Thursday, May 19, 2011

SIFF — Paper Birds (Pájaros de Papel)

Another entry from the SIFF press preview screenings, here's one that hit me right on all levels. What attracted me here was the period-piece story involving a vagabond troupe of performing artists, and a milieu that has intrigued me ever since Víctor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive.

Paper Birds (Pájaros de Papel)
Spain, 2010
SIFF's page, including the trailer which I couldn't find elsewhere to embed here.
Official site (in Spanish)
Director Emilio Aragón's site (with Spanish/English language options)

I admit it. I'm a sucker for a heartstring-tugger. And Paper Birds doesn't just tug 'em, it ties 'em to a trailer hitch and guns the engine. Sure, I dig on Tarantino and Asian action flicks and Bruce Willis eradicating terrorist time-bomb nukes with the power of his reflective forehead shine. But if my sentimental streak were any wider Boeing could use it for a landing strip.

There's plenty in this Spanish tragic-comic drama — set during the fraught, shell-shocked period after Spain's civil war, with Francisco Franco's fascist dictatorship newly enthroned — that's conventional, old-fashioned even. There are moments during its 125 minutes when you realize you've seen this part before, probably in Warner Bros. films from the 1940s. Its climax aims only to rend your heart asunder, and then there follows an epilogue that lushly gushes with mush. I swear I haven't noticed my emotions manipulated so baldly and unashamedly since Les Misérables on Broadway. (That I had just sat through the emotionally desolate Perfect Sense might have contributed to my willing susceptibility here.)

Still and all, there's so much about Paper Birds that worked for me that it's one of the more satisfying two hours I've spent in a theater in a long while.

Right off the bat I was pulled in by director Emilio Aragón's warm orchestral score, which from the first moment flows over you like a Castilian summer set to waltz time. The cinematography by David Omedes is similarly gorgeous and rich enough to probably be fattening. And Paper Birds' story of a down-at-the-heels vaudeville troupe struggling to hold it together after war has shattered lives and livelihoods: that speaks straight to the part of me that romanticizes the plucky troupers of bygone sepia-toned yore.

And as I said, I don't mind my strings getting tugged — as long as it's done sincerely and with a certain level of artfulness and craftsmanship. Director Aragón and Paper Birds checked those boxes for me just fine, thank you.

At the center of the screenplay (by Aragón and Fernando Castets) is Jorge del Pino (Imanol Arias, who's marvelous), a wry comedian who disappears for a year after the war kills his beloved wife and young son. When after that year he turns up out of the blue to rejoin the ragged itinerant troupe in Madrid, he's a world-weary cynic soured by his experiences and losses.

Where has he been the past year, and how did he live? He won't say, not even to his friend, ventriloquist Enrique (Lluís Homar). As Jorge and Enrique put their old duo act back together, in comes a precocious artful dodger, Miguel (Roger Princep), an orphan whose performer parents died in the war (or so he claims).

Well, of course Jorge and Enrique end up adopting the boy (rather, it's the other way around), thus turning their act into a trio.

Trouble is, the oppressive Francoist authorities, headed by stern and paradoxical Capitán Montero (Fernando Cayo), have files on Jorge's history as a notorious Resistance fighter (that year away was not spent idly), and so plant an informant within the troupe to observe and report back.

Events come to a head when the troupe is invited ordered to perform for the Generalíssimo himself. Suspicion and closely guarded secrets within the troupe, a wily diva (Carmen Machi), layered character revelations, an assassination scheme, and a plot twist that knocked my socks off (hard to do, really) keep things moving at a brisk clip right up to all that heart-rending and lush gushing I mentioned earlier. Also welcome is Aragón's keen and knowing eye on the power of the performing arts to heal and to create second-chance families.

Performances are superb across the board, with several actors here (Arias, Homan, Machi) that I hope to see again soon.

Paper Birds, which took the audience award at the Montreal Film Festival, is a full-on emotional, nostalgic, three-hanky crowd-pleaser. Especially in its final fifteen minutes or so, it freely fires the big guns of sentiment, yet the key thing is that it does so with its head high, its shoulders back, and its aim sure. Some critics and casual viewers will dismiss the film for that aspect alone — screw 'em. I was a willing target and didn't mind getting hit even as I saw the bullets coming at me. By that point the film had earned the right to pull the trigger thanks to the preceding beautifully rendered, robustly acted, big-souled swirl of suspense, humor, and pathos. (I can imagine mid-to-late-period Chaplin digging the film, and taking notes.) It may be conventional in structure and tone and purpose, it may push its borders into the realm of melodrama, but damn if it didn't hit every one of its targets, leaving me misty-eyed and with this lumpy thing in my throat. And I was okay with that.

I'm just a sucker that way, I guess. 

What's more, Generalíssimo Francisco Franco is still dead.

Music: Esperanza Spalding
Near at hand:
Iain M. Banks' The Algebraist