‘Petra’: Film Review | Cannes 2018

Courtesy of Cannes
Barbara Lennie in 'Petra.'
A Greek tragedy in contempo Spain.

With his sixth feature, Spanish Cannes regular Jaime Rosales delivers his most accessible film to date, an intense damaged-family drama set on a country estate.

Jaime Rosales has a reputation for tackling big themes with austerity and slowness in a way that ticks critics’ boxes but leaves viewers alienated. With Petra, he maintains the trend toward accessibility he started with 2014's Beautiful Youth by retaining his signature formal techniques but front-loading his film with a new (for him) element: a satisfyingly complex plotline.

The result is an intense, cunningly structured and rewarding item about a woman's search for her father that should keep both the Rosales faithful happy and more general audiences (should it get the chance) intrigued. Petra has started selling to Euro territories, with art house interest elsewhere likely to follow.

“You’ll get nothing good from this place,” a character tells the titular heroine (Barbara Lennie) at one point, and by the final frame, we realize that he’s mostly correct — but not entirely. After the death of her mother, Julia (Petra Martinez), Petra shows up at a large family estate in the Catalan countryside to study under Jaume (Joan Botey), the aging artist and owner. (Botey, whose first film this is, is the actual owner of the estate where Petra was filmed.) Other members of this unhappy household are Jaume’s wife, Marisa (vet Marisa Paredes); their photographer son, Lucas (Alex Brendemuhl); his housekeeper Teresa (Carme Pla); Teresa’s husband, Juanjo (Chema del Barco); and their son, Pau (Oriol Pla).

Through the early scenes, Petra flirts with Lucas, whose insecurities are clear from the start, but when Lucas moves to kiss her, she turns away with the brief comment that it cannot be. It soon emerges that Petra’s real reason for visiting is that she believes Jaume to be the father she's never known; reasonably enough, she’s wary about kissing someone who could be her half-brother.

If such a notion suggests that we are in ancient Greece rather than modern Catalonia, then that’s exactly right: The concerns of Petra are the universal ones of Greek tragedy, updated to contemporary Spain, and it’s from Greek tragedy that the tight, complex plotting, the timelessness and the air of impending doom that hangs over Petra are drawn. These are people who have had the great misfortune to be born at the wrong time and place, and there’s not much they can do about it.

The film’s multiple storylines ripple out from Petra’s doubts back into the troubled relationship of Petra and Julia, and forward through the briefly happy relationship between Petra and Lucas. By the end, again in the true tragic spirit, nobody will remain unaffected.

But this being Rosales, there's some doubt about where the ending actually is. Petra is broken down into titled, numbered nonchronological chapters, meaning that the characters’ motivations are left open to question and that judgments on them have to be withheld until it’s all over. So that although by the director’s standards this is straightforwardly classical cinema, it does retain the moral complexity and distance of his earlier work — although across a wider range of characters. (That said, if surprise is really what the director is seeking, he might do well not to reveal major plot points in his headings. The chapter titled “The Suicide of Teresa” is one example of this bizarre spoiler-within-the-movie technique.)

Rather than the malicious gods of Greek tragedy, here we have a malicious artist. The monstrous, manipulative Jaume is a tyrant nearing the end of his life, a man who's ceased to care about the moral beliefs that make the world livable. Jaume taunts Lucas for his inability to break free of him and make his way in the world; he sleeps with Teresa in exchange for offering work to Pau (and threatens to tell Pau that he’s slept with the boy’s mother); and he may even be lying about whether or not he’s Petra’s father. And, like a downbeat Catalan King Lear, he seems to be doing it all just because he can.

Like the rest of the cast, Botey’s performance is contained and intense, adjectives that indeed describe Petra as a whole. Other performances, from a cast including several of Spain’s finest, are up to the mark: international audiences are likeliest to recognize Paredes from The Devil’s Backbone and All About My Mother, while Lennie consolidates her reputation as perhaps Spain’s finest female character actor, her tightly controlled performance suggesting that she, like everyone else, is under instructions to counteract the lurid material by keeping it downbeat. It’s crucial to the plot of Petra that nobody talks much about important stuff to other people, and that a lot of bother could have been avoided if the characters had just sat down for a coffee and a good chat. (The plot has enough raw material for several soap operas, but barely a tear is shed by anyone throughout.)

As ever, Martinez delivers her lines with compelling naturalness, with some scenes suggesting that Rosales has left some space for his actors’ powers of improvisation. Early exchanges between Petra and Teresa after Petra’s arrival are so bland that they are surely unscripted.

Visually, we are in familiar Rosales territory. Petra mainly consists of lengthy shots through a studied, slow-traveling camera, courtesy of DP Helene Louvart (Wim Wenders’ Pina) which often arrives at characters in conversations we have previously heard offscreen, rather as though we are coming into aural focus. Sometimes the camera moves off again before the conversation is over. The sense is of a strange but appropriate mix of the slow and the unsettled. When the camera is still, we see often muted, beautifully composed interiors, sometimes through doorways. The estate where events unfold is troubling in both its vastness and hidden corners.

Reworked through multiple versions to within an inch of its life, the plotting of Petra could be accused of being overwrought. Everything has its place, everything is calculated, but inevitably, given its structure, Rosales’ air of fastidious distance and artifice prevails and the chronological games mean that anyone seeking to identify with the characters’ emotional development will inevitably have a struggle on their hands. This is one audience comfort that Rosales is unwilling to pander to. So even though Petra is indeed his most accessible film, his creations are not yet able to grow on their own, remaining subservient to their auteur's big, complex controlling ideas. (The film’s frankly implausible climax, a major false step that's just too unexpected, shows that somewhere along the way the writers, too, lost sight of at least one character’s dramatic arc.)

Among the ideas, the most politically interesting — in a movie whose events could effectively have occurred at practically any time over the last few hundred years — relates to Lucas’ photos of Spain's ongoing, nation-dividing disinterment of its Civil War victims. Is it best to disturb the past or leave it alone? Petra isn’t telling, but it is most definitely reminding us that the past will not easily be forgotten.

Production companies: Fresdeval Films, Wanda Vision, Oberon Cinematografica, Balthazar Productions, Snowglobe Films
Cast: Barbara Lennie, Alex Brendemuhl, Joan Botey, Marisa Paredes, Petra Martinez, Carme Pla, Oriol Pla, Chema del Barco
Director: Jaime Rosales
Screenwriters: Michel Gaztambide, Clara Roquet, Jaime Rosales
Producers: Antonio Chavarrias, Barbara Diez, Jerome Dopffer, Katrin Pors, Mikkel Jersin, Eva Jakobsen
Executive producer: Jose Maria Morales
Director of photography: Helene Louvart
Art director: Victoria Paz Alvarez
Costume designer: Iratxe Sanz
Editor: Lucia Casal
Composer: Kristian Eidnes Andersen
Casting director: Sara Bilbatua, Maria Rodrigo
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors Fortnight)
Sales: Film Factory Entertainment
107 minutes