A thoroughly engaging family portrait that doubles as the memoir of a Spanish generation on the verge of extinction, Luis Minarro’s “Familystrip” is largely driven by the force of nature that is the helmer’s mother. Minarro (a producer on recent Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”) records the recollections of his two aging parents as they sit for a literal portrait, the result combining joy and melancholy into an emotionally rich whole. Docu seems made for the fest circuit, though its focus on specifically Spanish issues could restrict interest outside Hispanic territories.
Much of the docu’s impact is precisely in the way the couple, now into their 80s, discuss their remarkable experiences as though they were entirely unremarkable. Having hired painter Francesc Herrero for the portrait, Minarro simply arranges himself, his mother (Maria Luz Albero Calvo) and his father (Francesc Minarro Bermejo) into a tableau and watches what happens as the painting takes shape over several sittings. Little does happen, but the real action lies in the stories of the garrulous Maria Luz, speaking as though she finally has realized, close to the end of her life, that her words have value.
A naturally gifted storyteller with apparently total recall, Maria Luz gaily recalls the harsh Spain of the Civil War and its aftermath. Among other things, she tells about how she lost her faith after a priest asked her how she pleasured herself; about the deaths of her brother and sister as children; about how her repressive education complicated her relationship with her body; about how the Republican Francesc was sent to fight just days after their wedding; and about his imprisonment in a Francoist concentration camp in northern Spain.
Former air-force corporal Francesc is quieter and more forgetful, and seems more bitter. Part of what makes the pic so interesting is the question of why they are remembering some things but forgetting others, and how they have chosen to shape their memories. Underlying everything is the depressing sense that there are a million other stories like these waiting to be told and documented.
Though deeply interested in how the political and the personal combine, the docu is never preachy. Small scenes of bickering between the winsome couple provide an extra emotional edge, while Minarro himself, stiff-backed at the center of the developing portrait, gently steers the conversation the way he wants it to go.
The evocative opening scene is a lengthy color shot of a lake, backed by an iconic Georges Moustaki tune. Indeed, the pic is bookended by scenes of nature as an airy contrast to the claustrophobic apartment, shot in black-and-white, where it is otherwise entirely set. Lensing occasionally picks out a telling detail — the airplane models Francesc makes, the doll to which Maria Luz clings as she poses.
A tragic irony is that the painter Herrero committed suicide at the age of 27, not long after the pic finished shooting.