‘Summer 1993’ ('Estiu 1993’): Film Review | Berlin 2017

SUMMER 1993 - Still 1 - H 2017
Courtesy of Inicia Films
A thoughtful and moving family portrait.

Catalan director Carla Simon’s feature debut, a biographical piece about an orphaned girl’s troubled life with her new family, finds a natural home in Berlin’s Generation Kplus sidebar.

A summer of troubled and troubling experience is reshaped into a delicately crafted, moving filmic memoir by Carla Simon in her feature debut Summer 1993. That the film draws deeply on personal recollection can be sensed in virtually every frame of this story about a 6-year old girl sent to live with her uncle and aunt following the death of her parents; it imparts to events a directness and detail that is underpinned throughout by its performances, particularly those of the children. Childhood memoirs always are under threat from self-indulgence and sentimentality, but 1993 successfully sidesteps both, establishing Simon as a talent to watch.

Following the death of her parents from AIDS, at a time when ignorance about the illness was rife, Frida (Laia Artigas, who kicks things off with a terrific soulful gaze and then gets even better) is sent to the mountainside pueblo to live with her mother’s brother, Esteve (David Verdaguer, familiar to festival auds from 10,000 km), his wife Marga (Bruna Cusi) and their daughter, 3-ish Anna (the blonde, marginally tubby Paula Robles). (Filming took place at the location where Simon herself actually was sent when she was 6.)

Limpidly lensed by D.P. Santiago Racaj, the woods, natural pools and chickens in the yard should make this an idyllic location for a 6-year-old on her first trip away from the city, but of course it can’t be that for Frida: Indeed, even the chickens scare her. The four-letter illness word is never mentioned — and indeed family shame meant it was not mentioned much back then — so that troublingly for the young girl, nobody quite seems to know what her mother died of.

Unable to verbalize her pain except to a weeping statue of the Virgin Mary to which, inspired by the religious beliefs of her grandmother Maria (Isabel Rocatti) she regularly returns, Frida starts to take out her feelings on Anna, at one point leaving her in the woods as part of a “game” she is playing and leading to a broken arm for her new little sister. The effects on the rest of the family are immediate. "That girl has no morals," says Marga to Esteve, and soon Frida is not only orphaned, but also starting to feel as though she’s living among the enemy. The script’s even-handedness in this regard is one of its strong points: In such a situation, everyone’s a victim.

1993 pretty much follows the textbooks in terms of the psychological effects of events on its characters. It thus delivers few dramatic surprises, but its real skill is in delivering these effects in such a true and captivating manner. The adult performances are fine, but the exchanges between Frida and Anna, which have the spontaneity and freshness of fly-on-the-wall and which are evidence of Simon’s skill at directing actors, are especially watchable.

They contain the film’s most emotionally direct moments and, later on, are heavy with palpable emotion and tension, since the girls are so vulnerable in such different ways. At one point, for example, Anna hands Frida a telephone and asks whether she wants to phone her mother. Laia Artigas — playing Frida in a tight-lipped manner that suggests there’s a world of emotion inside her waiting to explode — and Paula Robles are a little sister act that stirs memories of Ana Torrent and Isabel Tellería in Victor Erice’s masterpiece The Spirit of the Beehive.

Inevitably, filmic childhoods are largely a question of conversations overheard but misunderstood, and if 1993 can be faulted for anything, it’s that Frida overhears a couple too many — the adults in general seem unaware of the dangers of speaking too loud. Moreover, the jazz that sometimes pops up in the background may be the score, or it may be the music jazz buff Esteve is listening to. Either way — and even though it’s probably a real memory for Simon — it’s not necessary. It feels like the only empty stylistic gesture in a film that otherwise is rewardingly attentive to the difficult business of eking out the maximum from the minimum.

Production company: Inicia Films, Avalon
Cast: Laia Artigas, Paula Robles, Bruna Cusí, David Verdaguer, Fermi Reixach, Isabel Rocatti
Director, screenwriter: Carla Simon
Producer: Valerie Delpierre
Executive producer: Maria Zamora
Director of photography: Santiago Racaj
Production designer: Mireia Graell
Costume designer: Ana Aguila
Editors: Didac Palou, Ana Pfaff
Composers: Ernest Pipo, Pau Boigues
Casting director: Miria Juarez
Sales: New Europe Film Sales

No rating, 96 minutes