Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Galán is extraordinary as the traumatised girl in a performance which requires a considerable amount of courage." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

Based on her 2018 short of the same name, Carlota Pereda’s contribution to 2022’s Fantasia International Film Festival is one of the most horrific films in the line-up, for reasons which have little to do with the serial killer whose crimes it addresses and everything to do with mundane forms of cruelty which are all too common in real life.

Laura Galán plays Sara, a lonely teenager from Villanueva de la Vera in Etremadura, Spain. Her mother (Carmen Machi), who talks over her constantly, is completely oblivious to her social situation, urging her to tag along on trips with other high schoolers where she would not be welcome, making assumptions about a friendship with Claudia (Irene Ferreiro) which effectively ended years ago. Sara hides away as much as she can. She’s pretty busy anyway, expected to help out her father (Julián Valcárcel) in the family butcher’s shop, errands for one parent often interrupted by errands for the other. She is constantly being berated by one or other of them, and has no self esteem. When she does go out, people call her ‘Cerdita’ – Piggy.

There’s a sequence early on in the film which is basically a recreation of the short, which is extremely distressing to watch, and the more so if you consider that, framed in a different way and with a particular type of score, it might very well be presented as comedy even today. It sees Sara go swimming at a local pond, having waited until it’s mostly empty so that she can enjoy the water with minimal worry. Whilst she’s there, three girls from her class arrive, led by the spiteful Maca (Claudia Salas) but including Claudia, whose obvious sense of guilt apparently can’t compete with her desire to fit in. After assaulting Sara and hurling abuse at her, they run off with her clothes and towel, so that she has to walk back in just her bikini. The shame and terror she experiences is magnified when she is assaulted again, for no other reason than that she’s seen as fair game because she’s fat. Anybody who mocks the idea that fatphobia is a real and damaging prejudice should be made to watch this.

This might be traumatic enough in itself – together with the online bullying which follows, and her mother’s decision that the solution to her problems is to rebuke and starve her – but there is another incident that day which she doesn’t know how to begin to talk about. It emerges that a woman has been killed and that her body was dumped in the pond where Sara was swimming. The man who presumably did it (played by Richard Holmes) kidnaps a screaming and bloodied Claudia and Maca, but lets Sara go.

What is she to make of this? Claudia begs her to intervene. There’s nothing, realistically, that she can do, but she still feels guilty – just another kind of pain to add to her existing burden. More confusing are the other feelings which begin to develop as the killer starts to to stalk her. It’s not any simple sense of threat – the aggression she faces comes from neighbours convinced that she’s hiding something. it’s the tenderness that gets her. It’s the fact that this brutal man, this apparent psychopath, shows her the first real kindness she has ever experienced. They are both, in their very different ways, outsiders, and as a connection begins to form between them, a flicker of romantic interest, Sara must reckon with her emotions and her sense of morality tugging her in different directions.

Galán is extraordinary as the traumatised girl in a performance which requires a considerable amount of courage, given that she has doubtless experienced similar prejudice in her own life. All else aside, Sara is still very young and at a stage in life where even the mundane social landscape is confusing. Her whole life has been focused on trying to accommodate others, and she has no idea how to assert herself, or even how to recognise, with any clarity, her own voice. She behaves the way real people do in such conflicted situations, not like people in films. She lies badly. She strives to avoid any kind of confrontation. Nevertheless, as the situation becomes increasingly desperate, it’s plain that she will have to make a choice.

Audible in the background of an early scene is a news story about a fighting bull which escaped and got into the crowd, attacking several people. Sara’s father is not surprised, and everybody seems to have a bit of sympathy for the animal, relentlessly provoked as it was. The question is unspoken. Is Sara an animal, whose destiny lies in reacting to her environment, or can she rise above it, somehow, and make her own decisions? Surrounded by other people who – at least in groups – seem to be governed purely by instinct, can she become more human? Brief contact with others who seems more like her – a sympathetic but suspicious young police officer, a classmate who has troubles of his own – provides a modicum of hope, before Pereda takes us to very dark places. Piggy is a film long overdue and powerfully composed.

Reviewed on: 04 Aug 2022
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Sara deals with constant teasing from girls in her small town. But it comes to an end when a stranger kidnaps her tormentors. Sara knows more than she's saying and must decide between speaking up and saving the girls or saying nothing to protect the strange man who spared her.

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