listen to doctors, the sooner you die," reckons Pablo, whose saturnine visage suggests some Iberian cousin of Philip Baker Hall.

Nevertheless, he does start to grudgingly change his ways, providing an optimistic narrative arc for subjects which could easily have been handled in much more downbeat and depressing fashion. Presenting his narrative as if it's fiction rather than documentary, apart from a last-reel interview-style sequence, Pereira observes Pablo's daily activities with intimate but dry detachment.

Cinematographer Schwanitz frames this quotidian stuff with an impressive compositional eye, while editor Nick Gibbon provides effective contrasts between the claustrophobic confines of Pablo's house and the picturesque desolation of his semi-rural, semi-industrial surroundings.

There's no attempt to reinvent the wheel here, Pablo's Winter following in the footsteps of Peter Schreiner, the Austrian master responsible for masterful black-and-white high-def DV character-studies Bellavista (2006) and Toto (2009). Pereira is, perhaps inevitably, some way off that level on this evidence, but there's no faulting his concern with an easily overlooked social problem. And it's certainly refreshing that he avoids the most common current documentary-makers' fault of gilding the lily with superfluous musical accompaniment: less being more, and small being beautiful.

Venue: IDFA, International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (Student Documentary Competition)
Production company: Opa Films

Director / Screenwriter / Producer: Chico Pereira
Executive producers: Sonja Henrici, Finlay Pretsell
Director of photography: Julian Schwanitz
Music: Juan Alberto Navazzo
Editor: Nick Gibbon
Sales agent: Scottish Documentary Institute, Edinburgh
No MPAA rating, 76 minutes