Against a Spanish backdrop of fantasy and fable, Jonathan Cenzual Burley’s debut The Soul Of Flies puts low-budget filmmaking to the test.
Lost In La Mancha by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Shot on high-definition digital with just a camera, microphone and tripod, The Soul Of Flies is a testimony to the possibility of microbudget filmmaking. With a crew of just seven, and family and friends pitching in, it’s a very personal piece of auteur cinema, without the rigorous checks and balances of a studio or a producer. As such, it’s quietly mesmerising and charmingly low-budget. And while Jonathan Cenzual Burley’s cinematic impulses may sometimes go unchecked, El Alma De Las Moscas is a free-spirited journey around the sun-scorched wheat fields of Salamanca.
When Evaristo de La Sierra dies, he writes a letter to his two long-abandoned sons inviting them to his funeral and revealing to each the existence of an unknown brother. And it’s not long before Sicilian Nero and city boy Miguel’s hopes of a simple day-trip by train turn into a fabulous road trip of adventures. Travelling through the countryside together, they meet a girl who tries to paint the razed countryside with exploding watermelons, a suicidal narcoleptic and a band of music-making thieves. It’s a quixotic ramble through the Spanish countryside, lurching from one adventure to the next in broad comic strokes, but it’s the brothers’ growing intimacy and trust, which really shapes the film’s course.
Dotted with famished dreams of their favourite meals and nocturnal conversations about girlfriends, the brothers are polar opposites; Nero a friendly rustic and a lonely fantasist, dreaming at night about the girl of his dreams, surrounded by sunflowers and post-it petals listing the things they still haven’t done together as a couple. Miguel, on the other hand, is mistrustful and bruised, eager to recapture the innocence of childhood, and a city-dweller proselytising the revitalising power of ginseng tablets. The characterisation is a little slow, or fuzzy, but as the two brothers head through the dead fields of summer on a free-wheeling motorbike, Cenzual Burley manages to combine all the life-renouncing freedom of Easy Rider with the self-discovery of Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries.
Meeting the ghost of their father on the edge of the field, the purpose of their journey isn’t to learn to like each other, or become friends. But rather to become brothers, where trust can easily co-exist with hate. There’s the occasional friction, symbolised by a breakdown in language, Nero vainly casting around for the Castilian words for basil and carrot. But as mutual respect and understanding grows, the dynamic between the brothers changes, and they’re able to settle on a translation for carrot, while basil is forever sacrificed to the annals of unreconciled confusion.
Trudging through the fields where Ernesto sweated, cried, fought and lost, blood, sweat and tears conspire to lead them to their destination. It’s a landscape of magical realism, and Jonathan Cenzual Burley’s camera captures beautifully the red evening skyscapes of La Armuña where he grew up. His story is composed of static, architectural shots, with largely a fixed camera, and while some of the magical realist elements may yearn for higher production values, Nero’s dreams are superbly finished and the digital grain works particularly well in the dusky penumbra, where the eye works harder to define the shapes. Cenzual Burley’s images are well composed with even an unmissable reference to Bergman’s The Seventh Seal as the merry troop of bandits cross the frame in silhouette. And his penchant for landscape sequences helps to create the illusion that the countryside is leading them.
Some encounters have an unwelcome whiff of whimsy, like the thieving musicians or the abandoned sofa, more reminiscent of the borrowed excesses of advertising than the austerity of independent cinema, and Cenzual Burley occasionally overcompensates for atmosphere with ever-present music, using it to mask some of the more noticeable non-professional acting. But the problem of micro-budget magical-realism lies at the heart of El Alma De Las Moscas. Like Nero and Miguel’s discussion on whether a fly has the girth to have a soul, The Soul Of Flies begs the question whether low-budget filmmaking can create cinematic soulfulness. Its summary epilogue is unnecessary and clumsy, but The Soul Of Flies is an accumulation of adventures and memories, both between Miguel and Nero as well as Jonathan Cenzual Burley and his audience. And just as the brothers head off together on an adventure to find the Girl of the Sunflowers, The Soul Of Flies delicately recaptures the carefree freedoms of childhood, and accumulates enough memories to fend off the loneliness of The End.
The Soul Of Flies is released in the UK on 13th July 2012