Dominic Ambrose Blogblot

of words: narrative, film and non-fiction

Ladrones: Thieves, 2007. Ballesta and Valverde try just a little too hard to steal hearts.

Film directed by Jaime Marquez, (2007). Alex is lost in plain sight. After watching, as a young boy, as his

Maria Valverde

Maria Valverde

Juan Jose Ballesta

Juan Jose Ballesta

mother is arrested before his eyes on the metro, he grows up in an orphanage. Now grown, he finds himself out, alone, with nothing but his secret skill, and the dummy in his closet. This odd element in the story lets us know that this film is striving to be something more than its timeworn formulas might suggest. The dummy is a practice dummy for keeping his pickpocketing skills sharp, but we can see from the interaction of the youthful and handsome Alex (played by Juan José Ballesta) that it is much more than that to him, it is his only link to human affection. And the only way that he can engage it is to pick its pocket.

So he goes out on the streets to use his skills. It’s an original method to pick up a girl: pick her pocket. But when you’re this good looking, even the cheesiest pickup lines will work. And he knew how to choose: the only language that he knows is the language of deception, and like hearing your native language across a crowded room, he has found his kindred spirit. He cannot stop himself from stealing and now he has no reason to stop. He gets her hooked little by little. When he feels the pockets of the dummy in the closet, as she, in a cutaway scene, feels her face and body in the clothing she has stolen, their kinship becomes clear. The film is more a play of body language than of dialog, and for the most part, the skill and physicality of these two fine young actors makes it work. When their lips graze as he teaches her to lift wallets, perhaps that’s laying it on a bit thick, but no matter, it’s good theater, and entertaining choreography.

Much film time is spent on these shadow play scenes, and while they are beautifully directed, it seems that they may have come at the expense of some needed storytelling. Alex’s quest for his mother could use more space to spread out. It seems that the dummy is also a link to his mother’s affection, and his search for her is an underlying obsession that moves the story toward an inevitable tragedy. However, the integration of this with his Sara story is a bit awkward, so that when he does find his mother, we have to remind ourselves what the connection is. She is a prostitute, and the experience gives Alex hesitation, which happens to be the kiss of death for any pick-pocket’s career. When he realizes what is happening, Alex crudely snatches a woman’s purse to fill his need, but he gets no high from this, and he goes on a self destructive binge. The plot points are a bit too formulaic to be effective, but here Ballesta saves the day, giving his character just enough expressiveness to make it real.

The sequences are dreamlike, the music smooth and ethereal, giving this moody film a feeling of narcotic tragedy. The actions play out at night or in darkened interiors, as though we are seeing vampires, and indeed when Alex finally does leave traces of blood we finally see his humanity. He breaks into Sara’s house and when he enters her bedroom there is no need for words, the seduction and the violation are one.

It’s a story of seduction, addiction, and entrapment. Now she is following him, just as he followed her, and just as he had followed his mother. But it’s not the same, they have been touched by love and that has spoiled everything.

Juan Jose Ballesta has been playing this type of character in films for several years now, and he has refined his performance to a impressive realism. Both he and Valverde are very convincing and subtle actors. The story is an imperfect parable, but movingly played, making the easily seduced in the audience, myself included, forget about the otherwise annoying gaps and borderline clichés.

See Also: 7 Virgins.

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May 31, 2009 Posted by | cinema | , , , , , | Leave a comment

