The Night Of The Sunflowers
Film: The Night Of The Sunflowers
Release date: 27th August 2007
Running time: 123 mins
Director: Jorge Sanchez-Cabezudo
Starring: Carmelo Gomez, Celso Bugallo, Judith Diakhate, Manuel Moron, Mariano Alameda
Drawing on the finest traditions of Spanish cinema, writer-director Jorgé Sanchez-Cabezudo’s award-winning debut uses six overlapping scenarios to play out the events of a single day in rural Spain – and entangle the lives of his characters in a web of violence, betrayal, greed, revenge and injustice.
“Is justice really necessary if no one demands it?” asks the jaded deputy police chief as events unfold unpleasantly in a secluded Spanish village. Events that begin with the discovery of the body of a teenage girl in a field of sunflowers. As a travelling salesman watches news of the death on TV, a potholer, his wife and his assistant are attracted to a remote mountain village to check out a prehistoric cave. The local police chief looks forward to his impending retirement, his son-in-law deputy dreams of a life away from the force and his wife – and unnoticed by anyone, two embittered locals play out a private war of attrition…
With a technique admirably reminiscent of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Cabezudo weaves the lives of this disparate set of characters together masterfully, through six distinct chapters, playing with the chronology and varied viewpoints of the protagonists to give a shifting version of events. There are echoes of French film noir in the sinister, brooding atmosphere, too (Tell No One springs to mind) while the non-linear, sectioned structure also gives a nod to Hollywood offerings such as Memento, Crash and Babel.
What sets it apart from such influences is Cabezudo’s perceptive view of Spanish society. Had this film been French, we’d have had a decidedly urban setting, somewhere like the murky backstreets of Marseille. A Hollywood alternative, blandly focus-grouped before release, would surely have lacked the courage to pursue its central theme to such a brave and unsettling conclusion. “The film is about the isolation of those living in the Spanish countryside, and the loneliness and violence that city dwellers take with them when they go there,” explains the charismatic director in a Q&A bonus feature on the DVD. “It also reminds us that our actions have consequences – the lives of the characters will never be the same again. And of course that, unlike the movies, real life does not always deliver justice.”
Such a real-life rural setting follows the great tradition of Spanish directors such as Buñuel (Sunflowers is set in the same Las Hurdes region of western Spain that gave its name to his 1932 documentary) or Almodovar, for example, with Penelope Cruz’s character returning to her parent’s village in Volver. It reminds us that, for all the bright city lights and the costa del tourist traps, Spain is still essentially a rural country often at odds with urbanisation.
Sunflowers also continues Spanish cinema’s great theme of complex personal relationships, the simultaneous charm and menace of an environment, and the way these all combine to throw up unexpected, sometimes shocking, outcomes.
It’s these personal relationships that are delivered so magnificently by the cast. Viewers may recognise Celso Bugallo from The Sea Inside, and here he gives a wonderfully understated (and Goya-nominated) performance as the wily police chief uncovering his deputy’s rather unorthodox approach to police work. Vincente Romero’s hapless deputy slides superbly from the quiet confidence of a man with a plan to a haunted, desperate figure watching his ill-gotten gains go up in smoke (literally). The scene of Manuel Moron’s unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman meeting the potholer’s wife transforms the viewer into terrified bystander, due largely to Moron’s masterful calm-before-the-storm approach. And our embittered locals, duelling for supremacy in a private world that others have long since forgotten, give one of the finest portrayals of poignant isolation you’re likely to see on screen.
So what to make of Sunflowers as a whole? It is certainly greater than the sum of its six parts, but Cabezudo is not just to be congratulated for the structure of the film, beautifully balanced as it is with the same character beginning and ending proceedings. It is more the director’s ability to portray such uncomfortable truths about ourselves that most impresses. He deftly steers us from the moral high ground to the swamping thought, in such trying circumstances, that could be us leaving our moral compass in the long grass instead.
Ultimately, this is a beautifully realised morality tale. Every character ends up worse off, yet all have achieved self-preservation by acting immorally. They have kept their own acts hidden by letting the worst act go unpunished – a decision which will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Cabezudo’s courageous decision to resist a Hollywood ending, in favour of such realism, is both unnerving and commendable.
This would be an impressive piece of work for an experienced director. For a debutante, it’s downright magnificent.
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