Friday, May 11, 2007

Aupa Etxebeste!

Here you have a review of the movie "Aupa Etxebeste" appeared at The Age:

Basking Basques enjoy family farce

May 11, 2007

The foibles of village life and a hunt for status have a lesson for all, a Spanish film director tells Craig Mathieson.

''APPEARANCES are important everywhere, but especially so in a small village," notes Spanish writer and director Asier Altuna, who is definitely speaking from experience. Born and raised in Bergara, a small hamlet in Basque country, his first feature - the wry comedy Aupa Etxebeste! - captures the farcical response that occurs when a family is too proud to bow down before the judgement of their friends and the gossip of their neighbours.

Naturally, when the film (released in Spain in 2005 and now showing in Melbourne as part of the 10th Spanish Film Festival) was finished, Altuna screened a print for his family and friends in Bergara, which had also served as the production's location. The response, he recalls, was uproarious, but afterwards, amid the congratulations, everyone had the same question: "Which family in the village did you base that on?"

The answer is none of them. The idea initially came to Altuna, now in his late 30s, several years ago, when he was in Bergara during the summer holiday season and half the village's inhabitants had shut up their homes and embarked on their status-conscious annual holiday. He idly wondered if it would be possible for a family to hide inside their house for the requisite month's break to save face and expense.

"When I began writing the story, I told my father the idea and he told me that it actually happened - not in our village, of course, but in the next one," Altuna says, speaking through an interpreter. "But if you go to the next village and ask them about it, they'll tell you it happened in the next village along. It's a modern Basque myth - the family that hid in their house because they couldn't afford to go away."

In Altuna's movie, co-directed by Telmo Esnal, the stakes are raised because the father of his fictional Etxebeste family is a candidate in the forthcoming mayoral elections. Patrizio Etxebeste (Ramon Aguirre) is a seemingly affluent local figure who picks up every tab in the local bar and frets at even the suggestion of a social slight, but with the closure of his family's textiles factory the conspicuous consumption of he and his wife, Maria Luisa (Elena Irureta), has bankrupted the family.

"A man without money is a walking corpse," remarks Patrizio's father, Luziano (Paco Sagarzazu), who bridles at his son's closure of the business he started. Desperate to avert the perceived shame, Patrizio packs up his family (completed by a teenage son) and they drive off on holiday, only to sneak back home that night to take refuge behind the drawn curtains and locked doors.

"The film is a critique about politics and people and the way that superficial things can have too much of an influence," explains Altuna. "I liked the idea of being able to combine that with a comedy."

While various producers pressed for an up-tempo farce, where discovery was a constant threat, Altuna and Esnal have made a more considered piece. Hidden away at home, with just each other for company, the Etxebeste clan come to their senses and lose their minds. They try to recreate a beach holiday in their lounge-room, while trapping pigeons for dinner on their terrace. But slowly the masks they present, to the village and each other, slip away.

"I wanted to unfold the characters, so the audience could truly understand them, instead of just laughing at the situation they've got themselves into," the director says.

Another distinguishing factor for the production is that it's made in Basque, not Spanish, the first feature so made in 18 years. More than 2 million Spaniards identify themselves as Basque - most of whom live in the three provinces that were declared an autonomous community within Spain under amendments to the country's constitution in 1978 - but only 600,000 or so speak the language.

"It limited the audience in one way, but we had an excellent response in Basque country and it had a far better attendance than we expected," Altuna says.

"Basque people really wanted to see a film made in their own language, although in the rest of Spain we were just a tiny independent release."

The filmmaker is adamant that his decision to make a feature in Basque was merely because he'd made his earlier short films in his native tongue. Nonetheless, given the armed struggle waged by Basque separatists in recent decades, and the earlier repression of Basque culture under the Franco dictatorship (the dilapidated Etxebeste factory in the film has the Spanish name Echeveste above the front door, because of now defunct regulations outlawing the use of Basque), some must have considered it a statement?

Altuna demurs: "I never intended to make a film only for Basque people," he explains. "I just wanted to tell a story that could be universally understood."

Altuna certainly considers himself a Spanish director, pleased at the breadth of titles Melburnians will see at the Spanish Film Festival, if somewhat unsure about the direction the Spanish film industry is taking.

"There are too many films made in Spain at the moment and a lot of them die after opening day because they can't reach an audience," he observes. "Because there's a lot of funding available, there's actually not enough script development. Films get made whether they're ready or not."

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