The lives of three women at different historical moments are explored in the evocative “Chrysalis,” an ambitious, accomplished debut that fuses sweeping breadth and attention to detail into a memorable whole. First-time writer-helmer Paula Ortiz wants to say it all about 20th-century Spain and womankind in general, but the pic’s firm grounding in real historical events, carefully drawn characters and well-told storiesare enough to ward off pretension. Ortiz took the prize for new director at Spain’s Valladolid fest, and “Chrysalis” is likely to grow wings and take flight on the fest circuit.
Pic shuttles back and forth among the three yarns, mostly in elegant fashion by means of canny visual or audio transitions. In the most overwrought section, set in 1923, Violeta (Leticia Dolera), the niece of retired botany professor Fernando (Carlos Alvarez-Novoa), lives a life as sheltered as those of the chrysalides in her uncle’s jars. The arrival of student Manuel (Pablo Rivero) at the house, and his subsequent departure, spark some unpleasant life lessons for the increasingly fragile Violeta.
In 1941, Ines (Maribel Verdu) is living a grinding existence in a barren area of rural Spain. Her lover, Paco (Roberto Alamo), a fugitive anti-Francoist guerrilla, returns, and they are clandestinely married before he is captured and imprisoned. The final story is set in 1975, before Franco’s death: Middle-aged Luisa (Luisa Gavasa) leads a cocooned life with her friend Isabel (Cristina Rota), fretting about lower back pain and still waiting to meet the man of her dreams, a role the nondescript local haberdasher Valentin (Luis Bermejo) is anxious to fulfill.
Ortiz thinks big in the tradition of Terrence Malick, and also takes multiple cues from Victor Erice’s masterpiece “The Spirit of the Beehive.” Her script does an economical job of making each story feel lived-in despite the short screen time. But all three yarns suffer from event pile-up, especially over the last couple of reels, while the upbeat conclusions don’t feel quite earned given the remorselessly tragic nature of what’s gone before.
Symbolism can be pretty but superficial, as when a dropped ball of wool is planted to suggest the thread linking the women’s lives. But more often, the important connections between the generations of women are bleak and powerful; at one point, all three have their hair shorn for different reasons, which, taken together, really does open up the whole history of Spanish women in the 20th century.
Visuals make the most of the settings, whether it’s the stunning, semi-desert landscapes of Spain’s Las Bardenas Reales or the grimly claustrophobic interiors of Luisa’s urban apartment. The three leading perfs are terrific, with the powerfully charismatic Verdu standing out, while Dolera does fine work in a completely different register from her recent appearance in “[REC]3: Genesis.” The helmer takes her eye off the stylistic ball only once, during an out-of-place song sequence that is fine as a standalone, but feels shoehorned in.