'Vulcania': Film Review
Jose Skaf’s debut is a rare, daring Spanish foray into imagined worlds.
A low-budget dystopian tale which is stronger on atmospherics than on story, Vulcania delivers little that’s new, but does what it does distinctively. Peering down upon Vulcania’s isolated community, the usual suspects are lined up — 1984, The Giver, Logan’s Run, The Hunger Games and a long etcetera — with debutante director Jose Skaf opting for a measured, old-fashioned and thoughtful approach which manages to provide too little tension for the action fanboys and too little nuance for the metaphor hunters. Still, the film presents a satisfyingly bleak vision that could appeal to anti-establishment festivalgoers who like their dystopias clear-cut. If Skaf can learn to channel his ideas through his characters, he’ll deliver stronger work than Vulcania.
This time the community is rural, surrounded by mountains, ruled over from behind the scenes by a none-too benevolent dictator, Adam (Gines Garcia Millan). The colony is centered on a large foundry where everyone in the populace unthinkingly, passively works to produce steel, which is then sold to the outside world — where, of course, none of the inhabitants is allowed to go. You’re free to interpret it however you wish, but we’re either talking an old-fashioned critique of owner/worker power relations or the foundry is a metaphor for a nation in which two apparently opposed political parties work together to keep their subjects in a state of ignorance.
Jonas (Miquel Hernandez) — whether by coincidence or not, the boy-hero of The Giver has the same prophet’s name — is haunted by the loss of his wife and son in an explosion a year earlier, an explosion in which Marta (Aura Garrido) also lost her husband Alex (Jaime Olias). (The film opens with this scene, which is one of the few with any real dramatic urgency.) With his dark eyes, permanently melancholy expression and huntsman’s beard, Jonas certainly looks suitably haunted, and given the slowness of things, Hernandez does well to always make Jonas' prowlings watchable.
Jonas works in the Hole, a dangerous area where constant proximity to metals has given him the ability to manipulate them with his mind — a skill which opens up to him the possibility of escape. He spends much of the film’s early part furtively trying to uncover the truth, which is that Alex was killed while trying to escape to the City, while making tentative approaches to Marta, who seems to be as frightened as a rabbit about getting involved with Jonas.
Vulcania is strongest in its setting — an uncanny, isolated community of unsmiling automata which bears a strong resemblance to the Victorian factory towns of northern England (it was actually shot in the Pyrenees in Northern Spain). As dystopias go, this one comes over as very retro, right down to the weirdly atemporal costume design, which seems based on differing historical periods. All this is brought most clearly into focus during Vulcania’s annual party, again Victorian in tone, which mainly involves sitting mournfully on a grassy bank.
The suggestion is that history is frozen for the workers while the leaders are busy making that history: a cynical viewer might reflect that at least this lot have a damn job. But this and other ideas fail to come to dramatic life, and the strong cast has been given too little to work with: It’s not enough, as is the case with Jonas and Marta, for a script to give a character a tragic backstory and then call it a wrap on the character development. Thus this remote rural community feels dramatically remote to the viewer.
There’s always the sense in Vulcania that Skaf is gamely straining for something beyond the pleasures of mere plot and character. But the effect is to leave both these traditional cinematic concerns looking half-baked: The thread involving the matching of a piece of cardboard as a clue to a book is ponderously handled, while the relationship between Jonas and Marta never takes off, largely because both have been scripted as fearful and wary of speaking too much. Indeed, there’s a certain relief whenever Jonas’ chatty buddy Fran (Andres Herrera) appears. But that’s the way with dystopias, of course, and if all the emotion and passion in such a repressed environment can only emerge in a snatched final kiss, then that’s how it is.
Both the soundwork and Arnau Bataller’s breathy, aptly electro-industrial score are excellent, a further indicator that the best things about Skaf's film are away from the center. The distant chatter of voices at the end is a reminder of what’s been missing not only from Vulcania, but from Vulcania, too: that all-important human buzz.
Production companies: Zentropa Spain, Zentropa Vulcania, Zentropa Sweden, Ran Entertainment
Cast: Miquel Fernandez, Aura Garrido, Gines Garcia MIllan, Jose Sacristan, Ana Wagener, Jaime Olias
Director: Jose Skaf
Screenwriters: Diego Soto, Jose Skaf
Producers: David Matamoros, Madeleine Ekman, Eric Tavitian, Angeles Hernandez
Director of photography: Emilio Guirao
Production designer: Roger Belles
Costume designer: Desiree Guirao
Editors: Ana Charte Isa, Elena Ruiz
Composer: Arnau Bataller
Not rated, 90 minutes