The August Virgin (La virgen de agosto)


What Madrilenos do in August.

(2019) Drama (OutsiderItsaso Arana, Vito Sanz, Isabelle Stoffel, Joe Manjón, Maria Herrador, Luis Heras, Mikele Urroz, Naiara Carmona, Simon Pritchard, Violeta Rebollo, Sigfrid Monléon, Francesco Carril, David López, Julen Berasategui, Alonso Diaz, Lucia Perlado, Soleá Morente, Pablo Peña, Lorena Alvarez. Directed by Jonás Trueba

 

In Central and Southern Europe’s largest cities including Rome, Barcelona, Madrid, Paris and Venice, it isn’t unusual for much of the population to desert the city during the month of August for cooler climates or at least places where beaches are plentiful. Keep in mind that air-conditioning is not as common in Europe as it is here.

\Eva (Arana) is a thirty-something who has, after years of following the flock out of town in August, decided to remain in Madrid for the month of August. It seems time for her to make a change; she’s an actress who is ready to try some other way of life. She is apartment-sitting for a friend closer to the city center, and takes part in the religious festivals (including that of the Blessed Virgin, hence the title) that take place in early August.

She is a bit of a tourist in her own city, hanging out in places where the tourists (there are always tourists) hang out. There she meets a Welsh ex-pat (Manjón) and his English cousin (Pritchard) at a bar she hangs out in with her upstairs neighbor (Herrador), a performance artist.

For the most part, Eva isn’t much of a talker so much as a listener, but occasionally she reaches out at unexpected moments. This movie is as languid as the heat of the dog days. It moves at a pace that American audiences may find unbearable and to be honest, nothing much of note happens. This is a slice of life in the truest sense of the word. Eva drifts through, looking to find herself but unsure what precisely she’s looking for. There’s a bit of a twist near the end of the film but it’s not so much an “a-ha” moment as it is a “wait…what?” moment.

Arana is the film’s saving grace; her presence is low-key but nevertheless compelling. You want to hang out with her, whether she’s floating about a local swimming hole, hanging out in a bar, dancing in the streets, or eating in one of Madrid’s many bistros. The conversation here isn’t life-changing so much as it is life-affirming. This is what people do every day when it’s too hot to think too hard.

Trueba is one of Spain’s most promising directors, if you listen to the Spanish press. If being a fly on the wall in someone’s life is exciting to you, this might well be the kind of movie that’s for you. However, if you watch movies to escape the ordinary, this is going to bore you silly. Me, I can go either way depending on my mood; I do love a lot of what this movie is about, although I will say that the twist doesn’t really fit in with the tone of the rest of the movie and that at just over two hours, the movie coud have used some trimming here and there. Still, if life is what you seek, here is where you’ll find it.

REASONS TO SEE: Arana has low-key but compelling presence.
REASONS TO AVOID: Languidly paced and a bit of a drag.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Leonard Cohen t-shirt that Eva lends Sofia is the same one Trueba used in his first film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mid-August Lunch
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Beasts Clawing at Straw

Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary)


These four delightful Japanese girls create sparks.

These four delightful Japanese girls create sparks.

(2015) Drama (Sony Classics) Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho, Suzu Hirose, Ryȏ Kase, Ryȏhei Suzuki, Takafumi Ikeda, Kentarȏ Sakaguchi, Ohshirȏ Maeda, Midoriko Kimura, Yȗko Nakamura, Jun Fubuki, Kazuaki Shimizu, Kaoru Hirata, Shin’ichi Tsutsumi, Masumi Nomura, Shinobu Ohtake, Fight Seki, Saya Mikami, Saya Mikami. Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda

 

The Japanese realize that life is contradiction; the hectic, non-stop pace of Tokyo and the fragile beauty of cherry blossoms coexist in their culture. While it sometimes feels like Tokyo is winning the war within Japan’s culture (although I would prefer characterizing it as more of an animated argument), films like this one are proof that the cherry blossom is still strong.

In an old wooden house near the ocean in the seaside city of Kamakura (about an hour south of Tokyo by train) live three sisters who inherited the house from their grandmother. The oldest is Sachi (Ayase), a nurse who raised her other two sisters after their father left for another woman and their mother, devastated, abandoned them. She is bitter towards both her parents, and in a bit of irony is carrying on an affair with a married doctor (Suzuki) that works in the same hospital.

