Helmer Chus Gutierrez (“Gypsy Soul”) delivers her strongest film to date with the socially committed, dexterously plotted drama “Poniente,” an all-too-rare Spanish take on the current hot-button issue of racism in Europe. Focusing on the plight of illegal immigrants working in the immense, plastic-covered winter greenhouses of southern Spain, film is at times preachy and let down by an uncertain central performance, but looks destined for a healthy fest life and a comfortable berth in local arthouses. Offshore chances will depend on whether its social critique is perceived as local or universal.
After the death of her father, schoolteacher Lucia (Cuca Escribano) returns to the village where he owned winter greenhouses, employing illegal immigrants to do the seasonal work. Lucia decides to take over running them, to the chagrin of her cousin Miguel (Antonio Dechent), who believed that the land was rightfully his since he was the closest relative of Lucia’s father until she showed up.
Lucia meets and falls for Curro (Jose Coronado), her father’s accountant. Once an immigrant in Switzerland, Curro sympathizes with the largely North African laborers, and acts as a bridge between them and their employers. He’s also a friend of sad-faced, downtrodden immigrant worker Adbembi (Farid Fatmi), with whom he’s saving to buy a house on the beach to convert into a bar called Poniente (Sunset).
Lucia’s sympathy for the immigrant workers is scorned by the Spaniards, particularly by racist foreman Paquito (Antonio de la Torre). Rising tension in the town is signaled through authentic details such as whether or not the workers should receive extra pay for extra work. Eventually, Lucia summons the courage to fire Paquito, and the focus moves to the immigrants’ drive for improved conditions and the real-life riots which affected the area several years ago.
Pic successfully juggles a range of plotlines, and brings its ideas alive through vibrant and interesting characters. But its desire to be comprehensive on issues of racism causes it to be sometimes over-schematic: A subplot involving a prostitute, Perla (Mariola Fuentes), shows that, yes, women can be as downtrodden as immigrants, but adds little dramatically.
Perfs are fine, particularly from Coronado as Curro and the powerful Dechent as Miguel. However, Escribano, always center stage in the main role, has less screen experience and sometimes seems hesitant.
Script, co-written by Gutierrez and director-actress Iciar Bollain (whose own work explores similar social concerns), is careful to keep an eye on wider contexts. It gently reminds the viewer that Spaniards, too, have been immigrants, and that the Moors, in fact, were the dominant social force on the Iberian peninsula for 800 years. However, the pic’s favoring of immigrants over Spaniards gives it an emotional imbalance and leads to good guy/bad guy oversimplification. Also, the harsh punishment meted out to Miguel seems disproportionate.
Carles Gusi’s lensing deals equally well with the harsh beauty of the southern Spanish landscape, the intimacies of Lucia and Curro’s relationship, and a gripping nighttime sequence based around a Moroccan festival.