7 Virgins. When Ballesta poses and pouts

Sarajevo FF, 2007. A film review.
It’s a drama, it’s a slick flick, and it’s “pretty-bad.” When does a non-judgmental style simply become exploitation? That’s a question still to be answered. The only sure thing is that this seductive Spanish film will successfully separate teenagers from the price of admission in their wallets.
Seven Virgins is a seductively cinematic story that is tragic on several levels. Tano, played by Juan José Ballesta, is a teenage boy who is serving time in a reform school. He comes out on a 48 hour pass in order to attend his brother’s wedding. We are instantly charmed by his youthful vigor, (Ballesta was born in 1987!) but forewarned by Tano’s coldness to the brother who has come to pick him up at the institution. We are then treated to the sight of him stealing money from his grandmother nearly as soon as he walks in the door. During the following two days, we see him fall back in with his casually delinquent friends. The relationships that he has are heartbreakingly dysfunctional. Among his friends the only allowable shows of affection are the play of insults. This game of dissing is fairly normal among macho characters, but these characters don’t know when to stop, they lovingly insult each other to the point of provoking violence. On top of that, they steal from each other, and recklessly put each other into danger. They all clearly care about each other, but are prevented from showing it by the macho rules they live by. The only affection Tano can publicly show is for the dead, the people that he has killed in a car accident, and even there, one has to wonder if he is sorry for the dead or for the fact that he is now serving the sentence.

His relationship with his girlfriend is nothing more than carnal, a situation she finds nearly unbearable, and when he gives her a gold chain that he has obviously stolen from a friend, this is the last straw, and she leaves him. At first he finds it impossible to speak to his brother about his brother’s hesitations about marriage, but then he does eventually reach out to his brother, and helps to make the wedding a success. Presumably, this is supposed to represent some kind of personal growth on Tano’s part, but it is peanuts, in the context of everything else that occurs.
The film is very entertaining, in an irresponsible and exploitative way. That, to my mind, is the saddest part of all. Teenage rebelliousness has existed forever, but the nihilism depicted here is something more disturbing. It is the dislocation of a society

Juan Jose Ballesta in a poster

Juan Jose Ballesta in a poster

moving headlong into a new century, when Grandma still lives in a peasant world of superstition, while the teen is living in a world of drugs and petty theft at the shopping mall. Yet, we are never asked to reflect on this social schizophrenia in any meaningful way during the film, we are just invited to enjoy watching the teens have sex and play their deadly pranks as though it were all a big joke. To my mind, this is cruel treatment of the characters and careless irresponsibility toward the young audience. The film does serve as a fine vehicle for the young star, Juan José Ballesta, as he performs in ever more complex roles. (check out his excellent performance in Ladrones, (Thieves) in 2007 to see his professional growth). Indeed, this stardust connection may be the only thing keeping “7 Virgins” from speedy obscurity.

What are the ethical responsibilities of a filmmaker that presents such drowning, amoral characters as sexy role models for the young people of his country? I don’t know, but I have a feeling that we don’t discuss this enough. Perhaps the filmmaker would claim that he does not mean for these characters to be role models, and that his audience will be sophisticated enough to perceive the underlying sadness of these boys, but I would not be convinced and I think the film’s official website proves otherwise. I don’t think we should allow filmmakers to get away with such disingenuous cop-outs. To be fair, there is some attempt to depict the inevitable consequences for the boys’ actions, both for them and for their victims, but it is overwhelmed by the unreasonably sympathetic characterizations and fawning rationales for their irresponsibility.
The film was presented in the “TeenArena” section of the Sarajevo Film Festival, films devoted to teenage viewers. The promotional copy ends with the observation that “Tano’s leave turns out to be a journey into maturity.” This is surprising, as it suggests that we are to consider Tano’s irresponsible actions at the end of the film to represent some kind of maturity. I think Spain’s future deserves something better than that, as do the boys in the film, who are the biggest victims of their own predicaments. The acting was excellent, and in fact, the main actors have won awards in Spain for their performances, but this movie, probably the most professionally filmed and commercially viable in the category, did not manage to seduce the young jury and audiences who judged the TeenArena. It was passed over for the Best Teen Film award, which was won by “This is England,” directed by Shane Meadows.
7 Virgins. 2005, Spain. Directed by Alberto Rodriquez, written by Rodriguez and Rafael Cobos, and produced by José Antonio Félez.
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May 9, 2009 Posted by | cinema | , , , , , | Leave a comment