A Telecino Cinema (Spain)/Dynamo Capital (Colombia) production in association with Tequila Gang (Mexico). Produced by Álvaro Augustin, Rodrigo Guerrero, Eneko Lizarraga, Bertha Navarro, Guillermo del Toro. Directed, written by Sebastián Cordero, based on the novel by Sergio Bizzio.
With: Martina García, Gustavo Sánchez Parra, Concha Velasco, Xabier Elorriaga, Icíar Bollaín, Àlex Brendemühl.
Orson Welles once said that the only boring story was one whose balance was walked down a highway rather than on a tightrope. He was hinting at the success that often comes as a result of the precarious equilibrium at which adventurous storytellers excel. It is a dangerous kind of balance that fits this study in violence so well. Rabia, or rage, exists on the edge of society, the periphery of humanity until it is brought to the forefront by forces not very well understood by anyone. Yet more than just an exposition of man’s ability to rage at his fellow man, the world at large and himself in particular, director Sebastián Cordero’s ability to show the self-inflicted helplessness inherent in violence in a finely nuanced way is what makes Rabia a success.
Produced in part by Guillermo del Toro’s Tequila Gang, Cordero’s third film is notable for its symbolic look at immigration in relation to society. Yet it is the lenitive, almost sweeping attention to sounds, smells, and the myriad mundane details of life so easily taken for granted- that is until circumstances beyond their control force them to pay attention- that makes this film stand out. The man doing the forcing is Gustavo Sánchez Parra’s (Amores Perros) José María, a recent immigrant to Spain, who has fallen in love with Rosa (Martina García), a live-in maid for a once well-to-do upper class family. The few scenes we see between the two are passionate, violent, even life-shattering, due mainly to José María’s immense jealousy toward anyone who has the merest word, good or otherwise, for the beautiful Rosa, eventually culminating in the dubiously accidental death of his boss. José María hides out in the only place he knows no one will look and where he can also be close to Rosa without endangering her: the disused attic of her employer’s mansion. Yet once inside, every moment that passes makes it more and more impossible to leave.
As cinematographer Enrique Chediak’s graceful steady-cam work moves us stealthily among the shadows of the attic and draws us ever deeper into the dark and rarely explored recesses of the house, and therefore the family as well, it is in concert with both Lucio Godoy (Music) and Oriol Tarragó (Sound Editor), that we begin to see and hear (or perhaps it is what we don’t hear) the unraveling of the man. At the raw center of the mansion is a heart that beats hard and fast against the denial of basic human rights: respect, love, a family. José María, more and more akin to a walking corpse as time continues to pass, fears emerging and losing Rosa, including his chances for happiness. So he continues to hide and in doing so allows the very rage that got him into the situation, to consume him whole.
HESO had a chance to sit down with Sebastián Cordero & Martina García at the premiere of Rabia during the recent Tokyo Film Festival.
HESO: Is this your first time in Japan?
Sebastián Cordero: This is actually my second time in Tokyo, because I came to promote Crónicas as a commercial release. I came before the movie was released and I’m not sure how it did, but a few people have seen it, so overall it was good. In such a different culture it’s difficult to gauge what kind of response there might be to a given film. The reaction so far has been surprising with Rabia.
Martina García: People are connecting with the film.
HM: You never know how your work might be taken in any given context, especially here in Japan concerning immigration. Is that something you are used to with your background in film festivals, for example the Ratas, Ratones, Rateros premiere in Venice?
SC: That was a big surprise. We just applied to many festivals, without any contacts, sent in everything by mail and, well, it ended up in a lot of them and opened a lot of doors for me. It was unbelievable (Laughs).
HM: Do you feel you have an advantage in these film festivals due to the film industry being so small in Ecuador?
SC: It goes both ways. When someone hears about a film from Ecuador there is definitely an interest. That only goes so far. It’s difficult to make films in Ecuador, to put together the financing as there is very little filmmaking going on. Personally, I want to work more internationally in several different areas, yet the reason I decided to make Rabia in Spain is that it is easier to put together financing for films like this, whereas in Ecuador it would either be impossible or I would have to do it for a fraction of the price.
HM: I imagine even finding a crew is difficult.
SC: By this time I have a core group of people that I work with, but yes it is difficult. For example, processing the film in Ecuador requires it be sent to Argentina or even the U.S., which complicates things. If something went wrong with a scene you don’t know until we get it back. It could be a week before you realize you have to reshoot, which is stressful (Laughs). But that is also a part of what makes making films in South America such an adventure.
MG: South American productions are much more handmade in that way.
SC: This was the first time (with Rabia) where I could see the rushes the day after and it was amazing because we could take more risks, say, “if this worked then let’s go one step further.” That’s a luxury you wouldn’t have in Ecuador and South America.
HM: This is adapted from the Argentinean novelist Sergio Bizzio’s eponymous book. What made you want to change certain elements, for example the location from Argentina to Spain and introduce the subject of immigration?
SC: When you are adapting a novel to film, it’s a different format and there were a few things I went in a different direction with. While I was still writing this screenplay we knew that it was going to be a co-production with Colombia and the story, from the beginning, even though we knew it was an adaptation of the Bizzio novel, one of the things we decided to change in the movie was to set it in Spain with Latin-American immigrants. Centering around the bigger communities of immigrants from South America being from Ecuador and Colombia, it makes sense that Martina’s character could be Colombian. So when I went to Colombia to see her film Saturnas and we talked afterward I didn’t recognize her from the film (laughs)…
MG: Which is good, I guess (laughs). I had just seen his Crónicas, which was very organic for me in meeting him and wanting to work together.
HM: One of the more interesting aspects of Rabia is the sense of time ala Luis Buñuel. In the mansion, which houses a dead and (literally) dying family, time seems to stand still. The only way to tell time within the mansion is via Rosa’s pregnancy and José María’s deterioration.
