Few recent Spanish films have achieved the poignancy of Gracia Querejeta’s “Hector,” a wonderfully observed, intense family drama in which virtually every scene pulsates with warmth, compassion and intelligence. Helmer’s best work by some distance, this carefully worked, intimate but rangy tale of three extraordinary weeks in the lives of an ordinary Madrid family aims at emotional truth, and the fact it generally hits the mark lends it a universal appeal that, despite its disinclination to move beyond the dramatic tried-and-tested, could broaden Querejeta’s appeal into offshore arthouses. Pic took best film at the recent Malaga fest.
Like the helmer’s previous three films, “Hector” deals with emotional skeletons in the family closet. Following the car-crash death of his mother, Sofia (Elia Galera), under ambiguous circumstances, quietly spoken, bookish 16-year-old Hector (Nilo Mur) goes to live with his aunt, Tere (Adriana Ozores), her truck driver husband, Juan (Joaquin Clement), and their daughter, his cousin Fany (Nuria Gago), in a working-class barrio in the outskirts of southern Madrid. Hector’s Mexican father, hotelier Martin (Damian Alcazar) arrives in Madrid at the same time, seeking Hector. Hector has no interest in seeing him, partly because his father has been paying detectives to take photos of him to keep up with whathe looks like, but also for more complex reasons that become clear as pic proceeds.
Things are busy, sometimes too much so, away from the main plot. Fany is having an affair with Juan’s boss, Angel (Jose Luis Garcia Perez) who, having won some money, is offering Juan a stake in his new company; Tere, however, is skeptical. Lovable rogue Gorilo (lens-friendly Unax Ugalde) starts to take a renewed interest in his ex-g.f. Fany and becomes Hector’s friend, while well-meaning parish priest Tomas (Pepo Oliva), Sofia’s confessor and thus privy to some awkward truths, takes a paternal interest in the proceedings.
Pic then moves forward on emotional logic. Nothing is forced, and everything is carefully set up, as family secrets are revealed one by one.
With delicacy and perception — and significantly, without facile recourse to flashback — the script explores the subtle ramifications of Hector’s arrival in the family on himself and on those around him. Tere, whose sister was Hector’s mother, has problems accepting his hatred of Sofia, but later, when she finds that it mirrors her own hatred of her sister, she is free to become the mother Hector is seeking. Fany, back in contact with Gorilo on account of Hector, starts to fall for him again, while the unpleasant Angel looks on helplessly.
Querejeta’s cool directorial style relaxes only over the will-he/won’t he final frames, when touches of conventional sentimentality and sensationalism creep in.
The thesps explore every nook and cranny of characters who are generally satisfyingly complex, the script aiming to understand and explain their weaknesses. Mur does fine work in the challenging role of a disaffected adolescent slowly coming to self-understanding, while Ozores consolidates her rep as Spain’s finest femme thesp in gritty domestic parts. (For the record, she won the actress award at the Malaga fest.) Only Alcazar, as the ambiguous outsider Martin; and Angel, as Fany’s unlikely suitor, float a little too freely from the otherwise tightly knit dramatic mesh.
Dialogue is strong, particularly during the quietly desperate scenes of domestic quibbling. Lensing makes the most of the unattractive but striking landscapes of the city’s outskirts, while Angel Illarramendi’s attractive score discreetly underlines emotional crisis points.