6 July, 2022

One can almost be reminded of the aesthetics of Wes Anderson in the rigorous framing and pastel colourings of Eduardo Casanova’s Pietà. A highly stylised drama filled with fastidious attention to detail and arch, knowing performances, it is, however, a long way from the twee deadpan. Instead, Casanova’s film leans into theatrical melodrama, using his stylistic flourishes and the particularities of his production to drive home the themes of his narrative with all the tools at his disposal. A perfect fit for Karlovy Vary’s newly inaugurated Proxima competition, this is as much arthouse ostentation as it is mordant character study but those who can tune in to its frequency may find much to enjoy in the madness.

Far from playing its cards close to its chest, Pietà names one of its two central characters Libertad (Ángela Molina) and proceeds to tell a story that draws direct parallels between the iron-like dictatorial grip of Kim Jong-Il and that of Libertad in her relationship to her teenage son, Mateo (Manel Llunell). Infantilised to the point of absurdity, Mateo still crawls into bed with his mother on most nights and sits on the sidelines like a lapdog at her Japanese opera-cum-dance classes. Often dressed in complementary outfits or watching television together in matching pastel pink silk robes, they exist in a hermetically sealed world. Libertad’s stifling interpretation of motherly love becomes all the more extreme when Mateo is first diagnosed with cancer and then encouraged to pursue a degree of more personal independence by a psychologist (María León).

Pietàs tone is certainly an acquired taste, and while the underlying dynamics of its central relationship are realistic – if exaggerated – the storyline and the on-screen world could hardly feel further from it. Casanova’s screenplay seems designed to push at credulity with many of its decisions, and even though they all seem to coalesce back into its depiction of character, audiences will need to have made the commitment to persevere by that point. The aforementioned singing group is a prime example: a surreal blend of Japanese opera, belted out at an alarming speed, while the participants engage in a perfectly choreographed dance routine that looks like synchronised swimming will certainly put some viewers off. However, Libertad’s relationship with the group, her desire for the limelight, distrust of a young woman who Mateo watches singing, and her manipulative, passive-aggressive attempts to control the show all feed perfectly into her character.

Molina is superb in the role – if it hadn’t all been so pristinely designed, she’d be gnawing on the scenery. It’s a suitably dominant performance as a character who expects to call every shot in her world to the degree that, when Mateo is diagnosed with cancer, she questions the doctor, as surely only she would be capable of suffering from such a dramatic affliction. Moments such as these provide the majority of the film’s most convincing laughs, such as when Libertad pretends to leave the therapy room when asked to. At the other end of the spectrum are sequences and shots that nod to the horror genre – a door handle slowly turning as Mateo watches terrified from the bath, lenses distorting the already strange dimensions of their home.

As much as it is influenced by his therapist, and a meeting with his estranged father (Antonio Durán ‘Morris’) and new step-mother (Ana Polvorosa), Mateo’s personal journey in the film seems to be guided by news reports from North Korea. The film’s setting in 2011 Spain might seem like quirky embellishment to begin with, but as the conditions in the DPRK worsen, the parallels become even more overt. Several sequences even cut away to a similarly stylised Korea, where a couple are forced to watch their children die at the hands of the regime in the north, and then suffer poverty and discrimination after fleeing to the south. Kim Jong-Il’s ultimate fate might hint at the conclusion to Mateo’s semi-incestuous incarceration, but Pietà navigates it impressively enough as to complicate the impact of its own lavishly composed denouement.

Article originally published on The Film Verdict by Ben Nicholson.


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