A too-little-known filmmaker breaks through with Black Bread
SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL Despite the incredible current spread of festivals and formats by which art films can be exposed internationally, it's still possible for masterful directors with considerable resumes to remain largely ignored outside their own country. Certainly that's been the case with Agustí Villaronga, a fascinating Spanish director whose new film, Black Bread, is the latest in a career of superbly crafted films almost-commercial enough to gain U.S. release. Yet seldom quite enough.
Villaronga's cinema is gorgeously cinematic, often historical, high in strikingly managed melodramatic content, sexually (often homoerotically) charged, frequently tinged by the fantastical, very interested in children's perceptions of adult corruption. He's a middleman between Luis Buñuel and Guillermo del Toro — less abstract than Buñuel, but evidently less accessible than del Toro, even if the ambitious Black Bread possibly got green-lit because in many respects it resembles del Toro's international success Pan's Labyrinth (2006).
Black Bread isn't its director's best work, though as usual it sports his aesthetic assurance, flair for alarming set pieces, and potency in juggling disparate tonal-thematic elements. It's another very dark story — he's never made a frivolous one — addressing sex, politics, and violent suppression toward both that manages to be expansive rather than claustrophobic, or simply depressing. It is, like many of his films, a great movie ... nearly.
He started out, however, with a feature that was absolutely great, and could hardly have been more upsetting: 1987's In a Glass Cage, about Klaus (Günter Meisner), a Nazi doctor who conducted World War II "experiments" on children. Years later, he is discovered hiding out by one of his surviving victims. Angelo (David Sust) is now an Angel of Death himself, committed to punishing his erstwhile tormentor by perversely reenacting his worst crimes — with the sickly doc, now helpless prisoner of a primitive "iron lung," as captive witness.
Angelo invades Klaus' home with alacrity, appointing himself sole attendant "nurse," dispatching anyone who gets between him and his goal. This goal is a sadistic tables-turning that the pale, handsome-yet-ghoulish teenager wreaks upon his host family, to the extreme peril of its members and any unwilling "guests."
Hitchcockian in their perfect storyboarded discipline, yet without his gloating chortle, the unforgettable set piece highlights of In a Glass Cage are excruciatingly tense, prolonged death-knells for characters Angelo chooses to eliminate. Yet there's a terrible poignancy to the cruel proceedings.
After horrifying San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival audiences 25 years ago — there is a certain thread of malevolently closeted homoeroticism — this cult object remained long absent from North American access until a 2003 DVD release. It remains an astonishing peak in sick but brilliantly accomplished cinema.
Villaronga should have shot to the fore of international auteurs with that extraordinary debut. But instead he's enjoyed just sporadic exposure and (I'd assume) a lot of frustration, given just four features realized in the near quarter-century since. Most are barely known here, if at all — 1989's atmospheric if slightly overcooked fantasy Moonchild, 1997's quasi-horror 99.9, or 2000's The Sea, a sometimes shattering drama about three children who share a traumatic secret, then meet again as young adult patients at a sanitarium. All of them were arresting, however, and none were seen in the U.S. beyond a handful of festivals and (at best) extremely limited VHS or DVD exposure. (In a Glass Cage is showing at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Screening Room in May.)
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