A bizarre Spanish two-hander about a brother with Down syndrome and his conflicted sister, “Leon and Olvido” frustrates as much as it illuminates, thanks to its emphasis on family dynamics rather than the challenges of the disease. Shorn of 10 to 15 minutes of repetitive material, well-thesped pic could nab some fest dates before low-profile regional theatrical gigs and a more receptive venue via tube and homevid.
Wearily admitting to the already struggling 21-year-old Olvido (Marta Larralde) “it’s almost impossible to give him more love than we have,” institutional caregivers release her difficult younger brother, Leon (Guillem Jimenez), who has Down syndrome, back into her care. The recently orphaned siblings subsist in the family home on Olvido’s meager seamstress salary. It becomes apparent almost immediately that theirs is an elaborate love-hate relationship built around rituals of retribution and reconciliation: seemingly more developmentally delayed than mentally retarded, the feisty Leon takes an almost perverse pride in refusing to do anything to help his sister pay the bills or maintain the household. For her part, she acts out against him with increasing violence, including botched attempts to poison, abandon and even shoot him. Yet when all is said and done they seem to love each other nearly to the point of an incestuous relationship — strongly suggested but never explicitly shown.
In the midst of their psychological sparring, Olvido dismisses her layabout b.f., Ivan (Mighello Blanco), by insensitively announcing, “One idiot’s enough for me,” and begins a mysterious liaison with pale smoothie Damian (Gary Piquer). Latter coincidentally owns, with his jealous wife, Laura (Laura Ponte), the very same bridal shop where Leon spies and becomes enchanted with a comely clerk. Meanwhile, calling his sister “a disaster,” he begins classes at a special school and befriends the infinitely more independent Jonathan (Jaime Vazquez), who ends up in the hospital after an accident. When another in a series of attempts to kill her brother fails, Olvido seems resigned to her fate even as Leon remains ever intran-sigent.
Beyond its obvious importance to the initial setup, and Leon’s occasional assertions that he can care for himself (even though he exhibits no initiative to do so), little is made of the Down-syndrome angle, and it’s actually quite easy to forget that thesp Jimenez was born with it. Larralde too is fine as the profoundly conflicted Olvido, making the best of a character whose fundamental motivations are never adequately explained. Writer-director Xavier Sanchez Bermudez recently wrote a book-length study of Spanish maestro Luis Bunuel, and this may explain the escalating aura of almost surreal weirdness and pitch-black comedy in the siblings’ relationship and the shallowly sketched outsiders who cross their paths. Yet pic is played so close to the vest and with such a straight face that mainstream auds will be disquieted, or just plain put off, by a story that refuses to allow the possibility of graceful growth or positive change.
Tech credits are skillful yet unassuming, and this low-key approach proves a boon to the actors’ performances, if somewhat monotonous in the long haul. Losing one or two of Olvido’s ineffectual attempts to eliminate her brother would benefit the film’s pacing. Pic is Xavier Bermudez’ third effort; he’s also worked in press, radio and television.