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.)
Black Bread is, incredibly, Villaronga's first theatrical feature in a decade. (He's made the rare short, documentary, and TV project in the meantime, and is currently planning a miniseries about Eva Peron's visit to Spain.) Based on a novel by Emili Teixidor, Black Bread is a complex narrative and stylistic hybrid blending history, homophilia-phobia, humanism, and horror, even more accessibly than before. It's a festival crowd-pleaser that pretty much swept Spain's Goya Awards in February, albeit sadly still no shoo-in for theatrical release hereabouts.
Largely about how childish emotions betray adult hypocrisies — a la To Kill a Mockingbird — the 1944-set Black Bread operates on several levels, all thorny but vivid. Their core is the bewildered perspective of almond-eyed Andreu (Francesc Colomer), an 11-year-old peasant child who witnesses a gruesome crime at the beginning, only to find his father (Roger Casamajor) accused by a corrupt Fascist mayor eager to scapegoat a former Republican rebel. Dad must flee, and Andreu is sent by mom (Nora Navas) to live with his grandmother and aunts until the heat dies down.
Cramming an epic agenda into 108 minutes, Black Bread encompasses roiling coming-of-age emotions, folkloric streaks, a few shocking revelations (including pederasty), and hints of fabulism in a nearby asylum-slash-death camp whose inmates include an angelic young man without (or possibly with) wings. It's a terrifically orchestrated film, even if it feels somewhat overstuffed with ripe elements, almost over-accomplished in terms of slick showcase sequences — including a grotesque fever-dream of fag-bashing sadism — whose variably florid, stirring parts are less effective as a whole.
Still, those parts are often very stirring indeed, with excellent performances by the juvenile and adult actors. It's a movie most viewers will find unusually rich in complication and artistry. Why Villaronga hasn't had a half-dozen more opportunities to impress us over his skinny quarter-century output is anyone's guess. But it's surely everyone's loss.
Fri/29, 3 p.m.; Mon/2, 6 p.m.;
May 4, 9:15 p.m., $13
1881 Post, SF