Reviews and notes
2017 Berlin, Málaga, Beijing, Istanbul, Buenos Aires, Transylvania, Jerusalem, Odessa, Wellington, Sarajevo, Rio de Janeiro, London, Busan, Mumbai, Vienna
2018 Göteborg, Belgrade, Punta del Este, Hong Kong
2021 Karlovy Vary
Catalan director Carla Simón’s feature debut is autobiographical. Her memory of childish schemes and dreams is acute and bracingly free of sentimentality. The performances she’s drawn from the two children are miraculously unaffected, so when Frida leads her trusting little charge up the garden path you may want to leap into the movie and sort things out. What’s just as piercing is the filmmaker’s appreciation of the kindness, imagination and patience required of her aunt and uncle to convince a defiant little orphan that she was important and loved. Though programmed in the festival’s Young Adult section, Summer 1993
took the prize for Best First Feature at this year’s Berlinale. It’s a beautiful film.
– Bill Gosden, NZIFF 2017.
There is a long history of child protagonists in Spanish cinema, from the mischievous Marceline in Ladislao Vajda's Miracle of Marcelino
(1955) to inquisitive Ana in Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive
(1973). Six-year-old Frida, the central character of Carla Simón’s impressive debut feature, is a new addition to this lineage: a sharp, alert and wide-eyed girl negotiating the aftermath of her mother's death from Aids-related pneumonia in the year of the film's title.
We first see Frida from behind, watching an outdoor firework display, arms raised and fists clenched. It's a pose of defiance and determination. Returning to the flat where she has lived with her mother, she sits alone, watching from a distance while family and friends pack up the belongings that remain. From the very beginning, Frida is established as an observer, intently viewing what is happening around her. Her opening gaze is fixed and intense, and it establishes her as a melancholy and often silent witness to a series of events that she cannot emotionally process or understand.
The film is very much presented from Frida's perspective, with DP Santiago Racaj capturing much of the action from the young protagonist's height. From the back seat of a car, she watches her uncle Esteve (10000kms'
David Verdaguer) and aunt Marga (Bruns Cusi) bid farewell to her grandmother as they prepare to drive her back with them to their rural home. Frida provides either the viewpoint for the action or is positioned as the dominant figure in the frame, and often one follows the other shots of garlic and grapes hanging from the kitchen ceiling are then followed by Frida looking up, clutching her doll closely to her in the unfamiliar location of Esteve and Marga's rustic kitchen.
Snatches of conversation that Frida is privy to further reinforce her standpoint. Whisperings about her mother's death from her grandparents, uncle and aunts as they pack Frida's belongings, comments made by the local doctor about the tests Frida needs to undergo, and idle chit-chat in the butcher's about the cause of her mother's death all testify to the stigma of Aids in a society still negotiating the modernity of the post-Franco age.
The film repeatedly captures Frida's sense of isolation in her new home: she shies away from the chickens in the shed as if they are alien beings, and confuses a cabbage and a lettuce in the vegetable plot.
Central to the film is Frida's relationship with Esteve and Marga's young daughter Anna. The children's encounters are often captured in the numerous long-shot sequences favoured by Simón. Anna is keen to befriend Frida and refers to her as her new sister, but Frida establishes a clear hierarchy in the relationship, arranging her dolls and soft toys in ways that make it clear that Anna is not to touch them. In a dressing-up game, Frida plays her mother, cigarette in hand, while Anna is relegated to the role of a servile Frida – a sequence that recalls the dynamic of the orphaned sisters in Carlos Saura's Cria cuervos
The playful levity that marks the girls' pastimes is one of the film's strengths, whether it's water entertainments with a garden hose or dance routines to a hit song. Laia Artigas as the pensive, curly-haired Frida and Paula Robles as her moonfaced, chatty cousin boast a natural spontaneity that renders their relationship entirely credible. Anna's innocuous comments — as when she asks Frida if she wants to ring her mother — have a painful resonance for the grieving Frida. Unable to articulate her discontent and disorientation, she lashes out and it is too often Anna who bears the brunt of her conflicted feelings of alienation — two episodes where Anna is injured or put in danger lead the kindly Marga and jovial Esteve to rare moments of anger.
The arresting Catalan landscape is anything but idyllic for Frida, frequently dwarfing her or frightening her. By occasionally placing her in the margins of the frame — watching Esteve, Marga and Anna in numerous parent-child interactions that she feels excluded from, observing through an open door as her test results are discussed with the local doctor — Simón further reinforces Frida's sense of isolation. A statue of the Virgin Mary in the woods becomes a focal point for her grief, a place to pray and communicate with her deceased mother. In the final sequence, as she and Anna are tossed up and down on a bed by the good-natured Esteve, Frida bursts into tears, an outpouring of emotion that she has kept under wraps for so much of the film.
Based on a personal story – Simón’s own mother died of Aids-related complications in 1993 – the film is a rites-of-passage drama of quiet understatement. The muted colours, the camera's ability to capture the throwaway remarks of the adults and the warm generosity of Marga and Esteve create a palpable, tender resonance. Summer 1993
captures the conflicting emotions of the young child dealing with a situation that she is not in control of. At the beginning of the film Frida finds the gegants i capgrossos
(giant and big-headed puppets) that parade in the town square frightening. Towards the end, she skips alongside them with a wide smile on her face, marking the first steps in a process of integration that hasn't always been easy or comfortable.
- Maria Delgado, Sight and Sound, August 2018.
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