San Sebastian Film Festival Diary: Episode 4

Parents and children face strife in Shell, After Lucia and Twice Born

by Amber Wilkinson

Chloe Pirrie in Scott Graham's Shell
Chloe Pirrie in Scott Graham's Shell

On Wednesday, almost everything in San Sebastian ground to a halt for a Basque country general strike. Bars and shops lay closed and the film festival ran a restricted programme, with just a handful of films showing at the main Kursaal auditorium. Protestors held rallies, carrying coffins bearing slogans referring to the death of right-wing socialism. Critics caught up on writing - or just on sleep - while those locals who weren't at demonstrations made the most of some late September sunshine down at the beach.

While the first half of my festival films seemed to be dominated by politics - from the aftermath of student uprisings in Something In The Air, to the ousting of Pinochet in No - things in the last few days have taken on a decidedly more personal tone with parent/child relationships coming to dominate and a double bill of powerfully emotional films Shell and After Lucia, leaving me, frankly, in need of a hug. Shell - which was originally set to premiere at Edinburgh Film Festival until it was pulled over a wrangle to do with which section of the programme it had fallen into (it was in a sidebar and not the main competition) - is a great directorial debut from Scottish director Scott Graham. You can read my full review here.

When I talked to him about the fact that the film had premiered in San Sebastian instead of Edinburgh, he reveals he's sorry that it couldn't have had its premiere at home. He added: "I really wanted to be there. It would have been great to have avoided having to pull out when we did. But it was the right decision for the film and it's really wonderful to be at a festival that really have welcomed the film. No one makes a film to win awards but all that we did was ask why [the film hadn't been included for the Michael Powell award] and the answer we received meant we felt it was the right decision not to premiere the film in Edinburgh. And it's absolutely to do with wanting to be at a festival that really believed in the film and wanting it to connect with an audience because there's a lot of love and labour went into it. You sort of want to say thank you to everyone by giving the film the best possible chance."

Tessa Ia as Alejandra in After Lucia
Tessa Ia as Alejandra in After Lucia

After Lucia also features a dad and daughter relationship at its heart and though Alejandra (Tessa Ia) and Roberto (Henan Mendoza) have a deep bond, it is Alejandra's desire to protect him following the death of her mother in a car accident, that threatens to spark a second tragedy. The two are trying to make a fresh start, moving house, job and school. Alejandra is a lively sort and quickly makes a circle of friends but when a misjudged act at a drunken party sees a video of her posted online, she becomes the victim of bullying. Concerned that her dad is already slipping towards depression, Alejandra tries to cope - a decision which sees the bullying become out of control. Writer/director Michael Franco's second film is much more emotionally satisfying than his first, Daniel Y Ana but it is no less uncompromising in it's portrayal of brutality.

This makes early scenes - such as one in which a pair of girls set trick her into an intense session of intimidation and another in which a class force her to eat a birthday cake - intense and intensely disturbing. Still, as things start to spiral out of control disbelief begins to creak. Perhaps Alejandra wouldn't tell her dad, but where are the teachers? And while buying a couple of kids bullying someone intensively is not difficult in the modern world, the idea that not even one soul from an entire class would stick up for her as things really start to spiral, is somewhat hard to take. These are minor grumbles in what is otherwise a very intense emotional ride. Franco gets terrific performances from Ia and the crowd of kids, who are actually friends in real life, which surely must have helped in some of the film's more difficult moments. Like his first film, he gives a fresh look to the way that a single random act can have huge ramifications, particularly when communication breaks down.

Penelope Cruz's character Gemma is as much trying to reconcile herself with the memory of her dead husband Diego (Emile Hirsch) in Twice Born as she is trying to teach her son Pietro (Pietro Castellito, who wanders through the movie looking as though he's confused as to what he's doing there) about his background. But there is little of the carefully wrought emotion of Shell or After Lucia at work here, with director Sergio Castellito throwing himself heavily into melodrama from the start and continuing to dive ever deeper into it. Gemma is Italian (shame about the Spanish-accented English) who fell for US photographer Diego (Emile Hirsch) in Yugoslavia and the pair of them find themselves in the relationship wars against the backdrop of the Siege for Sarajevo - which is criminally ill-defined. The result is a stickily sentimental Euro-pudding that seems to last for around an hour longer than the plot contrivances can sustain. Still, I don't doubt that Cruz and Hirsch will pull the crowds, although, if the screening I attended is anything to go by, it is also likely to garner quite a few unintended laughs from some of the clonking dialogue.

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