León de Aranoa, Fernando


León de Aranoa, Fernando
(1968- )
   Throughout León de Aranoa's oeuvre, audiences continue to find groups of socially marginal characters (prostitutes, working-class teenagers, unemployed males) who appear baffled by adversity and trying to make sense of the world. In their dead-pan dialogues is an absurdist impulse worthy of Samuel Beckett, which belies any literal interpretation of the films as mere social realism. Although León de Aranoa clearly uses the framework of social situations both as inspiration and as an aesthetic impulse, plot events and mise en scene are off-beat enough to remind us not to take this too literally.
   Before going into the cinema, León de Aranoa wanted to draw comics (Carlos Giménez and Jordi Benet were key influences), and this is a skill that has proved useful in the detailed storyboards he sketches to prepare his films. It was only due to a registration mistake that he ended up taking a film degree and specializing in script. He did some accomplished scriptwriting for Antonio del Real (Los hombres siempre mienten [ Men Always Lie, 1995 ], Corazón loco [ Mad Heart, 1997 ]) and worked in television. Then he shot Sirenas (Mermaids), a short feature (his fourth) which his friend Gracia Querejeta showed her father, Elías Querejeta. Querejeta, who had been the key producer in the New Spanish Cinema movement of the late 1960s and the 1970s, saw the potential in León de Aranoa and agreed to produce Familia (Family, 1996), which would become his first feature.
   Familia is also León's most unusual film. The fascinating mise en abime presents a man who hires a troupe of actors to become his family for a day. The film follows the characters through that day, as they find themselves involved in their roles to an extent they had not envisioned. The actors are often startled by how demanding their boss can be, insisting for instance, to bed his "wife" (who is the lover of another actor). The film was as funny as it was original, and made a cynical comment on the notion of family and the roles its members played. It earned the attention of critics, and León de Aranoa was awarded a Goya as best new director.
   His next feature, Barrio (Suburb, 1998), is more typical of his style. Three teenagers wander around a housing project, exchanging opinions on life, sex, and the universe in general, aware of the need to escape but apparently unable to take a step in the right direction. The dead-pan dialogues, in a style similar to those of Familia, are even more polished here; the director's eye for absurd situations (for instance, the jetski one of the boys wins in a prize draw parked in the Madrid street) and the lack of narrative drive, which is replaced by contemplation, would all recur in his next two efforts.
   Los lunes al sol (Mondays in the Sun, 2002) won five Goya awards in competition with Hable con ella / Talk to Her, and it quickly became one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year in Spain. León de Aranoa moved into a more explicitly social realist position (which, as then-president Marisa Paredes stated, the Academia tends to prefer) in chronicling the lives of a group of unemployed workers in an unnamed city of the north (the film was shot in Gijón and Vigo). The title "Mondays in the Sun" is a reference to the fact that these people find nothing to do with their time but bask in the sun on working days. The film was both wry and moving in its depiction of their strategies to survive under impossible circumstances, with an explicit agenda about the value of worker solidarity, and with a stoic central character in Javier Bardem's Santa.
   Two years later, the director released Princesas (Princesses, 2005), a much publicized and long-cherished project about two prostitute friends, one Dominican (Micaela Nevárez), the other Spanish (Candela Peña). Although well acted and visually striking (mixing stylization and harsh hand-held realism), the film's reception was oddly muted. Despite a wealth of character and situation, it was not enough to fill a whole movie: the story dragged, and the lack of narrative drive that had been regarded as a plus in previous efforts was now held against the filmmaker.
   Historical Dictionary of Spanish Cinema by Alberto Mira

Guide to cinema. . 2011.

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