It’s difficult to describe this short feature (72 mins) without spoiling the narrative surprise. I’ll just echo the Viva blurb and say that we first meet Elisa when she is approaching her eleventh birthday. She experiences a shocking event which she immediately represses – so much so that afterwards she has no memories of the event at all. But these memories ‘return’ fourteen years later with terrible force.
This is a Catalan language film in two parts. In the first part, presented in black and white ‘scope, we see Elisa living with her mother and two siblings in rural Catalunya. Every fortnight the three children (Elisa’s brother is slightly older) travel by train to Barcelona where they are met by their father who entertains them with trips around the city and meals in a favourite restaurant. It is on one of these weekends that the event occurs. We don’t see the event itself which happens offscreen (a narrator tells us what is going to happen). We see the aftermath and how Elisa slowly recovers and finally grows up and attends university in the city. In the second much shorter part Elisa is shown in her apartment overseas during her postgraduate studies and this is presented in colour.
Two features of the film that might deter some audiences were pluses for me. First, there is a (male) narrator who I don’t think appears as a character on screen. Second the shooting style is very slow and deliberate. Framings often in long shot are held sometimes for what seems like a long time. The camera is relatively static throughout with good use of the ‘scope frame. A meal is shown through the window of a restaurant with the characters seemingly mouthing their words, the mother is shown on the station platform looking towards but beyond the camera as the train moves past her on the righthand side. There is an unobtrusive but effective musical score (which of course includes Beethoven’s Für Elise). I’m a sucker for black and white ‘scope and I loved the street scenes in Barcelona. All of this calm then disappears in the second part, shot in colour with a moving camera desperately trying to follow the desperate Elisa as she tries to come to terms with what she remembers.
Looking for other reviews from festivals I discovered that Hollywood Reporter dismisses the film as pretentious but Variety has time for it and so do some other reviewers. The co-directors Jordi Cadena and Judith Colell are an experienced couple with many credits in Spanish cinema and television. The cinematography by Sergi Gallardo is excellent and so was the all round cast. The two young women who play the younger and older Elisa also look as if they could be the same person at different ages.
The interesting question for me is why the film is so short. In the UK, unless the film is by a well-known name – e.g. Shane Meadows with Somers Town – it won’t even be considered as a feature if it is under 80 mins. Internationally, I think the cut-off point is 69 mins or something like that. Elisa K is based on a novel by Lolita Bosch. Unless it is just a slight novella, I would expect more material for adaptation. I thought that perhaps the film had been made for TV, but although TV money went into the production, the aesthetic is defiantly ‘cinematic’. This is a film that deals with a sensitive issue in an unusual way, forcing the audience to appreciate the impact of the events on characters over time rather than simply responding emotionally immediately. And I think it works.
There is a beautiful trailer on the official website (Catalan/Castilian).