‘Maria (and the Others)’: (‘Maria (y los demas)’): Film Review | San Sebastian 2016

Nely Reguera’s feature debut about a woman finding her place in the world had the honor of being the only Spanish film to play in San Sebastian’s New Director’s sidebar.

A too-rare incursion in Spanish cinema into a woman’s world by a woman director, Nely Reguera’s feature debut Maria (and the Others) has a 35-something heroine stumbling unhappily towards the rest of her life, a victim of her own gently comic insecurities. This quiet Spanish take on Bridget Jones is well-played, likeable, free of self-indulgence, and also rather anodyne. Neither will it withstand much scrutiny, because it doesn’t go very deep below its sharply-observed surface; it looks as though it’s happy to fit the bill of middle-class, 30-something social comedy.

That said, Maria doesn’t fall into the standard romance traps — it’s great that there’s not even a good-looking hero for her to fall in love with — and such independence of spirit may be enough to win her a small band of devoted festival admirers.

The Bottom Line

Slight but nicely done.

The titular heroine (Barbara Lennie) is frustrated in the three key life areas of romance, family and work. Her sex partner, Dani (Julian Villagran) is divorced with kids and apparently not interested in her as a person; Maria’s uncertain about their status, and takes a long time to let her family know that Dani even exists. Presumably, she is also on a doomed campaign, typical of the genre, to redeem Dani.

Like Helen Fielding’s heroine, Maria works at a publishing house — but she has secret literary ambitions of her own, hurrying to finish her novel when her boss Sergio (Miguel de Lira) implies that he may be interested in publishing it. The ‘real’ Maria perhaps exists on the page, and occasionally a page of it is there on screen, but never long enough for us to read and judge it..

The film is set at a family reunion to celebrate the release from hospital of Maria’s father Antonio (a wondefully natural Jose Angel Egido, from Fernando Leon’s Mondays in the Sun) from hospital: Maria’s life has been given meaning by caring for Antonio, and it’s a shame both for her and the viewer that this is so, because if she’d hand wider interests, she might have been more interesting. She is plunged into a black mood, which never lets up, by the revelation that Antonio s planning to marry Cachita (Marina Skell). Also round the table are Maria’s younger and older brothers Toni (Vito Sanz) and Jorge (Pablo Derqui), and a few others who don’t seem to be there for any particular dramatic purpose other than to make lightly mocking conversation of the kind that can no doubt be heard around a thousand Spanish dinner tables.

Maria and the Others proceeds pleasantly enough, largely driven by a typically committed performance from Barbara Lennie (most familiar from her performance in Carlos Vermut’s Magical Girl, and a guarantor of at least some quality of every film she appears in). But it’s a committed performance in a role that may not be right for Lennie: the actress has a physical poise and statuesqueness about the actress that works against the grain of her scripted multiple insecurities.

The role requires both toughness (for Maria’s defiant attitude towards her family) and fragility, and though such contradictions are probably true and potentially interesting, Lennie never quite fuses them: the Maria who’s shy about telling her boss that she’s written a book is not the same Maria who angrily and selfishly tells her brother that her father will “get over” his intended marriage to Cachita. And nobody in the script ever comes close to articulating why things might have turned out this way for her.

There are several strong scenes, including a nicely-delivered comic one early on in which a bitter Maria interviews a bright-eyed, smiling novelist ten years her junior. The observation of the little contradictions of human nature — whilst banging on to Antonio about the importance of healthy eating (the characters seem to go on about food as a way of avoiding discussing complex subjects), Maria is a secret smoker — are also nicely done but nothing new and certainly not revelatory.

Production company: Frida Films
Cast: Barbara Lennie, Jose Angel Egido, Rocío Leon, Pablo Derqui, Vito Sanz, Julian Villagrán, María Vazquez, Aixa Villagran, Marina Skell, Xulio Abonjo, Miguel de Lira
Director: Nely Reguera
Sceenwriters: Nely Reguera, Eduard Sola, Valentina Viso, Diego Ameixeiras, Roger Sogues
Producer: Luisa Romero
Executive producer: Sergio Frade
Director of photography: Aitor Echevarría
Production designer: Andrea Pozo
Costume designer: Aranzazu Dominguez
Editors: Aina Calleja
Composer: Nico Casal
Sales: Frida Films
Venue: San Sebastian Film Festival (New Directors)

No rating, 96 minutes