6-16 November 2008

For eleven days in November, two neighbouring cities on the Rhine brought 32 new films to Germany at the Mannheim-Heidelberg Festival, 18 in the International Competition and 14 in the International Discoveries section, including a half-dozen films from Spain alone. The warm reception of these works suggested a taste for Latin life from Lisbon to Valencia, from Montreal to Buenos Aires, and not only that, the flair of femmes and mujeres for writing and directing.

When It Rains, It Pours

In the amped-up vibrations of heavy traffic and the shifting focus of headlights and streetlights in Lluvia (Rain), we meet Alma (Valeria Bertucelli), caught in her car in a heavy downpour as the city grinds to a halt when protestors block the road. Yet it’s not as if she has a place to go to, having loaded her vehicle with all that really matters and dwelling more on what she’s left with than on where she’s headed. On this dreary night, what flows are tears – of loss, regret, relief – and the rain further blurs the vision through the windshield. Suddenly a man, Roberto (Ernesto Alterio), opens the passenger door and takes the seat beside her. He, too, is in flight, and distraught as she already is, Alma believes him when he says, “Don’t be afraid, I won’t hurt you.” She washes his wound with hot water from her thermos, and we watch anxiously as the car steams up in the stop-and-go of their strange acquaintance, as if the rain could purge their guilt, their fear of their own feelings. And still the car offers a certain intimacy, protection from the cold winter rain and the liminal states of separation, death, pregnancy, or just the melancholy fate of life in Argentina. Yes, the car is also a transitional space, like the parking lot or the hotel with its pool and fake palms by the sea, its bar with coconut cocktails; like the clothes and photos of someone who’s gone, the cell phones that chime their songs while two people move in circles, without knowing where or for what.

Rain (Lluvia), the second feature by writer-director Paula Hernández, winner of the festival’s Main Award, is a film crafted with precision and poetry. The approach of developing the story within restrictions (the tight mise-en-scène of the car and the heavy reliance on real time and climate) enlivens the film with a vitality that comes from pushing against limits. That drive is the unconscious blessing of Alma and Roberto alike. But several flashbacks (to a hospital and a lonely home) are a drag on the urgency of the film, its in-the-moment emotion – raw, shameful, joyful, new.

This was Paula Hernández’ second trip to Mannheim: her debut film, Herencia (The Inheritance), screened there in 2001. The programming of Rain attests to the organic nature of a festival that not only noses around for new auteurs but also helps cultivate their careers by bringing the directors back, hosting and honouring their ongoing endeavours. In another way this worked for the Alterio family of actors. Two films from Spain, both feature film debuts – Awaking from a Dream by Freddy Mas Franqueza and Un poco de chocolate (A Bit of Chocolate) by Aitzol Aramaio – made marvellous use of the prolific Hector Alterio, a veteran of the Argentine stage and screen exiled to Spain in the 1970s. Both films cast him as a wise and spirited survivor of loss, either officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or released from the hospital a bit confused and living in the past and the present at once. He even plays soccer on the seashore in each film. What’s more, his real-life son, Ernesto Alterio, plays Roberto in Rain, a man from Spain visiting his birthplace and father for the first time in 30 years in Buenos Aires. They haven’t been speaking; the father “exiled” himself emotionally from the family in dedication to his muse, the piano, and his wife packed up and moved to Spain with their son. Though the two Alterios don’t appear in the same film, the physical resemblance between father and son on the screen is as uncanny as the roles they play, the elder, Hector, in each film teaching an emotionally “adopted” son how to love those “who have gone away”. Similarities aside, the two debuts by Spain’s young directors more aptly serve to highlight the very claim of the festival: the unique voice of each auteur. While both works are lyrical, Aramaio’s, following the whims of an elusive young bandoneon minstrel, reads like a fable that embraces the magical; and Freddy Mas Franqueza’s, relying on precious little music and ingenious images, is soberly real, in fact stunningly autobiographical.

The View from the Bottom of a Well

Awaking from a Dream

Awaking from a Dream (its Spanish title, Amanecer de un sueño, says so much more) is, according to its director, about the change that took place in his own life as he came to maturity. A part of that process was the quest for his mother, who left him in the care of her father when he was a child, promising to return. The death of the grandfather (Hector Alterio) leaves the boy (Alberto Ferreiro) with a box of letters his mother (María Almudéver) sent over the years with routine monetary deposits, but the core of the story is really the other side of those letters – not the sender, but the receiver, the man who taught the boy to embrace life.

