Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jun 02, 2018 2:22 pm 
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Childhood play that does not satisfy

Catalan director Carla Simón’s nicely photographed, keenly observed feature debut is an autobiographical study of herself at a key moment in her life. In 1993, when she was six, with her father already dead of AIDS, her mother too dies of the disease and she is sent in the summer from Barcelona to the Catalan countryside to be raised by her mother's brother Esteve (David Verdaguer) and his wife Marga (Bruna Cusi). We are with the orphaned child from the start, watching as she watches her house being emptied out. Esteve and Marga seem kindly and well intentioned enough. They also appear young and inexperienced, maybe a bit careless about parenting. Or maybe they only seem that way: the rigorous focus on the child's POV leaves scant time to develop them as characters.

In lengthy, low-keyed, observational sequences, Frida (the haunting and preternaturally mature Laia Artigas), the autobiographical protagonist, is seen playing with Anna (Paula Robles), Esteve and Marga's three-year-old child. This is where the film excels, and is unusual. These largely uneventful sequences seem very real, and the child-wrangling or nimble use of real-time occurrences impress the patient viewer. But patient viewer it must be, because the texture of this film, keenly observational as it is, also becomes repetitive and monotonous, unless perhaps you are a Montessori school teacher in training.

Occasionally Frida's grandmother Maria (Isabel Rocatti) reappears, imposing her rigid religiosity on the girl, drilling her in the Lord's Prayer. And this may help move Frida toward subtle cruelty toward the chubby, innocent little Anna, and thus to acting out her unhappiness in this superficially idyllic situation. It may be summer and this is a spacious country place, near a wood, but Frida has lost her parents, and she is stranded, orphaned, lonely, bewildered, and six years old. A visit to a doctor, and other things, including too-loud adult conversations about things better kept confidential, convey that despite their best efforts Esteve and Marga see Frida as someone they're saddled with, with the hovering stigma of AIDS a factor.

But it's not until Frida begins acting out her sadness and alienation that her surrogate parents' patience gets strained. And we must wait 52 minutes before finally she pulls an obviously cruel trick on Anna, planting her inside the branches of a tree with he instructions, "Hide here, till I come back," and not coming back, leading her to be lost and scaring her mother. This is the moment we've been waiting for, because we sense Frida seething under the playful surface, but we also see it coming a mile away, and 52 minutes has been a long time to wait for it.

First time director Simón has worked lovingly with her personal subject matter. The polished and unusual texture of the film combining the children at play and bright summer settings handsomely photographed by dp Santiago Racaj has understandably earned admiration from festivals and festival audiences and the film has become Spain's entry in the 2018 Best Foreign Oscar competition. Simón deserves much credit for seeking subtle effects, and though there is no sentimentality, sometimes in the latter part three is a muted sadness and longing that reminded me of René Clémernt's Forbidden Games, which is high praise indeed.There is talent and originality here.

But Simón too often has trouble integrating the semi-documentary observation of childhood play with the demands of telling a story, or coordinating her own memories with what she found in front of the camera. The result is that the action sometimes seems stuck on the replay button.

Summer 1993/Estiu 1993, in Catalán, 97 mins., debuted at the Berlinale, winning the Best First Feature Award and co-winning the Grand Prix of the Generation Kplus International Jury; numerous other awards and nominations when it was shown in 28 other festivals, including London, Chicago, Mill Valley and Vienna, and MoMA's Contenders in December for US Oscar qualification. Released by Oscilloscope in the US, it is currently showing from 25 May 2018 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

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