Back in good form with his twisted family drama “The Daughter” (“La Hija”), Manuel Martin Cuenca explores the psyche of what seems like an ordinary couple desperate to have a child. The father (played by Javier Gutierrez), who teaches at a juvenile center, makes a deal with a pregnant 14-year-old to adopt her child once it’s born. His wife (Patricia Lopez Arnaiz), at first reluctant, agrees to the scheme whereby the girl, played by luminous newcomer Irene Virguez, hides out in their remote home until she gives birth. Everything seems to go smoothly until the father of the teen mother’s child, whom she’s still in love with, turns up.
Barcelona-based Film Factory, which also handled the international sales of Cuenca’s acclaimed “Cannibal,” is presenting “The Daughter” to buyers at the Malaga Screenings.
Co-produced by Fernando Bovaira’s MOD Prods. (“Mar Adentro,” “Lucia y Sexo,” “Canibal”) and Cuenca’s La Loma Blanca, the suspense drama had its world premiere in Toronto (TIFF), followed by an out of competition screening in San Sebastian. It will next be in official competition at the Tokyo Int’l Film Festival, which runs Oct. 30 to Nov. 8. “The Daughter” bows in Spanish cinemas on Nov. 26. Cuenca spoke with Variety about his latest opus:
Of the many films you have directed, is there a particular theme that you often revert to? A thru-line, so to speak?
I try not to make films that deal with the same theme, in fact I try to adapt the staging of each one to what the different stories ask of me, but it is true that I like to point out, in my work as a director, a perspective about human beings that is usually forgotten in most mainstream cinema, which is the fine line that separates good from evil in the human condition. I am not trying to make films that only sustain a redeeming spirit; I like to dwell on the contradictions of the human species, which can be disturbing but which I try to use dramatically.
What inspired you to tell this particular story? Is it based on real events?
No, it’s not based on real events. The original plot was from Felix Vidal, but it was too much of a genre film for my liking, although it contained a very interesting premise: a couple who cannot have children try to keep the baby of a minor. Alejandro Hernández, my co-writer, and I tried to get away from that treatment of pure terror to humanize the characters and not prejudge them. We approached the development of that story from the pain of the couple who cannot be parents and starting from their initial good intentions, even if they were aware that they were doing something outside of the law. We focus on a more behavioral, somewhat psychological angle, taking the plot to its final conclusion, revealing the madness that human beings can descend into even if they start with good intentions. I thought that this film was a conflict of good against evil in which some lose their reason as they are driven by their desire to repair what they consider an injustice: the fact that they can’t be parents. The issue is how you can repair one injustice without committing another, which is what the adult couple ends up doing.
The landscape of Jaen, where the story takes place, is spectacular and seems to play a key role in the events. Do you agree?
I am not from Jaén but I explored the place to write and then shoot the film. I consider my work from a premise: anchor history to a place and drink from it. I say that geography comes first, then history. This means that I use the landscape as a dramatic vehicle for exposing the internal conflicts of the characters. For this, my job as a director consists of finding the right locations and making the most of the landscape as a character in the film. I follow this process in all my movies. In fact, I live in the place beforehand so that I can soak it up and get to know its idiosyncrasies in depth.
When was it filmed? Was it before the 2020 pandemic?
Filming began in November 2019. It was planned in three stages in order to shoot during the three seasons that are reflected in the film. In the second stage, during the winter season, we had to stop filming due to the pandemic. We had to delay the filming of the spring period that was originally scheduled for April 2020 and moved it to the end of May that year. We faced some difficulties but we were able to adapt and take advantage of the conditions we had. I don’t think the end result was affected by the pandemic.
How did you find the actress Irene Virguez who plays the role of the teen mother? It’s her first movie, correct?
It was the result of a long casting process of girls her age that began in the spring of 2019. We saw about 2,000 girls and, after numerous tests, we selected Irene, who seemed to me to possess a great natural talent and who gave a very subtle and effortless performance.