SC: This passage of time reflects the state of mind of the character that is hiding. It is important to not make the passage of time so strong. That is an important element in understanding the disorientation of a character who is losing touch with the outside world. Particularly how much time the main character is hiding in the house. In the book it’s much longer, and I think Bizzio can get away with making it much longer because it becomes very internal after a while. Six months, one year, two years go by and in the book you buy it, but in the movie it was harder.
HM: José María’s only constant is the rats. You seem to have a thing for them.
SC: Yes, the rats (Laughs).
HM: The sense of place and identity is also vague. We know from the dialogue that Rosa is Colombian, but what about José María?
SC: We made the decision to be intentionally vague about that, just to emphasize when Rosa says, “I don’t know anything about him.” What happens in the immigrant communities in Spain or wherever, these people gather and live together, but it’s almost as if they create a new identity and very often people living within these communities won’t know anything about one another. In the final pages of the book there is a really beautiful passage by José María that says, “I really didn’t know anything about her.” It’s a beautiful metaphor for a love story: You think you know who you are in love with, whom you are sharing your life with, but what do you really know?
HM: The movie begins very intimately with a close-up of the two main characters in bed and gradually broadens to the outside world, getting wider and wider until Rosa goes into the immigrants’ housing looking for José María. This strikes me as the widest aperture of the film.
SC: Yes, this is when you see the most of the world.
HM: From that point the film then narrows until we are basically living inside José María’s head.
MG: It becomes very claustrophobic. The house is him and he is the house. Everybody comes in but almost no one goes out.
HM: The house is a living thing that seems to be killing everything that lives within its walls, some more slowly than others. The family is coming apart yet Rosa with her unborn child is the only person fostering any life in a positive direction.
SC: I though it was an important counterpoint to contrast the love story, an impossible love story really, of two people sharing the same physical space who are very idealistic about a possible future together, even if it’s not clear how they will reach it, amidst the clutter of relationships that don’t work. So they fantasize about a future together and on the other hand, all of the other relationships, whether it’s the older couple or the daughter that just came back from a getting divorced, all are examples of broken relationships amid the utmost decadence, which is the opposite of whatever these two would ever want.
HM: Despite being in such close proximity to each other and yet not really knowing the other person whatsoever, it’s an odd contrast to see the family’s son be able to exploit his own physical proximity in regards to Rosa.
SC: You see this kind of behavior from immigrants living abroad, who don’t raise their voices or complain about poor treatment, racism and other discrimination, because they don’t want to get fired or even deported. You find people who could be very strong inside and yet they choose…
MG: …not to speak up. What I find very interesting in the film is the relationship between fathers and sons. Talking about Álvaro, the son who rapes Rosa, and his father the doctor, and then José María with his son, which is just a completely different kind of interaction.
SC: It’s very ironical that one of the reasons that the theme of immigration was important in this story was that there was a strong similarity to the reality of the families breaking apart in Ecuador and Colombia these days because the father or the mother goes to Spain and the idea is to make money so as to have a future for the family.
MG: Just like in Mexico with so many families separated from loved ones living abroad in the U.S.
SC: What happens is just because of the physical distance the family falls apart. Even if later there is enough money to reunite the family, so much damage has been done to the nucleus of the family that things don’t work out. Even though that is a subplot in the film I think it’s related to what’s happening with José María when he decides to hide inside the house because he’s thinking that this is what will ultimately be better for him and for them as a couple and that is actually what ends up destroying it all.
HM: Is this part of where the title Rabia comes from?
SC: Rabia has two meanings in English. The first, literal translation is the disease, rabies, the second is rage. Someone with “rabia” is a very angry person, angry at the world. In the novel, Sergio Bizzio plays with this, the disease versus the rage and even at some point the rat bites José María and he gets sick with rabies, but I thought that was too literal, too obvious. What I love is that the character carries this anger at the world with him all the time.
HM: To be honest, when I saw the poster, which is all black with just this horrifying face staring out with his yellow eyes, and there’s Guillermo del Toro’s name very big I thought, “del Toro’s making a zombie rabies flick?”
MG: Yeah, (laughs) Gustavo has this tough look. He is such a strong guy, not just physically but mentally too.
HM: He reminds me of Christian Bale’s character Trevor Reznik in El Maquinista.
MG: He ends up looking almost like a rat by the end of the film.
SC: Rosa is afraid of rats (smiles). There is an irony in there somewhere.
HM: It’s a bit like the song you use by Chavela Vargas when she sings “Cuando tú te hayas ido”, which is beautiful yet so sad, a touching accompaniment to the larger thematic devices of the film: the decrepit circumstances of the once gorgeous house, the unseen poverty lurking in the luxurious and unused rooms, as well as the separation of families. Are we doomed? Is entropy the order of the day? Most of all are the questions we are left with…
MG: What is she going to do being the biggest one.
SC: For me the final shot seems to symbolize a release of sorts. Surprisingly, when we shot that take, almost everyone seemed to think that it was going to be too long, that it wasn’t going to work. Yet when we edited it, it was amazing to see just how well it actually did work, how necessary it turned out to be. It was too long but it was needed emotionally.
This study in violence, in rage, which displays Cordero’s advancing talent for screenplay writing, is punctuated with moments of breathtaking beauty and strength, all the time acknowledging the ugliness and frailty of the human condition, doing as Welles suggests: balancing the dangerous. His basic question is, “Despite everything, can we overcome?” One of the many the satisfied viewer is left with as Chavela Vargas’ poignant “Cuando tú te hayas ido” (When you have gone) closes out what should have taken the Tokyo Sakura Grand Prix award at the 22nd T.I.F.F.