A layered reflection on the issues of memory and forgetfulness that are key to Spain’s identity, docu “Swimming” palliates its somber themes with wit, charm and a shot of thriller-like intrigue. Apparently a labor of love prepared over a lengthy shooting period, the film is also a highly personal reflection on the death and illness of a grandmother and mother. Fest sidebars have already warmed to the misleadingly titled pic’s blend of the personal and the political, and more bookings are likely to follow.
Debutante helmer Carla Subirana sets off in search of her grandfather equipped with only his name, Juan Arroniz, and the fact that he was executed in 1940. The absence of Subirana’s father, who disappeared to Puerto Rico soon after her birth, has been a defining aspect of her life. Neither her grandmother, Leonor, nor her mother, Ana, have ever spoken about the man, and for Subirana, the search is also a quest for herself.
Subirana discovers her grandfather was executed for armed robbery, though it quickly becomes clear (following interviews with the now-deceased Joaquin Jorda, an esteemed Catalan documaker) that Juan was actually an anarchist, robbing to raise money for the anti-Franco cause.
Interwoven with this compelling narrative are the affecting stories of Leonor, dying of Alzheimer’s disease and still refusing to talk about the subject, and Ana, diagnosed with the same disease, who wants to remember but can’t do so accurately. The two women thus rep Spain’s difficulties in coming to terms with its troubled recent history.
Helmer has a winning presence, going about her inquiries with an innocence her interviewees sometimes find exasperating, and overlaying it with a to-the-point commentary that never feels redundant. Only major weakness are cliched scenes of the director swimming — strained symbolism in a film that otherwise remains pleasingly down-to-earth. Scenes of Subirana imagining what Arroniz was like, done in a noirish style, work better.