“Paula,” her friend tells the 13-year-old protagonist of Ojos Negros, “you don’t understand anything,” and this is indeed the story of a girl who understands nothing, but is starting to. The theme of childhood in rural Spain has given the country some of its finest movies, including Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), a candidate for the best Spanish film of all time, and more recently Carla Simon’s 2017 critically garlanded pic Summer 1993. Marta Lallana and Ivet Castelo’s coming-of-ager debut might not stand such comparisons, but it delivers, during its short length, some really magical moments.
A university project that was partly funded by a local producer (the directors are in their mid-20s), Ojos Negros at first seems a delicate wisp of a film, but ends up feeling unexpectedly rich and solid. Having taken an award at Spain’s Malaga festival earlier in the year, its late July Spanish theatrical release deserves to be followed by further fest outings.
A richly promising, delicately wrought debut.
The unexpectedly potent opening scene sees Paula (Marta Lallana, younger sister of one of the directors) standing behind a doorway, tears on her face as she listens to her parents argue about her. Her pregnant mother Celia (Raquel Vicente) has decided to pack Paula off to her pueblo for the summer to stay with her aunt, Celia’s sister Elba (Ana Sabate), who lives with Paula’s grandmother (Ines Paricio). The trip will feature several rite-of-passage obstacles for Paula to overcome, among them her first period.
On arrival at the Aragonese pueblo (though “ojos negros” translates from Spanish as “black eyes,” the film’s title comes from the town), Paula finds her aunt, for reasons to be explained later and that are entirely comprehensible, to be a dour and uncommunicative woman, as harsh and unforgiving as the Aragonese landscape. It looks as though it’s going to be a long, hot ride for the naturally solitary Paula, who can look forward to a summer of feeding chickens, sitting around silent dinner tables and cycling through the ochre countryside — but then she falls in with a gang of youngsters who are also staying in Ojos Negros for the summer.
Among them is Alicia (Alba Alcaine). At Alicia’s side, Paula for the first time tastes freedom by escaping from the town’s religious processions, swimming in the lake and releasing Elba’s dog into the wild (the dog duly returns), while also putting on smart shoes to tramp through the dust to the local fiestas; the fiestas of Spanish pueblos are the final resting place of songs like Julio Iglesias’ “Begin the Beguine.”
Inevitably Paula and Alba end up having deep conversations at night, conversations that stir up in Paula a bunch of feelings that she’s never had before and can’t articulate. Right from the start, their relationship is shot through with the fear that it will die when the summer does, an experience that’s felt by the young Paula as a profound loss. This is one of those films in which the silences count for as much as the dialogue, which can be tiresome, but is well-judged here. The final scene brings us neatly back to another family argument, one that opens up the perspective to a critique on the widening gap between rural and urban life in Spain and its impact on people.
Ojos Negros pulls off the trick of being leisurely but intense at the same time, which is largely down to skilled editing — it feels 30 minutes longer than it is (in a good way). The pic has been put together with a care and attentiveness that suggest that very little of it could be cut without damaging the whole thing.
Performances are fine, but Lallana, whose film this really is, stands out, bringing to the role the kind of radiance and soulful expression that’s perfect for those moments when the camera is trained on her, recording her inner life. Paricio as the grandmother is wonderfully natural, but in one of a couple of credibility stumbles, she looks a few years too old and frail for the role.
The spacey atmospherics of remote rural Spain are well rendered via striking early-morning and late-evening landscapes and enhanced by fine soundwork. Raül Refree is a producer and composer of some renown in Spain, having worked with everyone’s current fave Rosalia; his contribution here is aptly low-key and comes in the form of pretty-but-edgy guitar and piano.
Production company: Nanouk Films
Cast: Julia Lallana, Alba Alcaine, Anna Sabaté
Directors: Marta Lallana, Ivet Castelo
Screenwriters: Marta Lallana, Ivet Castelo, Ivan Alarcón, Sandra García
Producers: Salvador Sunyer
Executive producer: Andres Mellinas
Director of photography: Jorge Basterretxea
Art director: Cristina Massagué
Editors: Nila Nuñez, Victor X. Monzo
Composer: Raül Refree
Sales: Nanouk Films