The uncompromising cinematic purity of Marc Recha’s third feature, “Pau and His Brother,” may not be for all tastes but is redeemed by its generous human spirit and superb perfs, which leap out and grab the heart. An ultimately rewarding pastoral fable on the effects of a death on family and friends, pic is elliptically told. But it has a distinctive atmosphere that shows Recha mapping out a stylistic territory of his own (under the apparent influence of helmers like Abbas Kiarostami) in which little is stated but worlds are implied. Festival bookings beckon.
The surprise insertion of “Pau” in competition at Cannes is a big step up for Recha, 30, whose last pic, “The Cherry Tree” (1998), caught attention on the fest circuit and established him as a helmer to watch. Though the dialogue is in Catalan with occasional French — causing some loss of dramatic impact through the need for subtitles — “Pau” still amply confirms the promise of “Cherry.”
After receiving a shocking phone call, Pau (David Selvas) goes to identify the body of his brother, Alex (David Recha), who recently disappeared and has committed suicide. The mundane practicalities are recorded in docu-like fashion, anticipating Recha’s concern with visual detail. After deciding to tell his mother, Merce (Alicia Orozco), that Alex died in a car crash, Pau accompanies Merce and his brother’s ashes to a semi-abandoned village in the Spanish Pyrenees to find the people who knew Alex last and best.
After a lengthy exploration of the town’s overgrown streets and tumbledown homes — the atmosphere of abandon is well captured — the pair meets Alex’s ex-g.f., Sara (Marieta Orozco), who is still waiting for him to fetch her so they can go to Barcelona to live together; it will fall to Pau to break the bad news.
Other inhabitants include middle-aged Emili (Luis Hostalot) and employee Toni (Juan Marquez), who are helping to build a highway through the region. Marta (Nathalie Boutefeu), Emili’s daughter by a French woman, also turns up in search of her father.
The first hour is very thin on dialogue as Pau and Merce come to terms with Alex’s death. However, the silence provides a sense of the difficulty of their inner struggle, and shifts the focus onto the bleak geography as a fitting location for the working out of some raw emotions. Lack of narrative signposts occasionally becomes wearisome, but Recha generally pulls things round with a stunning landscape or a telling visual detail.
Pic’s second half is full of pause-punctuated narratives and close-ups, with Recha happy to let the camera roll as thesps explore their characters. Slowly, the pasts and problems of this until-now rather mysterious bunch are unveiled, and a sense of community develops among them, with the absent Alex at its heart.
All the thesps hit their marks as their characters react to the emotional intensity in different, entirely plausible ways. Merce’s tears when she is shown Alex’s house for the first time are deeply moving, while later, when Pau and Marta get drunk together, the sense of relief is palpable.
As Pau, Selvas carries the principal acting burden, and some of his improvising creates an intensity that builds an uncomfortably voyeuristic feeling in the viewer. But pic’s message seems to be that a death, initially so hard to handle, can become an affirmation of life, if approached properly.
The film was shot chronologically, with all lensing handheld, the images sometimes grainy. Use of mainly natural light makes for some murky night scenes, however. Soundtrack revels in the sounds of nature to an extent that the abandoned village feels very much alive. Music is used sparsely.