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Archive for June, 2008

As a new form of cinema continues to unfold it’s important to recognize new voices emerging on the horizon. My initial post dealt with members of El Nuevo Canon (The New Wave), three Chilean(-American) directors slowly making their mark on the world stage.

One of the members, Alejandro Fernández Almendras, is currently directing his first feature-film, Huacho, in Chile; so it would be an opportune time to take a closer look at his short film, Along Came The Rain (11mins)which screened at the Berlin Film Festival, Rotterdam, and won the Casa de Americas prize in the Version Española short film competitionas no doubt Fernández will be spoken about with much more regularity soon.

I’d also like to take an extended look at this film for rarely is the general audience given an opportunity to see those shorts shown at prestigious festivals around the world, nor are they often written about. And seldom are these shorts catapulting directors into feature-filmmaking discussed until, if ever, they’ve created a significant oeuvre deeming their early work worthy of analysis. I’d like to break with this tradition.

2008. Alejandro Fernandez Almendras (middle) wins Sundance/NHK International Filmmaker Award for Huacho screenplay. Check in mouth: $10,000. Jeronimo Rodriquez (left). Bruno Betatti (right; producer)

Along Came The Rain is a day in the life of an elderly, provincial couple living in rural Chile. They arise to their daily tasks, work, and are visited by their daughter & grandson at the end of the day.

Exquisitely photographed with natural light (35mm) it’s atmospheric without being idyllic. It opens on a dramatic cluster of tree branches set against the blue-red dawn. A roster crows far off. Fernández holds the shot long enough to establish the film’s pace, which is tempered.

He establishes the couple and shows them leaving for the day’s work.

Through a gate we watch them walk into the distance. Here Fernández makes excellent use of the extended take. As he holds the shot, the couple engages in a conversation, our eye eventually moves past the almost brazen composition (left/right) and into the naturalism of the piece taking place in the center.

The wife reminds the husband he should dry their mattress outside (instead of in the house) & inquires about the digging of his the stream. He replies the work is going slowly.

They go their separate ways.

She milks the cows while her husband tends to the fields.

Later she grabs a chicken from the field.

Back in the kitchen she strains the milk.

As she does we tilt up and hear the sound of a car passing. She looks out.

She adds ingredients to the milk and later (jump cut) pulls the steamed chicken out of the pot.

She pulls it over to a bowl and pucks it.

She washes up after cleaning the chicken. The wind blowing the trees behind her.

Back in the kitchen she makes cheese.

Later she stands outside. We hear a horse clop by (it’s never shown).

The couple sits at the table eating breakfast. The woman inquires about the passing car. It turns out her regular ride to the highway has left early. The husband suggests taking Nicole’s horse cart. But, as we know, that’s passed as well. She’ll have to wait for Mr. Juan to leave.

The couple is soft-spoken and unrushed. They discuss who’s passed their home and like an urban couple discusses topical events in a newspaper.

Again Fernández places the couple within an internal frame, this time the kitchen walls, limiting the amount of space they inhabit.

The next shot the woman gets into Mr. Juan’s car. In the car they discuss the progress of her husband’s stream. Mr. Juan politely mentions he should take it easy and wait for help.

The upscale car and its idling-sound, which almost seems alien, disrupts our provincial setting for the first time, and we immediately come to terms that this is a contemporary film; there is a world beyond our elderly protagonists.

She’s dropped off along the highway, cars violently whip past.

A wider shot reveals a basket at her feet.

She waves a white scarf at the passing traffic. The cars continue to past.

A car finally stops. It’s a woman on her way to the city, it seems. She’s in a nice car and her makeup pops out at us. The elderly woman tells her the cheese will be good and creamy, due to the weather.

The juxtaposition of the women (economically & socially) is extremely tangible yet there’s mutual respect radiating both ways. A poignant sequence displaying Fernández’s adept study and sensibility of characters.

On her way home Nicole’s horse cart comes along. She gets on.

They ride back into the countryside. Again Fernández utilizes the long take, forcing us to reassess compositions and, again, look deeper within the frame.

With camera hovering slightly above the ground, and brush in the lower-left foreground, the cart makes its way into the distance until stopping parallel to the store (the Coca-Cola painted shed on the right).

We hear the woman exchange greetings with the store clerk and ask for cookies and Coca-Cola.

The day is coming to a close, the husband digs at his stream…

…then walks home. (Brush in the foreground, creating layers of perspective.)

At home the couple sits and waits in silence. The table set for dinner. The daughter is running late. The woman asks if they should starting eating but the man suggests waiting a little longer. He comments that it’s raining again. Raindrops patter against the house.

The daughter arrives. The bus broke down so they had to walk. She greets her mother and father.

The women converse in the background and after greetings the grandson walks straight over to the television turning it on (it’s never shown). The women’s discussion contends with the television noise and for the first time language (which to this point has been so basic) is rendered almost indecipherable.

The sharp white television light flickers on the fixated face of the child creating unnatural shadows against the wall.

The final shot holds on the grandfather. He stares at the screen with no expression, as if seeing nothing.

The use of multiple stills here hopefully suggests that beyond a quick glance there is rich, if not calculated, storytelling at work here contradicting a seemingly minimal structure. The use of sound, implying action outside the frame, is imperative and Fernández relies on an astute viewer to pick up on his cues.

What really makes the film tick is its ‘natural actors’. People who without a doubt live this life. There’s a way they move, speak, and look out at the world that can’t be acted. Fernández (and members of El Nuevo Canon) is working in a style of cinema (like the Italian neo-realists, the Iranians, Lisandro Alonso, and more) where reality and fiction are ambiguously and beautifully juxtaposed.

Rarely does Fernández pan or tilt his camera, he almost never cuts within a scene, so the majority of the film plays out in single takes. Each shot must tell it’s own succinct story before an elliptical cuts propel us forward in time.

There’s also a delicacy in Fernández’s depiction of modern world. It’s not a baleful force coming to sweep away his protagonists but an enviable, if not melancholy, fact of life. Similar to the mode found at the end of an Ozu or Mizoguchi film.

Along Came The Rain is a polished, compact short and on its small and intimate scale it recalls Ermanno Olmi’s masterpiece Il Posto in it’s constant oscillation between young & old, rich and poor, town and city. The simplest and perhaps most poignant of narrative concerns. Fernández also shows this duality by emphasizing the constantly shifting weather, sunny than rainy, back and forth…hence the title.

I’ll restrain from delving into how the film could be read against the vast political reshaping of South America mainly because Luis says it much more elegantly. But one can’t help but recall Ford’s famously framed character who also couldn’t cross the threshold….

I wish Alejandro all the luck with his feature.

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