Along with Carl Theodor Dreyer’s phenomenal Ordet (1954) and Eric Rohmer’s wonderful comedy Claire’s Knee (1970), the Spanish Letters from Alou, by Montxo Armendáriz, is one of three films I’ve seen that succeeds in showing a depth of air. In each case the motive behind the visual realization has been different. In Ordet, the air outside conveys the dense spiritual presence—the breath and being of God—that prepares for the miracle that occurs indoors: a resurrection. Perhaps on some level the depth of air in Claire’s Knee also resonates with religious significance; but its secular purpose is more immediate: to suggest the profound experience of Nature (and, tied to it, human nature) from which, at forty, Jérôme, a jaded writer, finds himself cut off. In Letters from Alou, the perceivable depth of air helps evoke, simply, the depth of human experience inhabiting it.
The film’s “story” is slight—a thing to hang humanity on. Looking for more bountiful economic opportunity than Senegal, his African homeland, can provide, Alou becomes an illegal immigrant in Barcelona. (Like Ordet, Letters lays claim, at least symbolically, to a resurrection; after they are discovered and tossed off ship, one of Alou’s stowaway companions appears to drown but reappears, alive, in Spain.) There, Alou connects with fellow illegals, variously interacts with the natives—this includes his romance with a Spaniard—, finds work, finds other work, tries to legalize his status, mourns (in uncurbed fashion) the death of a roommate, eludes the police—all in an unhurried narrative that finds him, rather than sullen, both disappointed and perplexed by the racial hostility he encounters at so many turns. Eventually Alou is caught and sent to Senegal; but the end of the film finds him undaunted and on his way back to Spain. He has grown used to white people, he explains; and he isn’t about to leave behind the woman he loves.
So important to the achievement of the whole, the tone of this film is without rancor or self-pity; it resonates instead with Alou’s youthful “Let’s-see-how-we-can-negotiate-this” attitude, a disposition of adaptability aiming at assimilation—finding a way to “belong” on foreign shores. Except elliptically, Armendáriz’s film doesn’t assault intolerance; Letters from Alou isn’t a “message movie,” a smug, one-dimensional, self-righteous diatribe of the kind that steadily issues from U.S. filmmakers. Rather, in an engaged and engaging way the film observes Alou’s engagement of racial intolerance and the other hardships with which life challenges him and his compatriots. Alou is in Spain as a matter of choice; he is committed to the experience, with all its turns, that this choice has brought on him. And, in turn, all this has helped guide Armendáriz, in filming his own (excellent) script, to create a work that is free of dire emphasis, vitriol or sentimental pleading. On the contrary, Armendáriz’s film is even, calm and grown-up.
The entire cast is natural; Mulie Jarju (Best Actor, San Sebastián International Film Festival) is especially winning as Alou. This natural acting style of theirs is one of Armendáriz’s principal means for finding a captivating middle ground between fiction and pseudo-documentary—a region of expression that neither overcontrives content nor forces upon it a rigid shape, but nevertheless meets the formal requisites of art. One small mistake occurs at the close, though. The shot is of Alou headed back to Spain, over which the film’s credits roll; suddenly the frame freezes, thereby blatantly contradicting the lifelike open-endedness of Alou’s experience in time. I somehow think that Armendáriz had nothing to do with this decision.
Otherwise, the film’s visual aspect is incomparable, at times evoking the dark, rich though subdued colors of Goya, but without enforcing on the frames a sluggish, painterly selfconsciousness. (Pure justice: Alfredo F. Mayo won the Goya Award—the Spanish Oscar—for his color cinematography.)
Armendáriz was duly honored for Letters from Alou; his script won the Goya Award, his direction the top prize at the San Sebastián Film Festival.
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