SAN SEBASTIAN — Lucía Alemany’s “The Innocence” could be called coming of age, a knowing portrait of Lis, 15, hanging out with her friends and carrying in with her older boyfriend in Traigera, a village perched on the Castellón plains of Eastern Spain.
Come fall, one of the last full summers she may spend in the village over, Lis is back at school, grayer weather tooling up, and she’s pregnant.
But “The Innocence” is also “American Graffiti” meets “The Pillars of Wisdom,” the story of Lis’ attempt to forge her own life – she wants to study at a circus academy in Barcelona,- and her identity, despite the hugely conformist pressures of village life.
Some village traditions date back centuries. may seem barbaric, such as toro embolat: Tying balls of tar to a bull’s horns, lighting them, and setting the beast loose, so that the village’s mensfolk can demonstrate their cojones taunting the bull to charge them.
It’s a new wave of conservatism which gives the film its edge, embodied in Liz’s father, her boyfriend, her cowed mother, and a 15 year village gossip in an Instagram age, who is a homophobic bigot.
In such scenes, Lis reflects and builds her burgeoning sense of self. The acting, and the acutely observed costumbrismo or local detail are at the heart of this first feature director’s hallmarks as an auteur. Variety talked to Alemany in the run-up to the San Sebastian Film Festival where her debut had its world premiere in its prestigious New Directors sidebar.
The heart of “The Innocence” turns on Lis’ attempt and need to forge her own destiny and identity in a conformist environment. Could you comment, and would you agree?
Lis lives in an environment that is somewhat antiquated, where conformism reigns, imposing limits on personal aspirations. Rebellion, seeking to go beyond that, is not the norm there.
It’s a closed world, stuck in old ways, old traditions. That reluctance to let go of what’s been handed down prevents any kind of vision beyond that. Fear of the unknown, of anything new, of being different. That inquisitorial attitude to anyone who doesn’t fall into line with what is established makes the world Lis lives in a hostile place: Breaking with those norms sets her free.
Maybe the strongest emotional narrative backbone of the film is Lis’ relationship with her mother. In a role reversal, it seems to be Lis who encourages her mother Sole, cowed by the tirades of the father Paco, to speak her own mind, experiment, befriend Remedios. It’s a touching late blooming. Again, could you comment?
Soledad’s emotional journey is driven by Lis. In her quest to save herself, Lis also has to push her mother to the very edge. Soledad’s character also contributes to this: she could refuse anything that smacks of change, like La Marchita or Lis’ father do. But she isn’t like that. She sees her own light at the end of the tunnel and decides to go there. The children hold a mirror up to their parents, showing what must be faced: the old saying about the same blood running through the veins. Both generations have to break with the same old set ways.
Lis needs to be understood and supported, Soledad needs to shed old beliefs in order not to judge her daughter. Lis has to go down a path that’s not the one laid down for her by her mother and father, and forge her own destiny outside that old patriarchal way of thinking. When her problem drives her to confront her mother, a domino effect is triggered: Soledad is forced to take stock of her life, deal with her own aggressiveness and violence, face her fears, stand up to her husband.
It’s a step that helps her mother in her own liberation and brings her closer to her daughter. By the end, we see her starting to take the first step. Soledad still has a long way to go.
When setting out to describe the menfolk in the village who, when pushed, are capable of making outrageously machista demands, you seem determined to make their portraits much more shaded, not black and white. Or maybe I’m wrong?
Our idea, from the outset, was to have nuanced characters, drawn in subtle grey tones, in order to show them as complex persons, not simply good or bad.
Even so, from the writing of the script to final editing, in the interest of synthesis as we headed towards concrete realisation, those nuances were toned down and each character fitted into a concrete slot, in a very clear role.
I’m glad those characters are perceived with their subtle nuances, not simply in black and white, because that means that the entire backdrop created for them to be understood, – not judged -, shines through clearly in the film.
The film builds to a series of key confrontations which Lis has to endure: With a homophobic class mate, whom she hits, her mother, her boyfriend. How did you prepare such crucial scenes?
With Carmen, it was easy, she was open to everything I suggested to her and that’s how we did it. Stanislavski – in our own particular way!
We went about things like this: I knew the emotion that had to be conveyed, I’d observe the present and improvise along the way. Then we’d play it out: She’d tell me moments of her life that could evoke that emotion in her, or I’d do things to her to take here there; or run, sing, dance, frighten her, make her feel uncomfortable in front the entire crew. It was a case of “anything goes”, as long as it gave the camera with what we were after.
During the scene, the one leading up to the fight with Rocio, Carmen fell doing a handstand. She was very tired and needed some TLC, which I didn’t give her. In fact, I gave her the complete opposite. I was very cold to her, and she got mad at me; for real. And let out all her anger. Carmen is the type that’s very close to her emotions, and knows how to turn that into art.
It was the same for the other characters. They had to be exactly as they are, speak using the words they would normally say. They simply had to place themselves in the shoes of who they supposedly were and forget the camera. Not be guided by their heads. Not say anything they didn’t really feel, that didn’t come from deep within them. That was the most important thing.
“The Innocence” is the first completed film to have gone through the ECAM Madrid Film School’s The Screen-Incubator development program. How did it help develop the film?
There was a before and an after. For me, all the tutorials, analyses, discussions and advice given were crucial. They helped me immensely in terms of synthesis and for concrete realization, because I’m usually just all over the place.
The Screen-Incubator program made me very focused. Co-writer Laia Soler and I were fresh from three years of screenwriting training and a professional view from outside was necessary for me in terms of proper orientation for directing. I had to stop being a screenwriter and start being a director. And here, the professionals who supported us in The Screen proved crucial. It was a great gift to be selected for the Screen-Incubator program, the perfect present, and a necessary element for developing this project well.
Variety wrote an article last year in our Spotlight on Catalonia about how many of the most exciting members of Catalonia’s new generation of filmmakers are women. Do you have a sense of belonging to this generation? Is there a certain esprit-de-corps?
I’m a woman, but resident in Castellon not Catalonia, though I have lived in Catalonia, and I also went to film school there, so I suppose so. I admire the work being done there and although my relationship with the place is not direct enough to make me feel part of that emerging spirit, I hope the San Sebastian Festival can open that door, and allow me to get to know, relate to and feel part of that generation.