A compelling study of a childless, middle-aged woman who writes fiction to fend off her demons, multi-strander “Stories” has a hard-won simplicity that gives it universal resonance. Moving beyond its immediate concerns into the recent story of Spain itself, the flawed but emotionally perceptive pic is driven by a beautifully understated performance by Concepcion Gonzalez that speaks to a generation of middle-aged Spanish women hitherto largely ignored by Spanish filmmakers. Fest play seems assured for this unheralded debut, which should resonate with auds capable of seeing past its gloomy surface to the issues beneath.
Quietly tolerant of the emptiness of her life, Rosario (Gonzalez) is stuck in an inert marriage to Martin (Yago Presa), who takes little interest in her inner life. The death of their baby years earlier hangs heavy over their relationship. Rosario seeks therapy in two ways: visiting a shrink (Luis Callejo) and writing stories that cast oblique light on her emotional state.
Rosario’s four yarns are shot in black-and-white and rapidly edited, unlike the real-time exchanges of her own story. They’re straightforward little chunks of dirty realism: for example, a barman throws a drunken woman out of his bar, only to later hear she’s died, and an elderly man apologizes to the local community for the crimes he committed against their families during the postwar period.
It’s here that the pic makes its political point most tellingly: Is it any wonder that an entire generation of Spaniards chose to shut up rather than put up? And what are the emotional consequences?
Not unlike the stories in Wayne Wang’s “Smoke,” the separate chapters are subtly interwoven to shed light on each other. But they also find their focus in Rosario herself, going to the heart of what it means to be a woman in contempo Spain.
Most of the lensing is handheld, in faux-docu style, and much of the dialogue feels improvised, creating a warmly compassionate atmosphere. Moments of gentle humor form a counterpoint to all the intensity.
Non-pro Gonzalez is superbly directed by writer-helmer-d.p. Mario Iglesias as a woman trapped in a limbo between convention and the desire for self-expression, as the camera lingers on her sad, baffled gaze. However, there’s the nagging question of how Rosario learned to write such well-crafted stories.
Exchanges between Rosario and Martin are supercharged with the unspoken, and the rawness of the scene in which she recounts the death of her son is authentically moving. On the downside, the final scenes show the strain of trying to wrap things up too neatly, and slide briefly into sentimentality.
Multiple thesps in other scenes are offered little but vignettes. However, they exploit them to the dramatic max, particularly Isabel Rey as Julia, a pregnant artist stuggling to paint a picture of a dead child of whom no photos exist.