A wannabe jazz trumpeter finds redemption via his village roots in “Under the Stars,” a drama that combines quirkiness with poetry and more than consolidates the international rep writer-director Felix Viscarret established with his shorts. With an ace performance from Alberto San Juan, who makes the movie his own by simply flooding it with humanity, the pic gently unpicks its themes of brotherhood, self-sacrifice and the search for love. Apart from San Juan, there’s little else to distinguish “Stars,” but this best film winner at the Malaga fest could shine in specialty release offshore.
Heartless, thoughtless and witless, Benny (San Juan) learns of the death of his father in his native village in the north. Reluctantly leaving g.f. Pauli (Luz Valdenebro) in Madrid, he heads back to Navarre for the funeral and to find out about a land inheritance. There, he finds his brother, insecure former alcoholic Lalo (Julian Villagran), taking his first uncertain steps back to recovery via sculpting scrap metal and a stormy relationship with Nines (Emma Suarez).
Turns out, one drunken evening years earlier, Nines had promised Benny sexual favors. Though the promise was never fulfilled, Benny visits her house and meets Nines’ daughter, Ainara (Violeta Rodriguez). She’s emotionally traumatized after years of neglect, and he strikes up a paternal relationship with the uncommunicative girl.
Benny’s learning curve becomes even steeper when, after he’s beaten by political radicals, the van in which he and Lalo are traveling collides with something in the mist. Exactly what they hit Benny decides to keep secret from his brother.
Script keeps a wry eye on the oddball details of rural life and grounds its themes in its characters. Well-directed cast makes the film work across the board, mixing gentle comedy with moments of tenderness, as when Benny and Ainara share their first cigarette.
San Juan can often be an irritatingly mannered actor, but here he marvelously combines Benny’s harrowing search for himself with nicely played comedy. Scenes in which Benny tries to communicate with the silent Ainara are memorable, especially as it’s clear he wants to break through to her for his own emotional sake as much as for hers.
Lensing is simple and effective, with just occasional nods toward stylization. In tune with the pic’s offbeat feel, Mikel Salas’ banjo and mandolin-based score is often little more than a few notes picked out. Closing credits feature a stunning rendition of jazz standard “Stella by Starlight” by flamenco maestro Enrique Morente.