“Railroad Crossing” adds Pere Vila to a growing list of younger Catalan helmers, including Albert Serra and Marc Recha, using cinematic tools in a most sophisticated manner. With minimal dialogue, pic calmly observes a summer for a recent college grad who has no idea of what to do with the rest of his life. Capturing the lazy aimlessness of a Mediterranean idyll, as well as a youth’s unfocused nature, pic will depend on strong critical support to bust past fest corridors into a wider market, which could be resistant to the movie equivalent of slow food.
After a string of admired shorts, Vila’s feature debut shows him in absolute command of his medium. Guiding light here isn’t so much any other director (Tsai Ming-liang and Theo Angelopoulos have already been mentioned on the fest circuit) as it is French critic Andre Bazin and his still-influential ideas on the camera’s ability to capture a wide view on life as it’s actually lived.
Heart of the matter is 20-ish Marc (bushy-haired Marc Homs), graduating from the U. of Girona, based in Vila’s hometown. Lad immediately surprises, requesting a lower (not higher) grade from his professor (Cristina Cervia), who steadfastly refuses. From the start, Marc seems to be a guyready to expect and demand little from life.
Vila gently looks at Marc’s domestic life, which includes a somewhat affectionate relationship with his mother (Maite Buenafuente) — especially in a lovely scene where she clips his toenails — and a frostier one with his father (Joan Marti). Only later is it revealed that the parents have been on the verge of divorce, but may back away from the decision.
Marc seems to feel much more at home with his grandmother (Paula Vives), who lives at a nearby coastal resort and gives him a room and bed — plus lots of tasty meals, with a few bonus dance lessons.
Pic settles into a lovely rhythm of Marc’s days at the jet-ski rental service where he works. In between, he drives customers from their hotels to the beach, then returns to his grandmother’s, where he either wanders the streets at night or spies on his unsuspecting grandmother as she sits outside taking in the evening air.
Two underplayed dramatic points work their way into the otherwise eventless idyll: grandmother’s gradually declining health, and the constant presence of beautiful sun-tanned gals who often pass by Marc and ignore him altogether. Obviously brimming with desire, Marc is either too shy to follow through (especially since they’re all foreigners), or just too nice to feel able to push himself upon them.
Vila’s nuanced script allows for both interpretations, signaling Marc’s nice-guy side in a scene in which a roadside prostitute (Georgina Cardona) runs out of water. Dashing from his van with a bottle of water, Marc gives it to her like a Good Samaritan.
Such moments are key to a film imbued with a marvelously human spirit, one that expects its audience to patiently watch and listen to the details of everyday life, which can often pass without many words spoken.
Vila’s one forced symbol is the local railroad crossing from the title, which too easily visualizes the underlying point that Marc must start making choices about which way his life is going. A sudden death in the family forces him into these choices, and in Homs’ low-key perf, the outcome for this smart but undermotivated young man isn’t at all certain.
Vila and fine lenser Diego Dussuel capture both midsummer’s changing light (on land and on sea) and the mysteries of nighttime shadows, always employing a camera that maintains a distance from thesps, with few if any closeups. Sound by Toni Claret is crucial for pic’s impressive naturalism.