Spain | 2011 | 87 min | Director: Ventura Pons | Genre: Comedy |Catalan with subtitles
Showing: Friday, April 13, 2012, 6:00 pm at AMC River East 21 and Monday, April 16, 2012, 9:00 pm at Landmark Theatres
Wisdom is not inevitable. One gets the feeling that with the accrual of years and films, veteran filmmaker Ventura Pons exudes it like the sun gives off light. In his newest film, Year of Grace, we see the story of an old, mean curmudgeon helped into the light by a young, thoughtful artist. Just wording it like this makes me shudder, for in the wrong hands, this story could come off as trite and cheap, that art can save the world! and all you need is love! Instead, we get the feeling that there is no recipe, that it is messy and mundane as clipping toenails or going out dancing with friends. In this way, Year of Grace, much like life itself, is a comedy that’s sometimes tragic but ultimately a highly entertaining—in the holiest way— story of hope for all of us who make mistakes and persevere long enough to try and fix them.
Beginning with music, Pons’ style of scoring—at least in this film—means lyrics that matter with melodies mirroring emotive states in ways words cannot. Music opens the first scene with a not-quite-fevered strumming of an acoustic guitar tempered by a man’s voice (Mazoni) evoking the calm of James Taylor, a sound so creamy and soothing, listening to it is like slipping into a warm bed on a cold night.
The lyrics add a wonderful dimension, much like a narrator speaking in poem: “The river carries me off/and I didn’t say goodbye,” that fate, and not he, is responsible for his life. It’s an abdication of responsibility that smells ripe for change. The lyrics end: “And it’s what hurts me most,” this tragedy of not being able to say goodbye. You wonder if the character’s lament is for himself or for those he left behind. A reviewer for the Film Society of Lincoln Center said of the soundtrack: “The soundtrack is a veritable catalog of the best in new Catalan pop: Mazoni, Sanjosex, El petit de cal eril, Èric Vinaixa, Illa Carolina…” And its curating into this movie into the exact, right scenes demonstrates the adroit storytelling abilities of Pons.
This opening sequence introduces the main protagonist and hero, David (Oriol Pla). It’s a familiar scene of youth venturing out into the world, unhindered by baggage, motivated with hopes of wild sex, partying and finally becoming an artist. What makes this different from most scenes is that David-as-youth is much more complicated than what is usually portrayed in film. While he’s all about being in the present moment, he proves to be the harbinger of wisdom. We see him evolve, through sassing off to Grácia, professors and friends alike, to being humbled by circumstance. Perhaps in a time when American film stymies under the simplifying pressures to capitulate in the name of global appeal (and therefore, revenue), films such as Year of Grace feel like fresh air.
Arranged through a school program, David stays with Grácia, the Archie-Bunker/Melvin-Udall monster of a woman who seems unsalvageable. And like her nasty counterparts, Grácia is funny enough to spare us in the pews from having a panic attack. When David first arrives at her apartment, Grace interrogates the social worker arranging the homestay. “I hope he’s not like the last one, who didn’t even have the decency to flush the toilet after using it!” she hisses. Listening in the hallway, David and the sweet and silly neighbor, Enriquetta, react. “You flush?” Enriquetta asks, without missing a beat. “Yes,” David responds. Enriquetta sighs in relief. This is so funny in such an effortless, classic way. Over and over, Pons fills the movie with these nasty bits of Grácia, leavened by silly and very smart humor.
In the very next scene, “Like a knife that cuts a whole day into pieces,” is the first line of lyrics that accompanies David, as he walks around Barcelona. Smiling and full-on stride, David walks with purpose, joy even. But the lyrics capture and extend the trauma of the previous scene. Fortunately, David seems unaffected. Is it his youth? Is he simply unaware? While this is a story of the collision between two different ways of being in the world, rooted in age, the question arises: Do you have to be young to be full of hope? And does growing old necessitate the Grácia effect?
These universal fixtures of old-means-damaged and young-means-unabated provide a place for creativity and improvisation for Pons, and really, for the writers of this wonderful script, Carme Morell, Jaume Cuspinera and Pons, himself. While each character enjoys a complexity beyond the stereotype, it is together that they eventually enable the savoir-faire hidden in each other.
Ultimately, it is this complexity that provides a crucial realism to the movie. And just to be sure to ground the tale by honoring true and timely issues that young folks like David face, there’s even room for commentary on the truly scary state of not only Spain’s economic woe but the perilous state of all young people. Seen as yet another contour to a truly well-directed film, the inclusion of this type of realism offers a subtle nudge to the psyche, as if to strain just enough to be taken seriously by all of us, young and old alike. Truly this is not a Disney fairy tale but something closer to the comedy version of the Brothers Grimm.
No one was born mean, joy unfulfilled can turn to rot and sometimes it is the suffering we do for each other that can give us the chutzpah and grace to live the best versions of ourselves.
Bottom Line: Gorgeously shot, very well cast, Bob Dylan-esque soundtrack and a smart story that will feed your soul while making you laugh, Year of Grace takes you to the edge only to bring you back with crackling writing fueled by erudite understanding of that quality that’s usually attributed to G-d, grace.