London 2014 roundup: ‘esperpento’ Iberian grotesque

Absurdist, macabre family disorder seems to be the flavour of this year’s best Spanish-language comedies.

Mar Diestro-Dópido
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Shrew’s Nest (Musarañas, 2014)

Shrew’s Nest (Musarañas, 2014)

Immersion in this year’s LFF Spanish-language films gave sure proof that genre had become more prominent than in previous editions – from commercially successful thrillers such as El Niño and Betibú to the one genre that seemed more than any other to dominate: comedy – or rather, the multifaceted shapes that comedy can assume. More often than not, the butt of the joke in this comedy crop was the family, the crucible of our rawest passions and (hopefully?) source of occasional happiness.

Notably, several of these latter films pitched camp on the fine line separating comedy and tragedy which, adding horror to the mixture, is also fertile ground for a concept known in Spanish as esperpento: a sort of Iberian grotesque that the likes of Goya, Buñuel, Berlanga and Almodóvar have been known to traffic in. That the producer of the latest instalment of this native method of exorcising nasty demons, Shrew’s Nest (Musarañas, of which more later), was Álex de la Iglesia is no surprise: as a director, he himself is perhaps today’s most high-profile exponent of esperpento. But before I get to Spain, there was an arresting variation on the concept emanating from Argentina.

Damián Szifrón’s ludicrous, hilarious, fast and furious Wild Stories (Relatos Salvajes) is produced by Almodóvar’s own company El Deseo. A portmanteau of short tales (think Spielberg’s Amazing Stories, Roahl Dahl’s macabre Tales of the Unexpected, or indeed the TV work of king of Spanish horror Narciso Ibáñez Serrador), it opens with an account of multiple revenge taking place in the confines of a plane (like I’m So Excited), which sets the tone for what’s to come: a series of middle-class types pushed so forcefully by circumstances, family and/or society that they quite literally pop as they melt down and take action. Which they do. All of them. With terrible consequences.

Wild Stories (Relatos Salvajes, 2014)

Wild Stories (Relatos Salvajes, 2014)

One of Szifrón’s stories, Bombita, uncannily echoed the set-up of the festival’s winning film Leviathan, albeit more tightly and sharply, with the formidably charismatic Ricardo Darín in the lead role. Almost all the stories featured men, and all but one focused on family, site here of a barely concealed grotesque.

Wrapping up the film, the last, woman-led tale is tellingly entitled Hasta que la muerte nos separe, or Till Death Do Us Part. In the midst of her wedding celebrations, Regina realises that her newly-wed husband has been cheating on her with one of his colleagues – also a guest at the wedding. Hell breaks loose, unleashing the worst in all family members involved, turning the celebration into a macabre circus, with a guignol quality worthy of Berlanga, that’s even more scary for its ‘happy’ ending.

Szifrón homes in on a subject that compatriot filmmaker Lucrecia Martel has famously made her own: the decay of the middle-class family, which she situates in her home province of Salta. Martel’s legacy is perhaps more evident in Benjamín Naishtat’s eerily disturbing History of Fear, where a bourgeois family’s self-contained world is threatened by a series of strange events.

Two Shots Fired (Dos disparos, 2014)

Two Shots Fired (Dos disparos, 2014)

Yet it is veteran Martín Rejtman’s Two Shots Fired (Dos disparos) which hones this subject to its most absurdist point, as he infuses his film with the deadpan sense of humour that permeates all of his work (Silvia Prieto, The Magic Gloves). Here 16-year-old Mariano, bored during the lethargy of summer, discovers a gun in the family house and shoots himself twice. The first bullet grazes his head leaving only a scratch. The second, better aimed, stays somewhere in his body, only to interfere with his baroque flute-playing: his fellow musicians complain that the effect is like having another member in their quartet.

Of course Mariano’s accident is a kind of Argentine McGuffin, in that it’s just an excuse to dissect once more the middle-class family unit. Decidedly offbeat, Rejtman’s characters lie right on the opposite spectrum to those of Wild Tales. In a fully ‘connected’ world (where mobile phones won’t stop ringing, yet keep breaking down), these individuals are the epitome of isolation, unable to connect with each other let alone with their emotions (or indeed with their flutes). When Mariano is asked by his psychiatrist why he did it, he responds: “It was too hot.”

A desperation to maintain order and family traditions, this time in the midst of the wilderness of Patagonia, lies at the heart of Lisandro Alonso’s wonderfully droll first scripted feature, the western period drama Jauja. Alonso once more tracks a patriarch’s search for his estranged daughter, just as he did in Los Muertos and Liverpool. She’s as bored as Mariano, the difference being that she decides to explore the new territory and its inhabitants by running away with an indigenous soldier. Setting his film amidst the racial cleansing carried out in Argentina at the end of the 19th century, Alonso lays bare this prim and proper Danish soldier’s inability to adapt to either reality or his environment. Wonderfully incarnated by Viggo Mortensen, he cuts an absurd, desperately quixotic figure in his already doomed quest.

