The redemptive power of love and song flows powerfully through “Septembers,” an emotionally involving item that’s also curiously upbeat, given that it’s set in Spanish jails. Catalan helmer Carles Bosch (2002’s Oscar-nommed “Balseros”) appears to have walked in aiming to mine as much joy as he could from the lives of the embattled inmates, and he’s succeeded beautifully. Bosch chooses his subjects with care and lets their stories unfold sans voiceover, but with the kind of compassion and insight, docu suggests, rarely afforded by the justice system. Pic has garnered a couple awards and deserves further fest exposure.
Pic takes eight inmates — mostly inside for minor offenses — with one thing in common: They are all participants in an annual karaoke competition run by the Spanish prison system. They include Arturo, a Gypsy, married with three kids, whose wife has an enormous tattoo of him on her chest; Gardoqui, formerly the drummer of a well-known ’80s rock band, an ex-junkie who, in the words of his partner Fortu, possesses absolutely nothing; Rudolf, a haggard Lithuanian in for forgery; Norma, a Mexican (and a fabulous singer) who has won the past two competitions; and Beto, a gay Argentinean who calls his grandmother from prison to tell her the white lie that he’s on a cruise.
All are articulate and capable of fascinating self-reflection. Most look a little baffled to find themselves where they are.
Docu follows 12 months of their intense emotional lives, switching evenhandedly among their stories but focusing on the preparations for a marriage between two inmates and on the relationship between the battered Gardoqui and the perpetually upbeat Fortu. Film adds up to a haunting study of marginalized people who are aching for emotional stimuli, whether through music or through relationships that are in some cases destined to end when one of the partners leaves prison. The special circumstances — moments of romance are snatched only when the system allows it — lend proceedings the kind of intensity soap operas can only dream of.
Bosch follows some of his subjects after their release. Fortu goes back to Valencia, where she discovers her house has been trashed by her junkie son; Beto goes back to Buenos Aires for an emotional reunion with his grandmother.
Helmer appears to have engineered total access to his subjects, with treatment shuttling between interviews of sometimes startling intimacy and fly-on-the-wall material. Wisely, there’s little explicit social critique, other than from the mouths of the inmates themselves. But the impersonality of the system comes strongly across.
Editing by Ernest Blasi and Ana Rubio rates kudos for its contribution to the gripping emotional effect. Gorka Benitez’s plaintive score provides a sensitive, occasionally sentimental background in key sequences.