Antonio Banderas follows up his 1999 helming debut, “Crazy in Alabama,” with the altogether different “Summer Rain,” a broodingly intense adaptation of scripter Antonio Soler’s prize-winning novel. Helmer takes a straight loss-of-innocence yarn about a ’70s summer in his native Malaga and wraps it in layers of audiovisual trickery which both enhance and exasperate. Result is a technically classy mood piece that ultimately falls victim to stylistic excesses. A boldly non-mainstream bid for auteur status, “Rain” seems likeliest to fall on fests, with helmer’s rep likely to generate arthouse interest beyond Hispanic territories. Dec. 1 release unspools stateside at Sundance.
Credits sequence sets the tone, as young Miguelito (sleepy-eyed Alberto Amarilla) recovers from a kidney operation to the accompaniment of some heavy-duty dream imagery (blood, ballerinas). After leaving hospital, he teams up with his buddies, including well-off Paco Fronton (Felix Gomez) and unstable Babirusa (Raul Arevalo). Miguelito says he wants to become a poet, after being given a copy of “The Divine Comedy” in hospital.
Plotting is standard coming-of-age fare. Miguelito enters a tentative relationship with wannabe ballerina Luli (Maria Ruiz), a high-chemistry liaison that will later be threatened by the arrival of Cardona (Antonio Garrido), a superbly greasy lingerie salesman who promises to help Luli’s dreams along. Miguelito is subsequently enchanted by a typing teacher (Victoria Abril, as a middle-aged seductress).
Babirusa, weighed down with psychological complexes, has joyless sex with the Fat Girl of La Cala (Berta de la Dehesa), lives with his aunt Fina (Cuca Escribano) and grandfather (Lucio Romero), and later heads to London to meet his mother, whom he is shattered to find working in a porn show. Meanwhile, Paco has a run-in with his shady businessman father, Alfredo (Juan Diego), who’s unhappy about Paco’s relationship with working-class La Cuerpo (Marta Nieto).
The cast (some from TV, some newcomers) is superbly directed by Banderas, making pic one of Spanish cinema’s more successful recent ensemblers. However, some thesps do look a bit older than their screen ages.
As Miguelito, Amarilla has a gentle screen presence but ultimately lacks the charisma to hold center stage, coming over as self-important in his relentless quoting of Dante. Star of the show is Arevalo, who delivers a twitchy, threatening and compelling perf as Babirusa, a kid who lives permanently on the edge.
What sets pic apart is its visual style, with d.p. Xavi Gimenez seeking out a language to communicate the poetic intensity of life as Miguelito experiences it. Lensing is rarely less than eye-catching, always seeking out unusual angles or framing. Color-drenched look uses an array of techniques, including solarization and slo-mo. Sometimes all this successfully augments mood, as in the central scene, which features the gang dancing happily in the rain to celebrate their inevitably short-lived happiness. But sometimes it’s just wearisomely flashy.
Producer Antonio Meliveo’s jazz-inflected piano/guitar-based soundtrack is attractive but overused, and especially annoying when playedunder dialogue. Editing by Mercedes Alted is excellent throughout. Period songs feature large, and other ’70s detail is superbly rendered by art director Javier Fernandez.