This Basque-language historical fable about a man who never stops growing took ten awards at last weekend’s Spanish Goya awards.
Jose Mari Goenaga and Jon Garano’s last film, Flowers, was one of the gems of 2014, a beautifully crafted meditation on love and mortality that became the first Basque film to be nominated as Spain’s candidate for the Academy Awards. Anyone hoping for more of the same will be surprised by Giant, a stately historical drama based on a true Basque story that plays out like an elegant but simple fable.
Technically superb, Giant is hobbled by a script that plods earnestly along like the giant at its center, and like him it starts to limp soon after mid-point. Though it represents a new technical high point for Basque cinema, and is an authentic visual feast, it strains too obviously at magnificence, its subtlety sacrificed to its sweep. Despite walking off with Goyas for music, script, editing, photography and six more, Giant is unlikely to raise interest much beyond fests with an interest in its cultural value.
An unnecessary voiceover about mutability tops and tails the film, and is best forgotten; far better to have gone straight to the discovery by Martin (Joseba Usabiaga) that the bones of his dead brother Joaquin (Eneko Sagardoy) have gone missing from their coffin. Martin and Joaquin are working for their father Antonio (Ramon Agirre) at their family’s mountainside farm in the stunning Altxo region of the Basque Country in the 1830s — until the army turns up and demands that one of the sons recruits. Martin goes, leaving behind the possibility of a relationship with Maria (Aia Kruse).
Three years and a couple of creditably shot battle scenes later, Martin returns home with dreams of emigrating to America, only to find that Joaquin has grown into a giant, towering over those around him. The moments leading up to their reunion, in the shadows of a church, are strikingly done, like many of the film’s carefully crafted scenes. Having returned a streetwise man, Martin figures that the family could make some money out of Joaquin, and decides to take the Joaquin show out on the road along with business manager Jose Antonio (Inigo Aranburu), whose character is surplus to dramatic requirements.
Here Giant enters its Elephant Man phase. Having met the Spanish queen, who, in one of just a couple of scenes of wry humor, wonders whether Joaquin’s size is proportional and asks him to take off his clothes, the trio go abroad, where Joaquin is seen as little more than a freak: One surreal scene, where he meets some potential love interest, takes place at a misty Stonehenge, and it’s from about there that things start to limp. This is especially true of a couple of scenes which feel as though they were included only because they’re rooted in historical fact.
One of the pleasure of the beautifully structured Flowers was the way it shifted between perspectives and times, intensifying viewer understanding as it did so. A little of that would have gone a long way with Giant, which, a couple of flashbacks and dream sequences apart, advances fairly predictably, with only a few surprises along the road. Events are presented episodically, without the plot complicating in any interesting way and with the characters developing very little — although of course Joaquin himself does continue to develop, memorably complaining at one point that he can “hear his bones growing.” The effect is to make the whole thing feel airless.
Giant could be about many things, and one of them would have Joaquin as a metaphor of the Basque country itself — an outsider region that always has had to work too hard, as Joaquin does, to achieve respect and normality. But as drama at the human level, it’s less convincing, with only Martin and Joaquin rounded out to any degree and their relationship, which one would expect to be complex and troubled, not in fact particularly well shaded: The dialogue between them rarely stray from the deja vu. Although by the end we feel some sympathy for Joaquin, by virtue of Eneko Sagardoy’s sensitive portrayal, Martin’s exploitation of him is never really entered into. Much time is spent looking at Martin as he sadly, soulfully watches Joaquin, but very little of Martin, the film’s central character, is available to us.
Giant is an extremely handsome piece of filmmaking whose visuals have been unfailingly composed with a painter’s eye for detail: Some of the interiors, with their soft sunlight, shadows and dust motes, might have been modeled on Vermeer, and the rangy landscape shots exploit to stunning effect the tonal contrasts between land and sky. But only once or twice is all the beauty transformed into true poetry, as for example in a stunning sequence, backed by Pascal Gaigne’s subtly affecting score, of Joaquin swimming. It’s a tantalizing suggestion of what this too-conservative film could have been.
Production companies: Irusoin, Aundiya, Moriarti, Kowalski Films
Cast: Joseba Usabiaga, Eneko Sagardoy, Inigo Aranburu, Ramon Agirre, Aia Kruse
Directors: Jose Mari Goenaga, Jon Garano
Screenwriters: Andoni De Carlos, Aitor Arregi, Jose Mari Goenaga, Jon Garano
Producers: Xabier Berzosa, Inaki Gomez, Inigo Obeso
Executive producers: Fernando Larrondo, Jose Mari Goenaga, Nerea Rodríguez, Koldo Zuazua
Director of photography: Javi Agirre Erauso
Art Director: Mikel Serrano
Costume designer: Saioa Lara
Editor: Laurent Dufreche, Raul Lopez
Composer: Pascal Gaigne
Sales: Film Factory Entertainment