A coming-of-age story vividly set against the colorful ethnic backgrounds of Italian and Spanish communities in Australia in the early 1960s, “La Spagnola” is a lively, if at times overcooked, first feature from actor-turned-director Steve Jacobs. With a raucously amusing, and at times touching, screenplay from producer Anna-Maria Monticelli (better known, until now, as an actress), pic affords plenty of opportunities for newcomer Alice Ansara, whose strikingly unusual presence as a troubled teen dominates the film. Pic will need careful nurturing to find an audience, with fest exposure sure to be an assist.
With about 90% of the dialogue spoken in a language other than English, mainly a mixture of Italian and Spanish, pic harks back to a time when a flood of migrants from Mediterranean countries arrived Down Under and settled in communities set apart from the mainstream Anglo Aussies. Lucia (Ansara) lives with her mother, Lola (Lola Marceli), in a fibro shack next to an oil refinery. Her father, Ricardo (Simon Palomare), has left them for Wendy (Helen Thomson) — a blonde “Australian,” as she’s derogatively referred to by Lola and her support group.
The unhappy Lucia is devastated by her dad’s departure and blames her mother for driving him out with her nagging. That the errant Ricardo neglects to pay the bills, and, in fact, buys his mistress a new car, adds to Lola’s woes and fury.
Right from the start, action is pitched to the gallery, and the at-times hysterically robust style will be a turn-off for some. Marceli, particularly, gives a full-on perf as the wronged wife and mother who is still attractive enough to seek consolation elsewhere. It’s a bold piece of acting, given full encouragement by the director.
Film proceeds via a series of short, evocative sequences. Ricardo has left Lola pregnant, and her first problem is to effect a painful abortion by means of a knitting needle. Meanwhile, Lucia earns a little money working as interpreter for a doctor (Tony Barry) who seems to think that all foreign languages are the same (Lucia is expected to understand the anguished problems of a Polish patient, among others).
Some time later, Ricardo is killed in an off-screen accident and leaves everything to Wendy. This provokes more recriminations from Lola and her friends, including her sister, Manola (a very funny performance from Lourdes Bartolome).
Ansara, daughter of documentary filmmaker Martha Ansara, has an offbeat attractiveness that perfectly fits the character of this gawky teen forced to grow up fast. It’s a most satisfying and sensitive portrayal and a calm center for a film in which most of the action, and the acting, is frenetic.
Though the basic storyline is fairly slight, pic is crowded with minor incidents, many of them genuinely amusing, though the tone is a bit uncertain at times. But pic is handsomely shot and has a vibrant score.