The film’s title works on many levels. The first third of the film is exceptionally dark: in the jazz bar where little Marcel’s mother works and falls for a touring sax player; in the interior of the century-old house in Morella where Marcel helps his grandfather, Pascual, run his adjacent store; and in the eyes of the little boy without his mother. It’s also dark for Pascual, who’s been living alone since his wife died and clings to her photographs. A telling shot of portraits on the wall of Pascual and his wife in their youth reveals, in its somber lighting, another portrait of Marcel’s mother, but it’s only an obscure reflection on the glass.

Yet these photos give way to a series of “cine-cameos” when Marcel and Pascual visit the woodsy beach near Morella. Time seems to stop as a window of an old family house, with its chipped wood shutters blowing in the wind, frames Pascual in a new portrait. An unforgettable two-shot then fills the screen as the boy and the man gaze down into the old well with its myriad memories in store: in a reverse shot our point-of-view is framed by the dark circle of the well’s mouth, and in the centre the light shimmers with reflections from the water on their faces, rippling over the pale sky and the old tree behind them. It’s the dawn of a new dream, one anchored in the beauty of the past. Awaking from a Dream swept the Audience Award for Freddy Mas Franqueza.

Point of View Matters

Festival Director Michael Koetz announced more than once that this edition of the festival had a motto: “To understand yourself and to be understood.” In a haven for young auteurs, many of the films signalled this aspiration, yet perhaps none better than Borderline, the year’s big favourite for many of us, critics, judges, and local cineastes alike. It racked up the FIPRESCI award, the Ecumenical Film Prize, a Special Mention of the International Jury for its lead actress Isabelle Blais, and a Recommendation of the Jury of Cinema Owners.

Much is striking in Lyne Charlebois’ Borderline, particularly the way in which it takes shape as a Künstlerbildungsroman, a tale of the moral education and psychological coming of age of the protagonist who is a budding literary artist. In this case the story concerns precisely her education about psychology – namely her own – and how she will have to come to terms with it in order to become the novelist she wants to be. At the same time, it’s writing the novel that allows this education, and lucky we are that the film’s writers know how to show us this process on the screen.


Canadian Charlebrois directed her first feature from a script she wrote with Marie-Sissi Labrèche, the author of the film’s two autobiographical source novels Borderline and Labrèche. In a pre-credit sequence Kiki Labrèche (Isabelle Blais) introduces herself to us with her voiceover and then in direct address to the camera from a pose that recurs in the film – an overhead shot of her naked body in a crucifixion position. While over the opening credits Blais herself sings Burt Bacharach’s standard, “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself”, before the end of the film we hear a chorus of female voices singing “Lacrimosa” from Mozart’s Requiem. The distance between the two songs gives some idea of the sea change that transpires in the heroine between girlhood and womanhood. Across Kiki’s youth, we see her transformation through another kind of music as well, the vicissitudes of her mutable face, from a child’s fear and humiliation, rejection and anger; to a late adolescent’s empty flirtations, drunken stupors, and self-mutilation; to a young woman’s confusion, self-mockery, and embarrassed recognition of an admirer’s affection once she learns to love herself.

Her mother institutionalised and her grandmother unstable, little Kiki shares outspoken heart-to-hearts with a schoolmate on a bridge in the snow, the piercing turquoise sky, the teals and mauves of their wraps, and the girls’ rosy cheeks offsetting Kiki’s purple tales of suicide and lurid fantasies of foster homes and sexual abuse. We want to see our heroine reach her ultimate catharsis, and she does, yet the road to it is as tortuous in shifting point of view as it is multi-layered in temporality. We often see two Kikis, big and little, in the frame at the same time, or one adult Kiki looking at or reacting to another, a surreal editing strategy Lyne Charlebois uses most ingeniously. There is also Kiki’s textured voice: as a character, as the author of her novel, and as the narrator of the film. It might require all her words, painfully researched and self-inscribed as they fall to the page, but in the final shot, Kiki the woman lies in a state of awareness, with knowledge, self-possession, and perhaps even compassion. The exploration of borderline states through a keenly elaborated and orchestrated approach to point of view – musical, visual, verbal – makes this film as illuminating as it is heart-wrenching.

