Neo-realism, gothic fable and political metaphor rub shoulders in Santiago Tabernero’s distinctive “Life in Color,” a powerful, haunting and finely observed debut about life in a rural Spanish village during the last months of General Franco’s life. By focusing on the people rather than the politics, busy but well-turned script avoids the clunky biases of many films dealing with 20th-century Spanish history and gives pic a warmth and depth that could spread beyond local auds into arthouses offshore.
A rites-of-passage for not only a child but a whole nation, pic is set in the fall of 1975, when Franco’s death was imminent and color TVs were showing up in the best Spanish homes. Thirteen-year-old Fede (freckle-faced Junio Valverde, superb) lives in the village of Las Islas with his mother Sole (Ana Wagener), his father Angel (Adolfo Fernandez), his sister Bego (Silvia Abascal), and his grandfather (vet Joan Dalmau, from “The Sea Inside”).
The grandfather is awaiting the death of Franco with a champagne bottle ready.
Fede is regularly bullied by a gang led by Benito (Andreas Munoz). His own friends are shy Sara (Nadia de Santiago) and her Down Syndrome sister, Ramona (Natalia Abascal, thesp Silvia’s real-life sister). Also roaming around the village up to no good is Marciano (Andres Lima), the mentally unbalanced father of Sara and Ramona and the husband of Leo (Carmen Machi). The darkest of pic’s several plotlines involves Marciano.
Script is thick with characters and plotlines, but excess fat has been carefully trimmed, leaving pic vibrant and agile. But the sheer density of action means there’s a rush to wrap things up during the final reel. None of the thesps are marquee names in Spain and many are newcomers, but all are very good.
Jose Luis Alcaine’s widescreen lensing, often color-drenched (per film’s title), recreates the village as experienced by Fede — an expressionist vision of a child’s disturbed imagination. The general effect is to emphasize the Franco-inspired climate of suspicion and fear in the village. Period detail is likewise lovingly attended to.