Primary! -- Film Review

A fine opportunity to celebrate the creativity of young children gets away in this dramatically underdeveloped Spanish movie.

An overqualified art professor, his resume bristling with degrees and major published articles, takes a job teaching art at a primary school in Ivan Noel’s “Primary!”

Despite that exclamation mark, this is not a film that generates great excitement but rather small insights into children’s behavior and the emotional strains on adults who choose to spend long hours overseeing their early education.

Mostly Noel, who wrote the script with his main actor, Francisco Alfonsin, wants to observe a primary school in operation. The Spanish film is certainly not without its incidents, both comic and dramatic, but the tone remains muted and watchful. A frustrated viewer can’t always tell what led up to these incidents or why people behave as they do.

Noel doesn’t even bother to disclose what led his protagonist to take such an unlikely post. His face has a kind of sadness to it, as if some unhappy dramatic event caused him to seek such a job. Did he lose his family? While unpacking in his Spartan room early in the film, he thinks he hears a small child’s voice cry out “Papa.” He turns abruptly but, of course, no one is there. That’s as much as you’ll ever know.

His first day of instruction finds him delivering a talk more appropriate for a high school or even university course. The children stare at him with incomprehension as he tells an anecdote about Salvador Dali and melting watches. However, Noel never shows how the teacher alters his approach, as indeed he must. The children simply start to draw, paint and create, seemingly without instruction, as our intrepid teacher expresses astonishment at how well they do.

One little boy overcomes his hyperactivity when he paints. His mother can’t believe it. Neither can his teacher. The two adults look at one another and is that a spark of romance you see in their eyes? Noel never follows up on that either.

The film is borderline annoying about all this obfuscation. Not everything has to be explained away, but not everything has to be a head-scratcher either.

One teacher suffers a complete meltdown after 27 years teaching the same class. Another, who has mostly been silent, defends her against the snide remarks of her colleagues. Why would he do so though when anyone can see she no longer should be around children? Another teacher, who claims to be a psychologist, acts downright bizarrely, reading sexual meanings into the children’s behavior and drawings.

The film’s youngest characters, with only a couple of exceptions, barely register. And yet the director insists he wants to celebrate their creativity.

So “Primary!” mostly baffles you. All the movie’s ideas seem worthy but none gets developed or explored in any depth. Noel does an amazing job to get his very young actors to be natural, lively and still hit their marks. It’s just too bad he is unable to follow through on his desire to show the creativity of these young people.

Venue: Tokyo International Film Festival -- Competition
Production companies: Noel Films
Cast: Francisco Alfonsin, Jose Joaquin Mena, Eva Rubio, Maica Sanchez, Mercedes Suarez Aller, Charo Urbano
Director-music-editor: Ivan Noel
Screenwriter: Francisco Alfonsin, Ivan Noel
Producer: Ivan Noel, Dan Uneken
Executive producer: Gerald Herman
Directors of photography: LaeFaneo Corrochano, Juan Luis Galan, Albi Rios Barba
Unrated, 101 minutes

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