'The Year of the Discovery' ('El ano del descubrimiento'): Film Review | Rotterdam 2020

The Age of Discovery - Rotterdam - Publicity Still - H 2020
International Film Festival Rotterdam
Epic quasi-documentary blurs categories and chronologies to immersive effect.

The first solo full-length feature by Spanish writer-director Luis Lopez Carrasco debuted in the Tiger competition at the Dutch film event.

"What year is this?!" exclaimed Agent Cooper at the end of Twin Peaks. And similarly disorienting temporal dislocations are now emerging as an intriguing trend in artistic cinema, especially in Europe. To the two most prominent and loudly acclaimed recent fictional examples — Christian Petzold's Transit and Pietro Marcello's Martin Eden — we can now add The Year of the Discovery (El ano del descubrimiento), an ambitious, mammoth 200-minute interrogation of recent Spanish industrial, social and economic history seen through the prism of one coastal city, the naval base Cartagena.

Somehow taking place simultaneously both in 1992 and the present day, the confrontationally unclassifiable Spanish-Swiss co-production blurs lines between documentary and fiction categories, and also deploys some arresting stylistic devices. These directorial and creative gambits combine and cross-pollinate to yield fascinating but mixed dividends in terms of the overall final result. Nevertheless, the picture's scope, piercingly topical subject matter, and playful formal experimentation are such that The Year of the Discovery must be ranked as a very strong early frontrunner for the Tiger award at Rotterdam, where it was one of the first films to bow in the main competition.

This was a deliberate strategy by outgoing festival director Bero Beyer, seeking to stimulate word-of-mouth interest in what is by any measure a tough sell to general audiences. Regardless of its fate with the Tiger jury, The Year of the Discovery is a safe bet to be one of the major critical breakouts of the event, guaranteed plentiful further festival play for the rest of 2020 and perhaps even a candidate for theatrical exposure in receptive areas.

This may be Lopez Carrasco's first solo directorial effort of feature duration, but he previously co-directed collective project Los Materiales (2010) and then was responsible for 2013's widely-screened 67-minute El Futuro. Presented through the ironic 20-20 lens of hindsight, the mid-lengther plunges the audience into the noisy milieu of a 1982 house party thrown to celebrate the general election victory of the Socialist Party. Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez was about to form the first left-wing government since the 1930s in a country dominated for decades of the 20th century by Fascist dictator General Franco.

A decade later, Spain was, as The Year of the Discovery's opening captions put it, apparently "a modern, developed and dynamic country," showing off its emergence from the dark Franco days via the Barcelona Olympics and Seville's Expo '92. The expo was officially a commemoration of the half-millennium since Christopher Columbus' discovery of America in 1492: the original "year of the discovery." But elsewhere in Spain the picture wasn't anywhere near quite so rosy, with working-class cities like Cartagena suffering from a deep and damaging industrial crisis that would exact a disastrous toll on employment and the social fabric and spark many dozens of protests, marches and demonstrations.

All of this is discussed at great length and in great detail in the film, for the vast bulk of which we're right there among the denizens of Bar Tana, a workers' cafe in the city center. Cinematographer Isabel Gallego Grau's images are presented via the old-school Hi8 video format, with split-screen the norm. Given the exposition of the prologue, the look of the film, the clothing and hairstyles of the participants, plus the fact that nearly everyone's smoking in the bar (banned in Spain since 2011), we presume that we're seeing archival footage from 1992 shot by some contemporary TV station.

Just before the hour mark, however, one interviewee's comments about chronology and money (he mentions the Euro, which Spain didn't adopt until 2002) indicate that something more complex is afoot. As it progresses, The Year of the Discovery reveals itself as a project "unglued in time," as Kurt Vonnegut would put it, making explicit the parallels between the industrial crisis of the late 1980s / early 1990s and the one that has steadily engulfed so much of the "western" world since 2008.

The testimonies of the Cartageneros who lived through the strife of 1992, experiencing police brutality in tandem with disillusion at the neo-liberal policies of the supposedly "socialist" government, are articulate, earthy, vivid and engaging. Many viewers will miss not the disclaimer buried deep in the end credits (which also mention casting, makeup and costumes) stating that the opinions expressed may not necessarily "correspond" with those which the speakers actually hold.

So what's actually going on here? To what degree is what we are seeing shaped, constructed or even "dictated" by Lopez Carrasco and his co-writer Raul Liarte? Illumination regarding their tactics and intentions can be found in Lopez Carrasco's interviews. The film itself — taken strictly in isolation — is in some ways a strangely cryptic creation.

The split-screen approach — adopted throughout, apart from brief sections at the beginning, middle and end — works superbly in the early stretches. While one interviewee is shown speaking in one panel, the other settles on the lived-in faces of Bar Tana's patrons, pungently evoking the cozy atmosphere of the establishment (now, sadly, permanently closed) and providing silent, eloquent context.

At other times, however, the technique — which points toward a parallel career as an installation — seems redundant, gimmicky or distracting: in the second half, there are long stretches where one side of the screen isn't used at all. This is typical of the whole film's occasionally awkward balancing act between doing justice to the participants' experiences while devising an unusual formal structure within which they can profitably be related.

There's no doubting Lopez Carrasco (who hails from from nearby Murcia) and company's empathetic interest in their protagonists, their valorization of organized labor, and their desire to shine a light into semi-forgotten aspects of very recent European history — events that have self-evident applications to similar cities all around the world, arguably now more than ever. With sparing use of informative onscreen captions, The Year of the Discovery is an exhaustive introduction to complex and controversial material, albeit one whose demanding duration, claustrophobically intense focus and formal trickeries may end up restricting the wide exposure its considerable merits deserve.

Production companies: El ano del descubrimiento AIE, LaCima Producciones, Alina Film, Magnetica Creative Lab, Cromagnon Producctiones
Director: Luis Lopez Carrasco
Screenwriters: Luis Lopez Carrasco, Raul Liarte
Producers: Luis Ferron Ferri, Luis Lopez Carrasco, David Epiney, Pedro Palacios, Daniel M Caneiro, Ricardo Sales
Executive producers: Marta Lacima, Javier Fernandez
Cinematographer: Sara Gallego Grau
Production designer: Víctor Colmenero Mir
Costume designer: Rebecca Duran Estrada
Editor: Sergio Jimenez Barranquero
Casting directors: Luis Lopez Carrasco, Raul Liarte, Maria del Carmen Hernandez, Sergio Martinez Soto
Venue: International Film Festival Rotterdam (competition)
Sales: LaCima Producciones, Barcelona/Madrid
In Spanish
No rating, 200 minutes