Reviewed by: Paul Griffiths

Ander (Joxean Bengoetxa) lives an isolated life of rural convention and routine, settled in the remote Basque valleys of the Pyrenees. Stirring before his early morning alarm clock, he eats with his family, tends to the farm and works conscientiously at a local bicycle factory. And repeat. Such is the pace and composure of his opening scenes, it is clear that the forty-something bachelor is as accustomed to this provincial treadmill as he is to his meal-time glass of wine. This, he proclaims of the local vino, this is life.

His old-fashioned mother (Pilar Rodriguez) and respectful younger sister Arantxa (Leire Ucha) are just as set in their roles, with madre berating her son for still being single when Arantxa will soon be married. Add to the mix Ander’s boorish pal Peio (Pako Revueltas) and elderly family friend Evaristo (Pedro Otaegi), who makes the matriarch skittish when he visits, and all the traditions, prejudices, expectations and oppressions of their insular Basque community are personified around a dinner table.

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When Ander then breaks both his leg and this calm monotony out in the fields, change is forced upon him. Reluctantly they take in Peruvian farm worker José (Christian Esquivel) to help out while he convalesces. Taciturn, hard-working, funny, obedient, foreign, Ander is quickly intrigued by José and sees him as far less a threat than his partisan mother might. Indeed, spending time with José highlights just how bullied and superficial his camaraderie with the increasingly piggish Peio actually is. José’s quiet questioning presence, and sheer difference from the norm, even starts to upset Ander’s and Peio’s regular liaisons with local prostitute Reme (Mamen Rivera), a single parent mother trying to make do. Soon the warm familiarity between Ander and José develops into a deepening relationship, one that threatens Ander’s way of life and unsettles his very understanding of who he is.

Despite the basic narrative structure, writer/director Roberto Castón delivers a film very much of two halves. The first measures a slow build-up to Ander and José’s watershed moment, the second handles the aftermath and conflicts that ensue. In maintaining the considered pacing throughout, Castón emphasises both the ordinariness and conformism of his characters’ living and the consternation that change, or fear of change, can cause. He benefits from sound performances from all his tight-knit cast. Bengoetxa, especially, delivers a charmingly low-key and modulating turn to convey Ander’s movement from an unquestioning existence to a state of inner turmoil and fragmenting outer reserve.

In the cold light of day, each character is a genre staple - the conservative inhibition of the older generation, the crude machismo of the straight Peio, the knowing ‘tart with a heart’, the repressed conformist male lead and the buff, chiselled farmhand with gleaming white teeth. As such there’s little room for dramatic movement beyond the strictures these stereotypes bring, but within them and the arrestingly beautiful mountainsides, Castón develops a sedate critique of sexuality, social identity and cultural mores. Rivera’s compassionate Reme becomes Ander’s most solid counterpoint, just as much a victim of emotional stasis as of ugly male objectification, subjugation and fear.

Castón complements his ingenuous, sometimes wordless script with restrained direction amongst the verdant Pyrenees, utilising a warm palette, sun-bleached at times, lush with natural possibilities at others. The rural setting helps deliver a more temperate piece than some similarly themed urban dramas. While his start and finish deliberately bookend the easygoing two-hour running time, a conclusion that just feels too opportune unfortunately undoes some of his hard work. Still, it’s all a combination that saw him win the CICAE award for Best Film in the Berlin Festival’s Panorama strand this year.

The closing scenes also smooth some of the issues that events had layered up, leaving uncomplicated notes of how both the fear of what people may think and the need to not be alone can control and stifle. Simple messages, simply but warmly told.

Reviewed on: 14 Oct 2009
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When a rural farmer injures himself he develops an unlikely friendship with the farmhand he hires to help.
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Director: Roberto Castón

Writer: Roberto Castón

Starring: Joxean Bengoetxa, Christian Esquivel, Mamen Rivera, Pako Revueltas, Pilar Rodriguez, Eriz Alberdi, Pedro Otaegi, Unax Martín, Leire Ucha

Year: 2009

Runtime: 128 minutes

Country: Spain

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