The waves / Las olas

Dir. Alberto Morais

The film by the Catalonian Morais is preceded by an epigraph of the legendary photographer Robert Capa. It is taken from his impressions of the inhuman conditions the prisoners of the French concentration camp of Argelès-sur-mer suffered in March 1939. For a non-Spanish viewer, who is nonetheless interested in the newest history of Western Europe, the situation becomes sufficiently clear to understand the message of the film and enjoy it fully, but it is still worthwhile to explain what sort of camp it was. After General Franco’s victory in the Civil War tens of thousands of Catalonian Republicans streamed in columns towards the French border, moving at night. They risked being air bombed and when they reached the border they were not welcome there. When they had been disinfected for fear of lice, painstakingly searched and studied by the local gendarmerie, they were sent to a refugee camp on the Mediterranean coast, where most barracks did not have even plank-beds, but had unsanitary conditions. Hunger was aggravated by the discontent of the locals about the refugees eating their food. The arrival of the fascists in France further complicated the situation. On the other hand, many heroes who defended democracy with arms, as well as women and children perished from starvation and epidemics long before the Germans came.

Now that you have a clear understanding of the aim, you can set out on the journey to that very Argelès in an old car with a lost 80-year-old protagonist from Valencia. It is a journey where at first you feel bored of everything from the peeling bridges and impersonal agglomerations of new houses to the news over the car radio. But once you buy a “Lucky Strike” pack in a café at the gas station, tear away the filter, inhale and spit the tobacco like you did back in those days when these cigarettes were given out as part of the army rations, everything changes. You turn the dial of the radio and hear nice guitar music and you can find road companions to share a glass and shy gestures of attention.

The movie is shot exclusively with a static camera, sometimes through the windshield or suburban train window when the protagonist is going somewhere. There are only 5 or 6 panoramas, signaling the transition to a different state, when old Miguel sees old detachments and columns on the intact portions of the road and once when he wakes up and enters the club where his newly found musician friends are rehearsing their evening concert. Thanks to this device about twenty minutes into the movie the images start chasing each other like real waves. Several of them, as is usually the case, are stronger and more persistent than others. They push us from the outer world into the inner universe and back. The movie can cause motion sickness but towards the finale everything falls into place and becomes a sort of meditation on the same theme which is discussed in Kazuo Ishiguro’s “An Artist of the Floating World”. It is good that the location of the former concentration camp is now occupied by various bars and in the closing shot Miguel, smoking his “Lucky Strike” on a bench, wishes happiness to the inhabitants of the newly built houses and office workers who grew up in places of his pre-war youth just like the old artist did in the novel. The only difference is that instead of the June sun shining in the novel, behind Miguel’s back there is a worker from the café sweeping away fallen leaves.

Soviet viewers will find Miguel’s aim doubly justified when they recognize Marthe Villalonga, one of the favorite comedy actresses, the mother of Coluche in “Banzai”, in the lady for whose sake the journey was undertaken. Although the world is floating and life is but short, there she is (at least in long shots) just as before sipping the good old pastis in her eternal costume of the provincial sitting duck of the 1950s.

Alexey Vasiliev