In the standard cycle of human life, children are born, nurtured into adulthood by loving parents, and then leave the nest destined to return at a later date. Often, their absence is prolonged by the frantic pace of modern living, with some only making their way home when the unforeseen or unfortunate strikes. Many films have charted this journey, with the American custom of moving away to attend college instigating the voyage in many cases. From Garden State to Elizabethtown, and even television series Six Feet Under, the U.S. has the thematic staple covered. The Goya award and Málaga Spanish Film Festival-winning Under The Stars (Bajo las estrellas) offers a Spanish take on the topic, chronicling the return of the prodigal son to his small home town upon the illness of his father.
For Benito “Benny Lacun” Lacunza (Alberto San Juan, taking home the 2008 Goya for his lead performance), his continual struggle to make ends meet as a jazz musician in Madrid arrogantly defines his existence. Barely sparing a thought for his family in the village of Estrella, he is content with late nights trumpeting and boozing, much to the chagrin of his girlfriend Pauli (Luz Valdenebro). When a phone call from his aunt (Amparo Valle) bears bad tidings of his father’s health, Benito is forced to return to his roots. Discovering his eccentric sculptor brother Lalo (Julián Villagrán) is set to marry his former crush Nines (Emma Suárez) makes the situation more difficult, as does Lalo’s increasingly self-destructive tendencies. Only Ainara (Violeta Rodríguez), Nines’ young daughter, offers a glimmer of hope for the future, with Benito’s bond with the troubled youngster instrumental in injecting hope into their troubled family situation.
Combining the standard adult coming of age scenario with an equally common search for identity motif and importance of brotherhood strand, Under The Stars paints an intimate portrait of the trials and tribulations of Spanish life. In his debut feature, writer / director Félix Viscarret invests style, subtlety and sublime aesthetics into his offbeat examination of family drama, with each of his characters (based on Fernando Aramburu’s novel “El Trompetista del Utopia” or “The Trumpetist of Utopia”) imbued with depth, complexity and sympathetic nuance. Indeed, the multi-dimensional nature of the protagonist and supports drives the film out of middle-of-the-road territory, with the poetic, individualistic and authentic effort packing a sizeable emotional punch. Without such fully-realised players, the feature could have easily devolved into mediocre melodrama, losing the delicate balance of hope and heartbreak, tenderness and tragedy that makes the film stand out.
Of course, the performances of the cast are also instrumental in ensuring the feature perfects its presentation of content and context, with San Juan a brooding yet expressive lead as he makes the character his own. In a smaller yet still substantial role, Villagrán is suitably tortured as his insecure brother, whilst Suárez adds a sense of feisty femininity to proceedings. In another pivotal part, Rodríguez is also excellent as the innocent charged with connecting those around her with the future instead of the past, managing to muster both poignancy and playfulness in her portrayal. Resonant and realistic, as well as unexpectedly insightful, Under The Stars‘ take on the redemptive power of relationships and bittersweet vagaries of life unravels as a gentle and genuine, humorous and humanistic, and measured and memorable ride.
Under The Stars is screening as part of the Windows On Europe film festival, kicking off in Canberra in February before touring Brisbane, Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne until April 2011. The Brisbane season runs from February 19 – 25 at Dendy Portside Cinemas.