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Isabel Coixet delivers a superb meditation on the contradictory sentiments of love, compassion, contempt and complicity, set in the rural, mountainous region of Rioja - from the 71st San Sebastian International Film Festival/ 31st Raindance Film Festival

Based on the eponymous best-selling novel by Sara Mesa, Isabel Coixet’s eagerly-awaited new drama Un Amor (“One Love”, in free translation) follows Nat (Laia Costa) as she moves to a deeply rural hillside village in the Spanish region of Rioja (the location is never mentioned in the movie). The young and beautiful woman has a spark of fear in her eyes, and a conveys a palpable sense of solitude. She adopts a mongrel with some huge scars on his face and names him Surly. She speculates that he was tortured as a puppy, while locals suspect he mays be a dangerous animal. Nat too has deep scars, if psychological ones. She used to work as an interpreter for asylum seekers, and their horrors stories (which are interspersed throughout this riveting 126-minute drama) have left her deeply traumatised. The predicament of others is the main subjects of her nightmares.

Nat has a very reserved lifestyle in a large and precarious rural house, and keeps her interaction with the intrusive neighbours to a bare minimum. The tiny community is very curious to find out why a young woman would move to such a remote location on her own. As it rains, she realises that her ceiling has a countless number of leaks, some of them amounting to a “waterfall”, she argues. Her extremely unpleasant and menacing landlord refuses to take action, arguing that she was clearly warned in advance. A local hermit known as “the German” (whose real name is Andrea, played by Hovik Keuchkerian) offers to fix the leaks in exchange for something rather peculiar: he wishes to “get inside” Nat, even if it’s only for a brief moment. There is a touching element of candidness, and even naiveness, in the seemingly indecent proposition. Why would such a young and pretty woman allow an old, fat, ugly man to penetrate her in exchange for blocking some holes (pun intended)?

To Andreas’s surprise, Nat eventually agrees to the trade-off, and what was intended to the purely transactional sex develops into a romance. Our protagonist subverts age and gender stereotypes by getting behind the steering wheel of the unlikely relationship. Our protagonist seems to have an affection for non-conventional and marginalised outsiders, those often perceived as a threat (Andreas and Surly). Perhaps her allegiance is based on a sense of complicity (in other words: Nat perceives herself as an outsider). The community (in particularly the lewd males who had plans of their own for Nat) watches in horror, vetting their very single move (as a closely-knit rural community would pretty much anywhere in the world). Nat devotes her full attention to Andreas, the not-so-surly Surly (the animal is in reality rather affectionate), and an elderly neighbour called Roberta (whom she regularly takes for walks). Despite the nosey neighbours, and for a short period of time only, Nat seems to have achieved a state of stability and tranquility. But that’s about to change.

Nat’s origins and motivations are never revealed, leaving audiences free to interpret her actions at their own accord. She is an emotionally multilayered and mysterious woman with a burning desire to experience life to the full, despite the heavy baggage and scars that she may carry. None of the characters is entirely flat in this story full of subtle surprises and little peculiar twists. This is a movie about fortuitous and ephemeral relationships, and how love and compassion can easily morph into contempt. The final scene is particularly cathartic, reinforcing our protagonist’s connection to the land. Nat is as free and fierce as the winds blowing through the vertiginous Riojan landscape.

My only criticism of Un Amor is that the sexual interactions are too timid, not aligned with fiery nature the main relationship. Nat and Andreas never take their clothes off, there is no nudity (not the slightest sight of a breast and genitals of either actor). This is presumably a consequence of the sexphobia unleashed by #MeToo onto the cinema world, with any nudity and realistic sex often frowned upon, and dismissed as gratuitous and exploitative. This diffident representation of sex is problematic because Nat and Andreas’s relationship is a deeply visceral, almost entirely defined by carnal desire (at least in the beginning). This is a missed opportunity to explore the graphic beauty and the rawness of the connection between two such different human bodies and souls.

Un Amor premiered in the Official Competition of the 71st San Sebastian International Film Festival, when this piece was originally written. It is the closing film of the 31st Raindance Film Festival, which takes place between October 25th and November 4th. A first-rate piece of filmmaking, extremely unlikely to leave the Festival empty-handed.

By Victor Fraga - 26-09-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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