With breathtaking elegance and stunning assurance, Ramón Salazar takes a melodramatic chestnut and makes it flower with unexpected emotion in “Sunday’s Illness,” one of the genuine discoveries of the 2018 Berlin Film Festival. Though hardly an unknown quantity (“20 Centimeters”), and notwithstanding a bid for more serious attention with 2013’s barely seen “10.000 noches en ninguna parte,” the director has been pigeon-holed as an Almodóvar acolyte. That will now change thanks to the way he perfectly calibrates the lives of a wealthy older woman and the daughter she abandoned at the age of eight. Salazar’s exquisite attention to detail reveals itself in the visuals as much as the performances, plus the costume design is knock-your-socks-off memorable.
Working against the film is a bizarre lack of advance buzz going in to the Berlinale, on top of a rather uninspiring title (at least in English). Potentially complicating matters for theatrical distribution is Netflix’s involvement, though it’s unclear how this could impact its release in various territories. That would be a great pity, since “Sunday’s Illness” deserves to be seen on large screens that can properly showcase the director’s breathtaking eye for composition, shot by his regular DP Ricardo de Gracia.
Salazar offers the unexpected at nearly every turn, starting with the juxtaposition of the first two sequences. Chiara (Bárbara Lennie) walks uphill in a dense wintry forest until she reaches an odd funnel-like rock formation; as she peers inside an opening, the scene jumps to the enfilade of a palatial home, where Anabel (Susi Sánchez) regally walks toward the camera, her perfect gait calculated to ensure that the soft folds of her couture gown flow with stately confidence. Then suddenly her ankle slightly gives way and she momentarily falters, clouding the illusion of perfection.
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Philanthropists Anabel and her husband Bernabé (Miguel Ángel Solá) are hosting a charity event in their home, but the presence of Chiara as a catering waitress unsettles Anabel, who realizes she’s the daughter she abandoned 35 years earlier. They meet the following day, and then with Anabel’s family lawyers, but Chiara’s demand is simple: She wants 10 days together, and after that will renounce all relations.
Shortly after, Anabel arrives in a rustic French chalet near the Spanish border, a home she had with her first family. Her couture clothes and perfect coiffure (think Carmen Dell’Orefice) contrast sharply with the surroundings and yet they feel more misguided than aggressive, unlike Chiara’s tightly-wound reticence. Anabel expects questions, she’s prepared for an excoriation, but Chiara refuses to give her even the satisfaction of an explanation, and she barely engages with her mother except in passive-aggressive ways. At a village celebration Chiara relaxes just enough to tell her mother she can ask one question, but Anabel blows it by saying, “Does anyone else know?”
A bridge ultimately is made between these two, though it’s constructed out of tragedy. One of the strengths of Salazar’s screenplay is that he doesn’t cheapen this relationship with simple justifications but instead allows silence, fleeting admissions of character, and the instinctual nature of his actors to create a richly nuanced understanding of what drives these two women. A marvelous scene of Anabel, thinking she’s alone, dancing to Mama Cass singing “Dream a Little Dream of Me” adds significant layers to the initial picture of a self-possessed society queen, while another, of Chiara forcing her dog into the mud in order to invent a story of abandonment, speaks to a lifetime of built-up spite with no outlet. And then there’s the final sequence, overwhelming in its emotional and artistic power.
It would be difficult not to rain superlatives upon so many elements of “Sunday’s Illness” — apart from the title, which comes from that childhood feeling of unease just before the weekend is over but gives little sense of the movie’s tone. Lennie and Sánchez are simply perfect, the former as an exhausted vessel wracked by whirlwinds of anger, the latter as a more mature woman whose fulfilling life has been achieved at great cost. Salazar respects them both equally, using memorable formal compositions that showcase their talents while contextualizing character. Clara Bilbao’s impeccable costume designs perfectly reflect the people wearing them, capturing both who they really are and how they want to be seen.