A woman screams her lungs out as she goes through labour. Not since ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972) have I heard such loud and excruciating female wailing. Midwife Maria (Janet Novás) is hands on with the arduous job, a couple of devoted assistants standing nearby. Cinematographer Rui Poças captures the action in rich detail, with close-ups and and extreme close-ups of various parts of the body of the actresses. A beautiful baby is born. Parallel to this, Maria harvests shellfish (barnacles, mussels and other sea delicacies for the which the Spanish region of Galicia is well known) on the rocky beaches of the Arousa Island.
The year is 1971, and fascist Spain is still under the command of Franco. This being one of the poorer parts of the nation, there are few opportunities for Maria. She seems happy with her life and occupations, though. Occasionally, she helps young women terminate their pregnancies. The abortionist trade is a far less fascinating one, but Maria remains equally devoted to helping her female clients at such difficult moments. Abortion was illegal at the time (it was only legalised 14 years later), and our protagonists has use some unorthodox methods, including homemade potions. She confesses that she once performed an abortion on herself with the hook of a clothes hanger. A far cry from modern Spain, yet a not-so-distant past.
Eventually, something goes terribly wrong and Maria has to flee the country. The problems is that she absolutely possesses nothing, and knows no one abroad. A rough journey lies ahead, involving crossing dangerous waters and dodging fascist guards. Fortunately, Maria encounters some solidary women prepared to lend a hand to the mysterious stranger without asking many questions. Sorority prevails. Some of these female helpers are highly marginalised citizens, and their sense complicity presumably mandates empathy. The movie’s most shocking moment uses lactation as a gauge of racism and misogyny – a scene so powerful that it deserves a stand-alone viewing.
Almost entirely spoken in Galician (a language akin to Portuguese), The Rye Horn takes viewers on a gorgeous ride across the dramatic coast of the Celtic nation. Close-ups of the female body are contrasted against wide shots of the landscape in order to provide viewers with a snapshot of untamed woman living in an untamed environment. Novás delivers a honestly visceral performance, even when the dramatic abilities of the supporting actors aren’t entirely on a par with hers. The script also lacks vigour, with many contrived lines.
Overall, this is a warm, slow burn drama about the physical and psychological pains that only women have to endure. And a beautiful tribute to a land that only recently became a regular subject of Spanish cinema (with films such as Olivier Laxe’s Fire Will Come, Isabel Coixet’s Elisa and Marcela, and Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s The Beasts – all from the past four years).
The Rye Horn showed in the Official Competition of the 71st San Sebastian international Film Festival, when this piece was originally written. It won the event’s top prize, the Golden Shell. This is the first time in history that a Spanish woman wins the Festival, and also that a movie spoken in Galician wins a major international film festival. Galician was my father’s first language, and he was often embarrassed of speaking it, as it was widely perceived as a peasant’s language. Donostia Zinemaldia deserves credit for helping another region of Spain reclaim their identity.
The UK premiere takes place at the BFI London Film Festival.