Laia Artigas, Paula Robles, Bruna Cusi
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…a testament to what cinema can achieve…
A poet once wrote, ‘life is first boredom, then fear’. He was referring to his own alienated childhood, but it contains a universal truth. Childhood is ‘another country’ and – looked back on – it is full of these complex feelings, and much more. A lot of this is present in Carla Simon’s remarkable little film about a girl’s childhood.
Frida (a freakishly good Laia Artigas) is six. When we join her story, the adults in her life are arranging for her to leave her Barcelona home and be cared for by her aunt and uncle in the countryside. It is all a bit opaque to Frida, but we gather from the general action, and from half-whispered conversations, that Frida’s parents are not around. Later we glimpse the possibility that they have been taken by AIDS resulting from ‘unwise decisions’.
For the rest of the film we follow Frida settling into her new home in a rather idyllic part of regional Spain. Her new carers are mostly very tolerant. To start with they handle Frida with kid gloves, underscoring the sense that she has had a rough trot and needs space and time to settle. They put up with her occasional moods and her tendency to test the boundaries with sneaky behaviour. In particular, we watch Frida come to an accommodation with her new ‘sister’ Anna (Paula Robles) who is three years younger and the apple of her parents’ eyes. Frida is unconsciously jealous of the fact that Anna has her natural parents looking after her. On the other hand, Frida is also with Anna continuously and the two inevitably bond in another kind of way.
The film starts in the middle and, in one sense, goes nowhere. There is no attempt at a grand narrative or an editorialising attempt to shape a whole arc. Simon takes a great risk in just letting the camera (often at child height) simply follow the kids. There is a naturalism here that borders on documentary. However, it is given extraordinary depth by other factors. Firstly, there is Laia Artigas as Frida. To call it a performance is in some ways a misnomer, but Artigas gets top billing in the credits and she deserves it. She is in every frame and never gives away the fact that she is being directed off camera. Then there is the subtle sense of being a real childhood experience. As an evocation, it is extraordinarily detailed and well-remembered, and one suspects this realism comes directly from the fact that it is the directors’ own life being fictionalised.
A realisation of the child’s world as authentic and wise as this is rare. It bears comparisons with Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), rightly regarded as one of the most important Spanish films of the last century. Whether this film will garner absolute classic status is a rather presumptuous question at this point, but in its modest and careful way this is a testament to what cinema can achieve.