BWW Review: SPANISH FILM FESTIVAL 2017: SUMMER 1993 at Palace Nova Eastend Cinemas

Reviewed by Libby Drake, Wednesday 12th April 2017

Summer 1993 opens with six-year-old Frida standing in the street looking alone and bewildered. It is the summer of 1993 and her mother has just died after a long illness, leaving her an orphan, as her father died several years before. The extended family is packing up the house and Frida is moving from Barcelona to the Catalan countryside to live with her mother's brother, Esteve, his wife, Marga, and their four-year-old daughter Anna.

Summer 1993 is a beautiful, moving and ultimately positive film about a young child dealing with grief and loss. As well as coming to terms with the loss of her family she also has to adapt to a totally new environment. As a city girl Frida (Laia Artigas) finds much about the countryside to be strange and new, the rough-cut stone of the buildings, collecting eggs from the chickens, trees to climb and trying to be accepted by the local children. Her grief is ever-present below the surface and, when she finds a statue of the Virgin Mary amongst the trees, Frida leaves gifts for her mother, for Mary to pass on. Although the film deals with loss, there is also much love and happiness.

Frida is the central character of the film but it is also very much about the new family of four, how each person adapts to the changed family situation and the relationships that develop. Esteve (David Verdaguer) throws himself wholeheartedly into the role of Frida's father. Marga (Bruna Cusi) has willingly taken in the young girl, even though this is difficult at times. Anna (Paula Robles), oblivious to the nuances of the situation, has gained a big sister.

We see other family members, the parents and sisters of Frida's mother, who all live in Barcelona. They are sad to see Frida move away but arrange weekly visits. There is a degree of tension revolving around a letter that Frida's mother wrote, but we never find out exactly what this was about. We are led to believe it was her wishes for where Frida should live.

Written and directed by Carla Simón, the film is based on her own childhood. Carla's mother died from AIDS in the summer of 1993, leaving her an orphan at the age of six. Some of the scenes are taken directly from her own life, and some are fictional. By the time she had finished the screenplay, she could no longer remember whether some scenes were made up or genuine memories.

The film is very naturalistic in style and the four central characters play a very convincing family. This was one of the greatest challenges for director Carla Simón, how to gain credible performances from two very young actors. She felt strongly that the children had to believe in what they were doing so the "family" spent many hours playing together, playing at being a family. This enabled genuine relationships to develop and for them to build memories that were used during filming. The children were not given a script in advance. Carla would explain the scene to them, get the cameras rolling and then give them a line when the time was right. The resulting depth of the four characters helps us to see so much more about them than what is merely scripted. All four performances are sensitive, heart-warming and totally believable.

The two children deserve extra praise. Their performances are an absolute delight to watch, especially the four-year-old Paula Robles playing Anna, who is simply stunning. They play in the garden, dance to music and splash in the lake. The scene where Frida plays at being a mother and Anna the child is funny and beautiful, but also tell us about Frida's relationship with her own mother. There are also contrasting scenes where Frida is unkind to the trusting Anna, as she adapts to her new world.

The casting of the children was hugely important to Simón. Almost 1,000 children were seen when casting all the child roles. For Frida, Simón wanted someone who reminded her of her young self, a city-born girl with a deep inner world. Laia (Frida) was the second to last child they saw. For Anna, she sought a happy girl who conveyed sweetness and innocence. Paula Robles was the only four year old who really took to playing with them.

The pace of the film is slow and dreamy, like a lazy, sunny summer day in the country. The start is possibly too slow but, after the first ten minutes, every minute is enjoyable. Although some of the hand-held shots are a little too shaky, Santiago Racaj's cinematography is beautiful. The rural shots perfectly capture the atmosphere of a warm summer day. The shots and close-ups of the people are very intimate. Much of the story is actually told through the camera capturing the emotions and thoughts of the characters.

For her outstanding efforts, Carla Simón won the award for Best First Feature at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival.

Those who like films of a leisurely pace, with intimate performances, are sure to enjoy this film.

Summer 1993 is featuring at Palace Nova Eastend cinemas as part of the Spanish Film Festival. It is screening at 6.30pm on Sunday 30th April and Friday 12th May.

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