The middle child, Yoshino (Nagasawa) is a bit of a party animal, getting involved with a conga line of bad relationships and drinking much too much. She works in a bank and doesn’t take life seriously and she is constantly arguing with her elder sister. Finally there is Chika (Kaho), a teen just out of high school who works in a retail store and is perpetually smiling and happy. Her boyfriend may look slovenly but he has a good heart.

One day they are notified that their father has passed away. Sachi has no interest in attending the funeral, especially since it is in a rural village far away but Yoshino and Chika go mainly out of politeness. They don’t have many memories of their dad. They arrive at the funeral and meet Suzu (Hirose), the 14-year-old daughter that their father had by his mistress (and later his wife) who had also since passed away. She was now living with her father’s third wife who seemed uninterested in Suzu and her future, although she was pleased that her step-daughters had attended the funeral – including Sachi who showed up unexpectedly.

It became clear to the three Koda sisters that their half-sister was in a bad situation and that she seemed to be a really genuine person – and it turned out that it wasn’t the wife who nursed their father through his final illness but Suzu. Sachi, moved by a sense of responsibility, asks Suzu if she would like to move in with them and Suzu is absolutely thrilled to say yes. When the three sisters leave on the train, the fourth sister sees them off with absolute joy.

When Suzu moves in, she is adored by those who know the sisters. She joins a local club soccer team and excels. She makes new friends at her new school. The owner of a local café is charmed by Suzu who in turn adores her whitefish bait toast. As for the sisters, they are overjoyed to have her in the house and even though all of their lives are changing, there is more love in the house than ever.

Yoshino gets assigned to assist a loan officer who goes to various businesses to arrange loans and finds herself becoming more responsible and less flighty. Sachi, who has assumed the mother role in the family since she was a teen is beginning to see that she can have a life beyond her sisters if she chooses – and that she can do things just for herself. She is also learning the value of forgiveness.  And Suzu is discovering what having a support system means. In the year from Suzu’s arrival the lot of the sisters changes immeasurably.

Kore-eda is one of Japan’s most promising directors and he has put together a string of impressive films to his credit. Many of them are like this one, which is incidentally based on a popular Japanese manga. He tends to put together movies whose plots on paper look unremarkable, but when experienced on the screen become powerful indeed. This is the kind of movie that makes you feel better when it ends than you felt when it started.

It is also a slice of Japan on celluloid. We get a look how the average Japanese family lives from day to day, be it paying homage to their ancestors, delivering gifts to family, funeral rites and courtship, all of which is a little different than we Westerners are used to, although in many ways the cultural differences between East and West are shrinking.

The cinematography is occasionally breathtaking as we see both the rural villages and the small cities (Kamakura has a population of about 174,000 people at present). The film is presented through four different seasons, so we get a sense of the ebb and flow of life for the sisters. Their old house is a little run down but still beautiful in a similar fashion to a beautiful woman who hasn’t taken as good care of herself as she could but remains in her twilight years still a beauty by any standard.

The four actresses who play the sisters all do standout work here which isn’t surprising considering the reputation Kore-eda has for being an actor’s director. Most of the attention is going to Ayase and Hirose for their work as Sachi and Suzu but the other two have nuanced performances in smaller roles. I might have liked a little more attention paid to the two remaining sisters but the movie is fairly long as it is.

This is not a movie that demands your attention. Instead, it presents itself quietly, without fanfare or fuss and just lets you get sucked under its beguiling spell. Honestly, I had thought I might like this movie when I saw the trailer but how much I liked it was a complete and pleasant surprise. Kore-eda creates a beautiful, sweet and melancholy world that you want to dwell in long after the lights come up and he didn’t need a ton of special effects and CGI to do it. If only people realized that you don’t have to see a Star Wars movie to find a new and exciting world to spend time in.

REASONS TO GO: A nice look at Japanese culture and daily life. All four of the sisters have their own personalities and foibles. There’s a mixture of optimism and melancholy that is nicely balanced.
REASONS TO STAY: May lean a little bit too much to the feminine side for some male moviegoers.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a small amount of profanity and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All four actresses who played the sisters were nominated for the Japanese Academy Award of which Hirose was the lone winner.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mustang
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: As I Open My Eyes