As the guest of honor in this year’s Cairo International Film Festival, Spanish films have so far awed audiences with beautiful dramas, thrillers and romances. “Los Girasoles ciegos, (The Blind Sunflowers), one of Spain’s two entries in the festival’s International Competition and the Spanish contender for the Best Foreign Film Oscar nominations, is no different.
“The Blind Sunflowers, a fine drama not for the faint-hearted, effortlessly combines elements of a thriller with that of compelling dramas building up to a shocking, tear-jerking ending.
Set in the Franco era in the late 1930s following the Spanish Civil War, the film follows Elena’s family: her husband Ricardo, wanted by the police for his communist views; her pregnant daughter who tries with her wanted boyfriend to escape the country; and her son Lorenzo enrolled in a church-operated school.
Parallel to the daughter’s grueling journey to the borders, the family’s life is equally challenging. To cover for the fact that her husband is hiding in their house, Elena, played by Maribel Verdú (Mercedes from the Oscar wining “Pan’s Labyrinth ), tells everyone that he had died in war, fighting communists. This provides enough reasoning for Salvador (Raúl Arévalo), a deacon at Lorenzo’s school, to be convinced that the two could get together.
After noticing Elena, Salvador’s doubts about his choice to join priesthood gradually surface. Everyday she walks her son to school, his interest in her grows. This interest doesn’t translate into love, but a desire that reflects his own weakness. He masks his impious fantasies with elaborate self reasoning: she’s a widow who had suffered with a decadent husband and a dysfunctional family and now needs him to help her raise her son.
He moves from the confession to his priest that his interest is strictly unilateral to convincing himself that she is the one seducing him, encouraging him to commit the eternal sin he had talked to his students about.
His pursuit of her turns from merely following her around to digging into her past and arriving unannounced on her doorstep. His advances grow bolder and Elena, constrained by the secrets she’s hiding, remains helpless.
This feeling of helplessness torments her husband Ricardo (Javier Cámara), hiding in a secret room behind their bedroom’s closet. He couldn’t be of much help to his daughter and now earns a living by translating documents into German, serving the government he loathes. Elena acts as the forefront, pretending to be the translator who learned German by corresponding with a soldier on the battle front.
Unable to leave the house or even move in front of an open window, Ricardo’s frustration is further augmented by his inability to make a difference in his family’s life, not even able to teach his son how to swim.
Based on a novel by Alberto Méndez and directed by the award-wining José Luis Cuerda, the film beautifully captures the inner struggles of each character and at one point has viewers sympathizing with the deacon, as he succumbs to the triumph of his weakness and the defeat of his faith.
The grimness of their lives is accentuated with the use of fading dark colors. Even when the daughter is hiding in a forest, the washed up green takes a backseat to the couple’s suffering.
But the dark colors don’t suppress the sliver of hope that drives each character. Elena and her family dream of a way out, in spite of the continuous reminders that reality and the future are too bleak for such things to happen. Salvador seeks redemption in his own way, or rather a self-satisfying rationale for his actions and their tragic consequences.