By Christopher Bell | The Playlist January 14, 2012 at 12:30PM
Many were surprised when Spain selected the then-unheard of Catalan language film "Black Bread," over Pedro Almodóvar's insane thriller "The Skin I Live In," as their entry for this year's Oscars. But the film was a big critical success in its native land, winning 9 Goya Awards and sweeping the major categories, including Best Film (the first Catalan-language film to do so), Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Director for Agustí Villaronga.
While many assumed the film was selected because it was more digestible than a movie centering on the vile obsessions of a plastic surgeon, that isn't the case. Though it does go down a bit easier, "Black Bread," centers on a young village boy caught in the middle of a dark family history. Not unlike a more grounded "Pan's Labyrinth," Villaronga's tale is set in the very fresh aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, following young Andreu (Francesc Colomer) as his father (who was vocally opposed to the victorious nationalists) is blamed for a recent killing and forced into hiding. Andreu moves to his extended family's house while his mother takes on the workload, but a seedy past catches up to the boy and he soon finds himself surrounded by deception and murder.
Partly a coming-of-age tale and partly an observation on how war and politics affect civilians, "Black Bread" is a dark tale that doesn't conclude with any easy answers. We recently spoke with the director who shed some personal light on its conception and its morally ambiguous nature.
With the film told from the perspective of a child, the search was on for a kid who could carry the weight of an entire movie while still retaining the innocence and vulnerability of youth. Instead of picking a headshot and calling it a day, the director instead scoured local villages (including the one they shot in) for the right protagonist. "We saw hundreds of kids and selected them from there," he explained, noting their poor Spanish but impeccable fluency in Catalan. "They were already speaking the language you hear in the movie." Though the film is set in the past, it was also key to have children in similar living conditions and situations, to help keep the authenticity you see on the screen. "Kids in cities have a certain sophistication and manner of speaking and moving that kids from the countryside don't have. The latter are more natural. They have a look, you can see it in their eyes because they're living in a different way."
The Film Is Not Just An Adaptation Of One Book...
Despite being an adaptation of the novel by Emili Teixidor, the final result on celluloid is actually an amalgamation of a few different sources, including another work by the Catalan author. The text of "Black Bread" contained a hefty amount of internal voice, and Villaronga ruled out having lengthy voiceovers. "Ultimately I decided that it needed more action," he reasoned. "We mixed with another novel named 'Portrait Of A Bird Killer' and the main characters changed. In the book, the father of 'Black Bread' is a good person all of the time, but in the film he has two faces, which was better and less obvious."
Though writers can be especially touchy when their work travels from the page to the screen, the director was relieved to catch positive vibes after showing the screenplay to Teixidor. "He was very happy with the adaptation. He noticed that it was different, but he thought the spirit was still in it."
For years the director has been trying to get another film off the ground, a fantasy work titled "Death In Spring." Published posthumously, Merce Rodoreda's lurid tale takes place in an unnamed village and follows a young teenager witnessing his dead father being subjected to the community's odd customs -- which involve pouring cement into his mouth and encasing him inside a tree. More than a few things from that novel crop up in this movie as well, including the shocking opening murder that sets everything in motion. "For 3 years I lost a lot of time and money on it, and at the end I wasn't able to make the movie. It's always been a dream that's within me, but I've found that 'Black Bread' contains things that are very much related to 'Death In Spring' and its essence."
Having a resume that dabbles in horror and thrillers, "Black Bread" is the first film of Villaronga's to incorporate melodrama, something that initially made him a little anxious. "I had some reservations at first," the director confessed. "Certain moments pressed a little too much so I tried to pull back a bit. I wasn't out to make anyone cry. It was important that the audience recognized the ideas we put forth, and while I did want them to feel the story as well, I didn't want them to shed tears."
Still, the film is not straight dramatic fare, often changing genres seamlessly. "In the beginning the film is like a thriller then goes to something like a period piece, then something really fantastical, and at the end there are some more dramatic parts." He compared the shift in tones to modern Asian cinema, finding their techniqe to be "very free." He was quick to add other influences into the mix, such as Alfred Hitchcock, David Cronenberg, Gus Van Sant, and David Lynch. Some are more apparent than others -- some of the quieter, eerier dream sequences have a slight Lynchian vibe -- but clearly he digested the works of these directors and it likely affected his style. "Even though it's a very classical film, their influence is still within," he noted.
One of the very refreshing aspects of the film is its subtle hand when it comes to its moral and dramatic undertones, while delivering rich and complex characters who dabble in blackmail, murder, and lies. "There was a great effort for the characters not to be knights in shining armor or villains. Every person has his or her own contradictions; it's a movie that attempts to explore the human soul -- what people are on the inside," he stated, noting that he especially wanted to show the effect of war on people not directly in it. "When something as violent as a war penetrates peoples' lives, everything changes, and above all, children. In their nature, they are very tender and open to everything. I didn't want Andreu to be either good or bad, he sees the adults' lies and he doesn't accept them, and in he end he decides to survive."
Interestingly enough, the boy's final decision in the closing scenes echoes the kind of immoral attitude that surrounded him for the entire movie. Though he may reject their behavior, he actually is adapting it as his own. "Kids are, after all, a reflection of an adult and he's only doing what he's learned. What happens to the child is the same thing that happens to his father, he lost his ideals." But even though every character is conflicted and capable of executing disgusting choices and actions, Villaronga never looked down on them. "With regards to myself, I approach all of these characters with a very compassionate point of view."
Though "Black Bread" has picked up momentum and was chosen to be sent to the Academy Awards, the filmmaker isn't resting on his laurels. "I just finished shooting something in December, and then possibly another film is ready to go," he spilled, though when pressed for what was next he coyly replied that he didn't know. "What I just finished is a very horrible title," he joked, "called 'Letters to Evita.' It takes place in 1946 when Argentina broke an embargo on Spain to deliver them food. The main characters are women and the story is all related to politics, politics amongst women."
But with all these plaudits, hasn't Hollywood come calling? "No, not yet. I have friends here that have been, but not me." When that phone does ring, however, the director won't exactly be jumping to any rash decisions. "Would I like to work there? Yes and no. Of course, American cinema is marvelous and I like it a lot. But at the same time it's not my culture or my language, and I don't know how comfortable I would feel."
"Black Bread" has yet to receive American distribution, but pay close attention as the Oscar race heats up.