December 26, 2011

Film: Familia (1996)

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, 1878.
So it's the holiday season, which means that most of us are deeply immersed in family… family dinners, family outings, traveling to visit the family and perhaps "with the family in tow". So we are all suddenly remembering the inevitable headaches, pet peeves, or frayed nerves that only family can produce in us. By the end of the holidays, perhaps we are even looking forward to the end, when we will finally get a vacation _from_ our families.

Or are we? I offer you this Spanish film recommendation, Familia (1996), while you are drowning in the heart of family season… a seemingly straight forward story about a family that gets together to celebrate the protagonist's birthday. Except that appearances aren't what they seem… You the audience _might_ think the protagonist, Santiago, is a bit overly-demanding or temperamental as the family patriarch, and you might start to wonder why the other family members all seem a little off-queue, jumpy or way too eager to follow his lead. But as the story unfolds it becomes clear that something is not quite right. And, within less than twenty minutes, a movie that 'bore a family resemblance' to the usual serious filmic family drama quickly becomes a dark and humorous study in what it really means to come together and act like a family at such festive occasions.

One of Spain's many talented 'auteur' directors,
Fernando León (1968–) filming Amador (2010).
Written and directed by Fernando León de Aranoa—who's directed other movie greats including Los lunes al sol (2002) and Princesas (2005)—this movie has a really unique style, both serious and funny, both moody and lighthearted. So it's a nice change from the much heavier fare that is served up in artsy fartsy European cinema circles. The cast is also strong, meeting a difficult acting challenge of blending social realism with situational absurdism. Juan Luís Galiardo plays the lead character of Santiago. (You might recognize him as the mayor in Lázaro de Tormes). This was one of Elena Anaya's first film roles, and she excelled, and she has gone on to become an important lead actress in Spanish cinema (and is currently getting a lot of buzz for her role in Almodovar's latest edgy movie, La piel que habito (2011)).

Left: the young Elena Anaya playing the part of a rebellious teenager in Familia.
Right: Anaya today playing the captive in La piel que habito.

Spain even has this adorable peculiar bureaucratic
document, "el libro de familia", which is issued
to each married couple and which includes an
official register of all the children they have...
though it may soon disappear from usage.
And, of course, family is the backbone of Spanish culture. A few years ago I heard a Spanish sociologist give comparative stats about Spain and US, and one of the more striking differences he pointed out was that Spaniards see their parents face-to-face much more frequently on average than Americans, weekly if not daily. Indeed, probably the vast majority of adult Spaniards will, at minimum, see their parents at least once on the weekend (probably for Sunday lunch); most college-age students stay at home while they go to school rather than moving out into a dorm or their own apartment as they would in the US (indeed, many stay at home after college, into their late twenties); and it is much, much less common in Spain than in the US for people to move away from the city where they grew up and where their parents live. It is my personal theory that Spain's economic crisis has fallen much more lightly than formal economic statistics (or noisy Anglophone news) would have you believe, because Spanish families and social networks (the old-school meaning of this) have mobilized to help each other "make do" through informal means that macroeconomics accounting doesn't really capture. 

It is this ever-present, ubiquitous feature of family life in Spain, which provides the ironic counterpoint to the family in León's film, which is anything but conventional. Even if you think you can't take anymore family, after all the holiday overload, you'll still enjoy watching Familia. It disassembles "the happy family" and then builds it back up, leaving you entertained but also wondering… What does make "the happy family" happy?

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