As unsung and under-appreciated at home as Victor Erice, the Spanish helmer to whom he clearly owes a sizable artistic debt, the nonprolific Jose Luis Guerin is one of the more idiosyncratic Spanish talents at work. Guerin plows an intensely personal filmic furrow, producing distinctive, committed arthouse fare that bravely questions accepted cinematic notions. Built around an idea which looks doomed on paper but which works brilliantly on screen — to record the construction of a building — “Work in Progress” is willfully offbeat, like Guerin’s award-winning “Shadow Train” (1996). But the docu’s potential pretentiousness is beautifully held in check by its warm, embracing humanity, signaling festival and maybe some arthouse exposure.
Project has no big names and no real storyline, but it grips relentlessly once it has won the viewer over to its unusual conventions. Not the least of these is its snaillike pace, which allows us to perceive the full strangeness of the ordinary.
Only Guerin’s fourth pic in 18 years, “Work” is a craftily edited summary of 110 hours of footage recorded over 18 months during the building of an apartment block in Barcelona’s El Chino district. It opens with B&W period footage of a Barcelona neighborhood that has since fallen on hard times. A homeless ancient mariner type (Antonio Atar) shouts abuse at nobody in particular, and kids play soccer in the wasteland as old buildings are pulled down under the gaze of Guerin’s immobile camera.
The first people to come under Guerin’s scrutiny are young drug addicts and lovers (Juana Rodriguez, Ivan Guzman), who are squatting. The camera simply records their conversations and their mutual need, with Rodriguez emerging as engagingly romantic, using her imagination to fight against the squalor of her surroundings, and Guzman as a good-looking but inarticulate deadhead.
Outside, the practicalities of construction go on: A cat is buried by falling earth, and a Roman mass grave is uncovered. As the locals come out to watch, Guerin captures their comments, and the result is a touching and comic record of human reactions to death.
Other little narratives are set in motion with interest intensifying as the characters become more familiar. A construction worker flirts with a girl on a balcony as she hangs out her wash; a Moroccan father with no papers (Abdel Aziz el Mountassir) and his son offer themselves as laborers. The father advises his son to play dumb with his employers: “If you understand them, they throw you out,” he says.
At no point is there any voiceover explaining who these people are, and no one speaks to the camera. This is frustrating in the first 15 minutes, but once the characters are in place, it becomes a strength — what they don’t tell us about themselves is as interesting as what they do.
No sounds are used apart from what was recorded on location — TVs, kids screaming in the distance, the diggers and machinery. Lensing is unintrusive and editing by Mercedes Alvarez and Nuria Esquerra, on which pic is hugely dependent, is superb.