'Sunday's Illness' ('La Enfermedad del Domingo'): Film Review | Berlin

Courtesy of Zeta Films
Emotion meets elegance.

Spanish maverick Ramon Salazar delivers his finest work to date with this exquisitely realized mother-daughter reunion drama, playing in Berlin's Panorama.

In his two films following his striking 2002 debut Stones (also a Berlin player), Ramon Salazar has never quite fulfilled his promise, but he undeniably does so now with the beautifully crafted, spectral and emotionally punchy Sunday's Illness. This story about the reunion, following a 35-year abandonment, of a mother and daughter, marvelously played by Spanish actors Susi Sanchez and Barbara Lennie, respectively, is slow but never ponderous, clear in its outlines but never simplistic, and elegantly crafted without being stifling. Hopefully it will afford Salazar, whose films have always had the merit of being distinctive, a little of the international recognition his best work has deserved.

Anabel (Susi Sanchez, fleetingly glimpsed by international auds playing the heroine's mother in Almodovar's Julieta, a mother-seeks-daughter movie to which Illness represents a sort of counterpoint) lives a life of great wealth. We first see her, dressed with striking grace by wardrobe designer Clara Bilbao, moving through the halls of the palatial home she shares with husband Bernabe (Miguel Angel Sola) before briefly stumbling, a brief foreshadowing that her life, like everyone's, is not perfect.

One of the team of waiters hired by Anabel for a large charity dinner is Chiara (Barbara Lennie), who has infiltrated Anabel's home with the aim of informing her that she is the child whom Anabel abandoned at age 8. The wordless scene of their meeting is just the first of their compelling interactions.

Chiara issues an unusual request: She wants Anabel to spend 10 days with her, after which it will be adios forever. (The scene in which this is negotiated, involving lawyers and a contract, is very cleverly conceived.) They leave the city behind and travel out to Chiara's rural home in the French Pyrenees, where Anabel lived with her former family and which looks perhaps a little too well-maintained to be plausible considering that Chiara has spent the intervening years drifting, getting involved with drugs and — in her own words — "leaving nothing to be proud of."

The majority of Illness' running time is spent depicting the troubled relationship of the two women — a relationship that, at least from Chiara's point of view, seems to be composed of love and hate in roughly equal quantities. Chiara endlessly provokes Anabel in what seems to be a confused attempt at revenge for the abandonment — for example getting her oh-so-elegant mother covered in mud and then rinsing her off with a hosepipe. Anabel puts up with it all, stoically accepting that this is the price she must now pay. Initially a fish out of water, Anabel is slowly divested of the trappings of wealth, and the real woman beneath the social veneer starts to come through.

The relationship unfolds mostly in an atmosphere of silence, and the story would be glacially paced had Salazar not charged each scene with some fresh emotional twist. When words come they are usually defining, and it's not until the last half-hour or so that both the viewer and Anabel are allowed into the not altogether unsurprising secret of why she has been invited to her daughter's home.

Lennie and Sanchez are magnificent, Lennie investing Chiara with an air of festering, weary resentment that occasionally explodes into self-destructive nihilism, while Sanchez (working again with Salazar after his last film, 10,000 Nights Nowhere) gives Anabel a memorable combination of steeliness and grace. The difference between mother and daughter is brought out best in two scenes that show them dancing: Anabel does it alone, to Mama Cass' "Dream a Little Dream," as an expression of her inner release, while Chiara does it to the altogether less dreamy "99 Red Balloons," as the prelude to getting horrendously drunk at the local fiesta.

Visually, Illness is practically faultless, with Ricardo de Gracia's framing, lighting and coloring the rural locations to often memorable, painterly effect, investing nature with all the ethereal magic he can muster. It is largely a film of lovingly composed still shots, but perhaps the best scene of all is a throwback to the busy camerawork of 10,000 Nights: a two-minute shot of the two women descending a mountain together on a toboggan. The scene is a testament not only to the quality of the actresses but also to Salazar's capacity for wringing emotional complexity from a simple set-up.

Despite its many virtues, Illness does feel slightly schematic, in the sense that Salazar's insistence on perfect craftsmanship can leave things feeling a little overdetermined: The way that Lennie uses a rock to kill a dying seagull, for example, foreshadows events to come a little too neatly. But this is a minor quibble in a film that pulls off the too-rare feat of combining exquisite craftsmanship with authentic emotional force.

Production companies: Zeta Cinema, On Cinema
Cast: Barbara Lennie, Susi Sanchez, Greta Fernandez, Miguel Angel Sola, Richard Bohringer
Director, screenwriter: Ramon Salazar
Producer: Francisco Ramos
Executive producer: Rafael Lopez Manzanara
Director of photography: Ricardo de Gracia
Art Director: Sylvia Steinbrecht
Costume designer: Clara Bilbao
Editor: Teresa Font
Composer: Nico Casal
Sales: Zeta Cinema

Venue: Berlinale (Panorama)

113 minutes