Felices 140 (Happy 140, 2015)

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Directed by Gracia Querejeta

Written by Antonio Mercero and Gracia Querejeta

Starring: Maribel Verdú, Antonio de la Torre, Eduard Fernández

BY PABLO DE CASTRO

Spain may not be the most popular country in Scotland these days – in fact it hasn’t been for quite some time now: threats back in 2014 to veto any attempt for an independent Scotland to join the EU resulted among other things in occasional calls against the rights of the Spanish fishing fleet to work in Scottish waters. The recent events in Catalonia haven’t been helpful either to improve this image of a government prone to bullying their way around.

It is in this context that the Spanish Film Festival has arrived to Edinburgh, Glasgow and Stirling, with a carefully curated programme that has improved volumes since previous editions (this is just the 4th one). Even if Estiu 1993/Summer 1993, the Catalan film submitted this year as the Spanish entry for the Academy Awards has not been included in the festival lineup*, it’s particularly gratifying that the Generalitat de Catalunya sits proudly amongst the sponsors for the event together with many other administrations and institutions in the country.

The Filmhouse rooms where truly excellent films are being screened this week have however not always been sold out, despite the fact that they weren’t the largest ones available at the venue. And it’s possible to feel this unspoken mood of reluctance: while no-one I know has openly talked of boycott, the thought has undoubtedly crossed the minds of many of us. Which is not fair and would arguably do more damage than good.

The not-so-large Cinema 2 at the Edinburgh Filmhouse was in fact not full for the screening of Gracia Querejeta’s Felices 140/Happy 140 on Thursday. This is social cinema at its best – even if it doesn’t very openly speak its name – and it’s definitely worth an entry in this blog. It was a happy coincidence, especially for the cinemagoers, that the screening took place in a kind of loose double bill with Alex de la Iglesia’s Mi gran noche/My big night. Both of them are extraordinary, if very different films, and they share more than meets the eye in terms of social cinema threads. It could be argued that it’s nearly impossible for social issues not to sneak into the film plots coming from down there these days – it is such an elephant in the room. But these two films deal with it in very different ways, much lighter and matter-of-factly in the case of the former.

It’s interesting that both films follow the well-established tradition of ‘troupe cinema’ — both are group films with the ‘usual suspects’ for both directors (plus a few new faces), not just at artistic but also at technical level. In the case of Happy 140, a Hobbesian story about what greed and envy may do to friendship, it’s a sort of follow-up to previous successes by Querejeta such as Siete mesas de billar francés/Seven Billiard Tables which was also a group film. In fact both #ESSF17 films question this nouvelle vague theory that the film director is the true ‘auteur’ of the film. Filmmaking is a teamworking exercise and although there’s clearly a very recognizable style that links both films to previous ones their directors have shot, it’s also true that it’s easy to see other hands in the end-result — those of the co-writers. In the case of Happy 140 Antonio Mercero co-delivers a watertight plot with quite a fairly high number of characters that are nevertheless very well-defined without falling into stereotypes. The story repeats situations we’ve seen in many films before – Peter’s Friends, The Big Chill, even the just released The Party to mention but a couple – but as opposite to these, it unfolds in elegant circling camera movements under a glorious Canary Islands light and manages to inject lots of irony and social comment into rather tense situations.

It’s however the casting that lifts off a potentially rather theatrical plot into a memorable tour de force that makes the characters stay with you for long after the rolling of the credits. Maribel Verdú is in a state of grace – she keeps getting better with every new film she does. Eduard Fernandez, Antonio de la Torre, Alex O’Dogherty – all of them are outstanding. There is this chemistry across the cast that may be the result of filming, theatre-like, in a remote place, and is definitely the result of a very solid direction.

A novel written by the unique Belén Gopegui comes to mind when watching this Happy 140. La conquista del aire, which was also turned into a film at its time, dissected the pressures that difficult economic situations and generally the passage of time forced onto lifelong friendships. This novel, which no film could really stand up to, examined the difficulties of remaining true to the principles of a younger self as life goes on and the many little treasons involved in sheer social survival. Happy 140 is arguably much more radical – its point being that friendship does not stand a chance against greed and unhappiness. One quite inspired person in the group watching the film mentioned El angel exterminador in the post-film discussion. Same as Buñuel’s classic, this Happy 140 does not shy away from telling the audience how they truly are. And it does so in a rather elegant, Ophulsesque way of its own.

There’s a wealth of additional topics the film touches upon – the stigma around mental health being a prominent one. The clean gaze of the young years, the unavoidable betrayal of former versions of ourselves, the gradual, ruthless defeat of happiness at the hands of fear, the unspoken violence within couples tied by the feeling of dependence, the devastation caused by struggling economically and watching dreams sink are a few others. Definitely not a comedy then, but prodigal in witty lines nevertheless. And the plot does still contain enough little surprises and twists to allow those who like to stay a while longer discussing the film over a drink to have a great time figuring out what it was that really happened on screen.

Happy 140 – English trailer with subtitles

* The reason why Estiu 1993 was not featured on the programme was not at all political, but rather that this film is far too recent and hasn’t even secured commercial exhibition in the UK yet – it was only premiered on Fri 13th at the Scottish Mental Health festival in Glasgow, where it also got a prize!

Pablo de Castro works as Open Access Advocacy Librarian at the University of Strathclyde. He is passionate about cinema and Cinema City.

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