Geliebte Clara, I’m Looking for You

Like the zealous fans crowding Clara Schumann to cut the pearls off her gown as she escapes the concert hall post-performance in Geliebte Clara (simply Clara for the English version), we flocked to Mannheim’s gala for the premiere of the latest by Helma Sanders-Brahms, one of the handful of women who put Germany on the map of auteur cinema in the ‘70s. A sidebar of classics from the era served to remind me how needed and cherished was a director with a woman’s sensibility on topics such as motherhood and marriage, work and careers, creativity and the life of the artist, and even illness (not only physical but mental). A politically astute woman, an advocate of women in their best capacities, an artist with a vision and a voice of her own: Helma Sanders-Brahms has been that woman. Where would her inspiration carry her with Clara Schumann?

In Düsseldorf after Clara and Robert have settled in from touring, he is to conduct the city orchestra while he composes. Clara, soon to become pregnant with their eighth child, helps him, and Robert increasingly relies upon her, but both of them also embrace the affectionate and increasingly necessary help of their friend and soul mate, Johannes Brahms. In this highly theatrical film about musicians, what struck me most vividly was not the music but an image: an eye-shaped window to the Rhine in the stairwell of a sanatorium where Robert has been secluded over many months. Passing the “eye” to the Rhine, Clara informs Brahms that her husband has died. It’s the one image that truly worked for me. That “eye” is a way of looking, a window out to the water, itself a way of reflecting, a way of moving, that works the way music does, but without trying to represent it.

Unlike the films that gave Sanders-Brahms her name (in fact, she is a descendant of Johannes), Clara makes use of three celebrated stars. Pascal Gréggory as Robert Schumann delivers a face and body possessed with emotion – pain, turmoil, inner joy. Arambunctious Malik Zidi at 30 plays a 20 year-old Brahms a bit monkey-like at first, sliding down banisters and walking on his hands as if he were the young Mozart in Milos Forman’s Amadeus (1984); he actually adds an abundance of charm, warmth and persuasion to the film. Martina Gedeck as Clara is limp-limbed when she takes the conductor’s wand for Robert, a sight difficult to reconcile with her persona. Her lack of precision and connection extend beyond this to her piano performances, which are sometimes elephantine, including the movement of her legs and feet that Brahms observes once from under the piano.

Geliebte Clara

In all, Geliebte Clara feels like a film about Robert, not Clara, the ever-beloved star of her era, but even then, focusing as it does on his last years that are filled with outrageous suffering, we are not privy to the source of his ailment. Is it alcohol or laudanum abuse? A hereditary chemical imbalance? Shattered nerves from the pressure and fatigue of touring, or even composing? I did my own research and was satisfied with the answers from books, but a hint might have drawn me closer to Clara, for all her forbearance. As a mother, she is altogether missing in the film. The children appear on the screen, but did she ever interact with them, or at least reveal an attitude about them? Brahms does: he takes them swimming in the Rhine; he teaches them arithmetic and English; he concocts a “picnic” for them on their floor when the household furnishings have been sold off to cover debts during Clara’s pregnancy and Robert’s treatment. “I must practice four hours a day,” she states once. Sound bytes replace dramatic dialogue with the bold relief of melodrama. These bold strokes supplant the nuance of an inner voice that might disclose Clara’s point of view on her world as an artist in her own right, as a woman balancing career, motherhood and marriage to a man who has grown physically and mentally ill. We witness only one real confrontation: she refuses to give him her drugs. In a physical tussle, they slap each other in the cellar and she then conducts his musicians sheepishly pulling her hair over her swollen face and black eye.

A side note: a week after the Mannheim-Heidelberg festival, the L.A. Theatre Works staged a “narrated concert” in Los Angeles called Beloved Clara in which Lucy Parham played an exquisite selection of pieces by the Schumanns and Brahms interspersed with excerpts she culled from Clara’s and Robert’s letters and diaries as read by Rosalind Ayres and Martin Jarvis. The evening gratified me with the discovery that music requires its own imaginary space. The same goes for words and images. When one creative form seeks to illustrate the other, the art is lost. Clara, I’m looking for you…

International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg website: http://www.iffmh.de/en/