Amama: When A Tree Falls

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Amama: When A Tree Falls
"Although initially threatening to take pretentiousness too far, Amama gathers power through the runtime."

Last year marked a turning point for Basque film at San Sebastian Film Festival when, for the first time, a film in the language - Loreak (Flowers) - vyed for the Golden Shell in the official competition - the strength of the festival's choice confirmed by the film's selection to represent Spain at this year's Oscars. It was good to see that it wasn't just a flash in the pan when Alsier Altuna's Amama (Basque for "grandma"), made it onto this year's slate. Although initially threatening to take pretentiousness too far, Amama gathers power through the runtime.

The idea of different generations of a family having opposing perspectives on where they have come from and where they intend to go is as old as the hills - and that is, in some ways, the point of Altuna's film, which steeps itself in the idea of tradition and filial duty to the family unit.

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In an introduction which takes explanation and voice-over too far - a tendency that, thankfully, is ditched once the set-up is complete - the family's daughter Amaia (that her name means "the end" or "resolution" in Basque is surely no coincidence) explains that when members of her family were born, each had a tree planted for them. Each sapling was then painted a colour by their grandmother, denoting the characteristic she believed would come to dominate the child - red for strength and for the eldest, white signifying weakness for the younger son and, somewhat alarmingly when you think about it, black, 'the devil's colour' for Amaia (Iraia Elias in her first but hopefully not last film role).

Although making Amaia an experimental visual artist adds considerably to the pretention level, it also gives Altuna the opportunity to play around with non-narrative concepts. For example, we see a character literally tethered to the past in the opening sequence and later Altuna's camera swings in to the heart of the trees amid susseration, all of which is a bit on the nose. But there is stronger use of visual imagery to come, as Amaia works on a project to celebrate her grandmother and the idea of generations, which culminates in a emotionally dense and moving memorial towards the end of the film,married to a phenomenally good musical performance by Mursego (the performance name of Maite Arroitajauregi) that evokes a primal note of grief.

Between these points is a more traditional, almost Shakespearean, narrative, about the way in which Amaia's mostly silent father Tomas (Kandido Uranga) is clinging to the land at the expense of everything else. His eldest son Gaizka (Manu Uranga) becomes the catalyst for conflict when he refuses to take up his tree-predicted role as master of the farm, enticed by the lure of urbanisation. This leaves Amaia holding the apple basket, a position she is unwilling to be in and which puts her into a stand-off with her father.

If Amaia is all verbal and physical expression, Tomas is the opposite, stubborn and as unbending in his beliefs as Amaia's tree trunk. Kandido Uranga deserves a lot of credit or conveying the man's inner conflict despite few spoken lines of dialogue. Through it all, the grandmother moves, almost as silent as the trees she has painted, a symbol of something more ancient and enduring than the conflict between the two. This is a film rich - occasionally indulgently so - in symbolism, but for those willing to bear with it, it ultimately exerts a surprisingly strong emotional grip.

Reviewed on: 06 Nov 2015
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A family tale of conflict between the urban and rural worlds, past and present, parents and children.

Director: Asier Altuna

Writer: Asier Altuna

Starring: Iraia Elias, Kandido Uranga, Manu Uranga, Nagore Aranburu, Ander Lipus, Amparo Badiola, Klara Badiola

Year: 2015

Runtime: 103 minutes

Country: Spain

Festivals:

SSFF 2015
Viva 2016

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