CATEGORIES Drama, Foreign Language, Romance, Theatrical Reviews, Festival Reports, Toronto International Film Festival, Cinematical Indie, Toronto Film Festival, Reviews, Cinematical
There's an impressive, careful complexity to DarkBlueAlmostBlack that belies the inexperience of first-time director Daniel Sánchez Arévalo. When one learns that he's been a screenwriter for 15 years, however, the unassuming detail of his film becomes less of a surprise. In his debut feature, Arévalo takes a story -- an impotent prison inmate enlists his bother to impregnate his girlfriend, a fellow prisoner desperate for a maternity ward move -- ripe for obvious humor and unsubtle sex jokes and turns it into a subtle, rewarding exploration of family, and the lies we tell ourselves to survive.
The ostensible star of Arévalo's film is Jorge (Quim Gutiérrez), a lonely, ambitious 20-something who has spent the last seven years working as a janitor and caring for his invalid father. Going to school part-time since his father's stroke, Jorge managed to get a degree in business administration, but the seven years in school and his unmanageable home situation conspire to get him nothing but rejection in his frequent, desperate job interviews. By turns resigned and resentful, Jorge simultaneously hates his father for trapping him and is plagued by guilt because the two were fighting when the stroke hit all those years ago.
Jorge's only other family is Antonio, who can't help with their father because he's in prison. We're never told what crime he committed but, as played by Antonio de la Torre (one of the few experienced actors in the film), Antonio is an unsophisticated, fundamentally good person who lives with an uncommon honesty and openness. A sign of the complexity of Arévalo's screenplay is that Antonio's openness in no way makes him saintly or simple. Instead, he's portrayed with a surprising magnetism and a human unpredictability; like everyone else in the film, he fights every day to overcome impulses to flee or lie -- anything to make life less of a struggle.
When Antonio discovers he has circulatory problems that make it impossible for him to get his girlfriend Paula (Marta Etura) pregnant, he pressures his brother into playing stud horse for them, but warns him away from emotional attachments. (Needless to say, the warnings don't stick.) At first just focused on Jorge, Antonio and Paula, the movie expands as it goes along, adding layers and characters, all of whom are carefully developed and generously written; each of them, no matter how small the part, is crucial to the path of Arévalo's film. Also mixed up in the story are Natalia (Eva Pallarés), Jorge's sometime girlfriend and longtime crush, and his best friend Sean (Raúl Arévalo), who has recently decided that he might be gay.
As is appropriate for such an intimate story, the film features an unusually large number of closeups. Mixed with occasional surveillance-style long shots, the closeups connect us even further with Arévalo's characters, and only serve to enhance the feeling that we're all part of something very small and personal. Additionally, the film plays a bit loose with time, a hypnotic touch that reinforces that sense of being inside a closed world. The story being told is of very little consequence to the world at large -- there are no broad statements here, nor attention-getting political gestures -- but it's told in such a way that we're entirely persuaded of its importance. Somewhere in its last half hour, DarkBlueAlmostBlack morphs from an interesting, forgettable debut into a unshakable emotion -- one, as absurd as it sounds, we feel honored to have been invited to feel.