Shrew’s Nest (Musarañas, 2014)

Shrew’s Nest (Musarañas, 2014)

Back in Spain, absurdity becomes an indigenously esperpéntico mix of horror and comedy informing Juanfer Andrés and Esteban Roer’s blacker-than-black low-budget Shrew’s Nest. Overseen by de la Iglesia, it pushes to extremes the suffocating conservatism and religious fanaticism of Franco’s regime at its height as it affects family relations – here, a world of musarañas or shrews, i.e. unsocial little animals who remain hidden in their nest until they need to attack. Like Alonso’s army man, parentless Montse is incapable of moving on or even of letting go her younger sister, who’s just turned 18 and is threatening to leave.

Magnifying Franco’s family values to disturbing degree, Montse is the distorted, grotesque epitome of the house-ridden woman. Perennially dressed in mourning black (the sisters’ mother died; their father – a menacing Luis Tosar – never returned the Civil War), she suffers from an extreme case of agoraphobia. The cause of this, slowly revealed through the film and irrevocably tied up with family, makes for desperate and often wickedly funny situations. But the damage is so engrained that when Montse finally ‘wakes up’ and decides to ‘help’ a male neighbour who’s just landed on their doorstep with a broken leg, Shrew’s Nest spins into Misery territory. As paranoia takes hold of the sisters, their situation (as in 50s Spain) becomes as gangrened as the neighbours’ leg. The only feasible solution is to cut it off.

Spanish Affair (Ocho apellidos vascos, 2014)

Spanish Affair (Ocho apellidos vascos, 2014)

Speaking of Franco, the dictator is mentioned more than once in the most straightforwardly comedic of all these films, Emilio Martínez Lázaro’s Spanish Affair (Ocho apellidos vascos), a sort of Spanish Meet the Fockers meets the French Welcome to the Sticks. The key is in the title, but it’s unfortunately lost in the English translation. The original translates directly as Eight Basque Surnames, which is to say a family tree of at least eight generations’ ‘pure’ Basqueness, a requirement for the female protagonist’s potential suitor in the eyes of yet another possessive, overbearing patriarch.

Franco famously banned the use of any language that wasn’t Spanish, adding another layer to the already pronounced differences between the country’s north and south. This imposed dichotomy is no more explicitly exemplified than between the Basque Country and Andalucía; both regions are depicted here as, literally, foreign (unpleasant) territories, a sentiment definitely shared by Amaia, the protagonist of this tale of opposites.

Dumped by her fiancé the day before the wedding, Amaia is taken by her two best friends on a hen night and literally wants to die – not so much because of being dumped, but because they’ve dressed her in flamenco gear and taken her to Sevilla. She is Basque. They all are, and soon she gets to speak her drunken mind, spouting all sorts of stereotypical ‘niceties’ to the locals – ‘lazy, macho’ Andalusians, etc. Dragged out of the bar by Rafa, proudly Sevillian to the core, she ends up spending the night with him, except he falls asleep and she is gone in the morning, having left her purse behind, Cinderella-like.

Without thinking twice romantic Rafa sets off to the North, head over heels in love and convinced he will conquer Amaia – only to find himself pretending to be Basque, in particular to her estranged father. What follows is basically Spain laughing at some of its spikiest and longstanding issues – such as terrorism, independence and Franco – in a genuinely outlandish way. The key seems to be the film’s focus on a young couple, whose prejudices are inherited but who have the opportunity to wriggle free of them and establish a dialogue. The film has broken box-office records in Spain, and unsurprisingly a follow-up involving Catalonia is already underway.

10,000 km (2014)

10,000 km (2014)

Another young couple is at the centre of Carlos Marqués-Marcet’s superb debut 10,000 km, which opens with a beautifully intimate and understated 20-minute fixed take in which they try for a baby. Alex, a photographer, is English and Sergi, a teacher, is Spanish; they live happily in Barcelona until she gets offered a year-long residency in the US. Convinced their solid relationship will survive the year, they find their only means of communication technology. Marqués-Marcet makes a virtue of this through inventive ways of using mobiles and household names such as Facebook, Skype, Google Maps and Wassup.

It all seems easy at first; the longing for routines and the known is more powerful than being separated. But soon the hinges of their relationship start squeaking, and ‘acting’ their parts is no longer enough to keep the flame alive. The technology that once kept them together soon transforms into a vehicle for surveillance, then isolation. Disconnection sets in, as what were once shared routines become unfamiliar when Alex embraces her new situation.

What seems to make all these films equally funny, cringeworthy and painful is a common questioning of identity and a testing of our capacity to react to boundaries, self- or otherwise imposed. These frontiers may be personal, regional, social or the expectations of those close to us: social imprisonment in Shrew’s Nest, the colonial past of Jauja, regional clichés and prejudice in Spanish Affair, family dysfunction in Two Shots Fired or the comfort of a long-term relationship in 10,000 km. Any which way, there seem to be two outcomes: exploding like the characters in Wild Tales, or clumsily adapting, as per all the rest.

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