Eva is at a turning point in her life. About to turn 33, she has quit her acting career and a recent relationship just went south. The future lies ahead and everything is possible. And yet, she is uncertain about which direction to go. So, as most of Madrid leaves town in the stifling month of August in the year of 2018, Eva decides to stay behind, borrowing an apartment from a friend who writes about cinema and is obsessed with Ralph Waldo Emerson. It’s also that time of the year when the city celebrates some of its key saints thru outdoor festivals. Eva becomes a tourist in her own town as she tries to figure out what to do with her life.
That’s the premise of The August Virgin, a Rohmeresque tale from Jonás Trueba (son of Fernando, he of Belle Epoque fame) and actress Itsaso Arana (who plays Eva). This is Trueba’s fifth film as a director (and the first to be widely released in the United States albeit through virtual cinemas) but it is truly a collaborative effort between director and actress and a true showcase for Arana, whose work, outside of a couple of films shown at film festivals in the United States, has yet to be known in these shores. Her luminous smile, her piercing, alert, wide-eyed stare carries us throughout as her character runs into old acquaintances, makes new friends and starts a relationship with a fellow disenchanted actor who works as a bartender and likes to walk alone at night. The idea of a movie set in Madrid in the hazy, lazy, late days of summer may make you think of such touristy postcard movies as The Trip series of films directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. But Trueba is too smart for that; he knows these streets, these people, these traditions like the back of his hand. They sometimes serve as a backdrop to the many conversations Eva starts or finds herself a part of, and sometimes they are fully integrated into the proceedings. The film’s structure is diary-like, a literal day-by-day account of Eva’s path to self-discovery, where nights turn into days as she dances with friends, walks down Madrid’s streets or reads a book while lying on the grass in a park.
Eva’s curiosity and desire to live like a tourist in her own city leads her to follow a Japanese tourist she spots on the bus to Madrid’s Archaeological Museum, where she runs into an old friend, Luis (Luis Heras), a laid-off journalist who now freelances for all and sundry. Drinks at a bar, some food, a street performance and conversations with Luis about career choices lead Eva back to Sofi (Mikele Urroz), an old friend, after Eva locks herself out of her building. She hasn’t seen Sofi since the latter gave birth to a son and another conversation about choices takes place but this time around motherhood and friendship. Motherhood will be a theme that crops up again and again in the film. Less fortuitous and more coincidental encounters follow: Olka (Isabelle Stoffel), the street performer Eva saw the night before who happens to live in her same building; Joe (Joe Manjón), a Welsh English teacher who used to sing anti-fascist songs; her former boyfriend whom Eva runs into outside a movie theater leading to one of the film’s most awkward moments (for her at least); a reiki therapist who rechannels her energy; flamenco pop singer Soleá Morente (daughter of flamenco legend Enrique Morente, playing herself); and, finally, Agos (Vito Sanz) that film actor she will end up having an affair with.
Each conversation, each interaction, is a response and a reflection of Eva’s state of mind, her uncertainty, and also her desire to have someone point her in the right direction as she challenges and questions her friends. Sometimes, as you listen to her, you can’t help but think that she is digging herself into a deep hole she may not get out off. But while she questions her relationships with men and women, we also see her develop a strong kinship with the latter, one based on shared experiences and the joy derived from sharing a drink with or dancing alongside them; a kinship that also manifests itself in gratitude as Eva, in a dare from Agos, expresses her appreciation to Morente for her performance. And even though the script guides Eva to that romantic denouement, that relationship is established on her own terms. Even the final shot speaks to this kinship with other women, regardless of age.
Trueba and director of photography Santiago Racat shoot these encounters in long, at times static, takes to complement the city’s hazy sunlight and the conversations’ languid, meandering rhythms. Their camera bathes in Madrid’s simultaneously slow and ecstatic, traditional and modern vibes. You begin to understand why so many non-Madrileños call this city home.
Trueba and Arana’s film slowly grows on you. I have to admit that I became impatient with its meandering rhythm by the second hour (watching The August Virgin on a computer screen hardly helps). But once you give in to its many charms, you will discover that there’s more here than meets the eye. Rohmer would have been proud.
The August Virgin is streaming as part of the Gene Siskel’s Film Center of the School of the Art Institute’s Film Center from your Sofa program.