Juan (Roberto Álamo), a prison security officer, is a man of few words: In fact, in the first near four minutes of “Josephine,” he doesn’t say anything at all as the film fills us in on his daily routine.
It’s a sad, solitary existence of bathetic detail: The film begins with a frontal shot of a spin-dryer turning: Few things seem more banal. And when he finally wants to talk, following a woman, Berta (Emma Suárez), whom he spies one day on the bus to the jail, he opens his mouth but is stumped for words.
Berta’s son is serving time in the jail. The spectator never finds out why. When Juan finally does get to talk to Berta,
flummoxed, afraid he will put her off if she’s knows he’s a guard, he claims he has a daughter Josephine, who’s also an inmate.
That’s the major set-up of “Josephine,” which is the stuff of situation comedy, but played out as drama, though spangled by comedic touches.
Co-starring Miguel Bernardeau of “Elite” fame as Berta’s son, “Josephine” marks the feature debut of director Javier Marco and screenwriter Belén Sánchez-Arévalo, doyens of the Spanish shorts scene, winners of a 2021 Spanish Academy Goya for their latest, “A la cara.” Their “Muero por volver” won best short at Tarazona, Reykjavik, Astorga, Fascurt, Sax and Moscatell festivals and the 2019 Madrid Short Prize and AMA Award.
“Josephine” is executive produced by two up-and-coming forces in Spain’s new talent production: Sergy Moreno at White Leaf Producciones, whose 2017 “No sé decir adiós” won a best actress Goya for Nathalie Poza, and publicist and producer Rosa García at Featurent, whose credits include “No sé decir adiós” and “La vida era eso,” a Transylvania fest best actress winner for Petra Martínez. Feel Content handles international sales.
Put through Madrid ECAM Screen Incubator, as so many first or second features now challenging for major fest berths, “Josephine” world premiered earlier this week in San Sebastian’s prestigious New Directors section.
Leak Herald spoke to Marco and Sánchez-Arévalo after the premiere.
In the first 58 minutes of “Josephine,” neither Juan nor Berta say very much. Scenes are not so much inconclusive as unconcluded. This leaves spectators to deduce characters’ sentiments from actors’ gesture, actions, clothing – Berta’s mega-dowdy jerseys – and mise-en-scène – Juan’s apartment, still with his parents’ decor, for example. Such details are of course the stuff of cinema. Could you comment?
Marco: The costumes and decor of their homes complete the characters and help us understand them and the moment their lives have reached. In Juan’s case, we understand his unchosen loneliness, his feeling of attachment to his family’s past even though his parents are no longer with him. And those somewhat worn clothes of Berta’s make us understand a life full of occupations and of thinking about others more than about herself. Each and every one of the details allows the audience to complete their lives without the need for words or telling the moment in which the characters are. Luckily we had a wonderful crew who managed to channel all these feelings through their work.
The direction also place a lot of weight on the actors, so it’s crucial to have two of the finest actors of their generation, Roberto Álamo (“Riot Police”) and Emma Suárez (“Julieta”). What role did they play in the creation of character?
Marco: Emma and Roberto contributed a lot with their large experience and talent, giving life and soul to the characters and their identity with their looks, their voice and their movements. It’s been a real privilege to work with them. They were always very involved throughout the whole process: Before filming we were lucky enough to spend time in rehearsals. From the first sentence they read together, we noticed that there was a lot of chemistry between them, something that is seen in the film, and their connection is also grounded in both of their characters.
Both Juan and Berta seem to be waiting for life to happen – to meet someone with whom they can share their existence and re-create a sense of family. This of course is a highly modern predicament. Again, could you comment?
Sánchez-Arévalo: We could say that “Josefina” deals with a human being’s need to overcome loneliness. Both characters, Juan and Berta, find themselves at a time in their lives in which isolation overtook them and they need to find another person to connect with. And when this encounter occurs, they complete each other in a certain way, perhaps because of that need they had to connect with a human being.
Serendipity and happenstance play an upbeat role in the film. It will seem ultimately for many an upbeat drama in a downbeat setting. But maybe I’m wrong….
Sánchez-Arévalo: The philosophical phrases of a sugar sachet that Juan’s colleague at the penitentiary reads every morning refer to what’s happening inside that prison. A car that breaks down just when Juan and Berta need to meet. Or a vacuum cleaner that seems to take revenge on Juan at the most inopportune moment. All these somewhat casual details try to create a somewhat surreal tone to accompany “Josefina’s” realism. An upbeat drama? We want the audience to make up their minds when watching the film. But for us, the fact that two people with the same emotional deficiencies meet just when they need to – it’s something positive and in some way hopeful.