Best Film, Best New Director,
Best New Actor, Best Original Screenplay: a film that scoops up such a sizable
number of top awards in its country's national awards is one that merits close
attention. Such is El Bola, the film by Achero Mañas that caused a
splash at the 2000 Goya awards (the Spanish equivalent to the Academy Awards).
Mañas shows great confidence
with his story from the very first scenes, showing a group of young teenaged
boys playing a dangerous game on a railroad track on the outskirts of their
Madrid neighborhood. This image of the onrushing train, and the potentially
lethal consequences of the boys' game, recurs throughout the film, keeping the
viewer always aware of the life-and-death nature of even seemingly small
We meet young Pablo (Juan José
Ballesta), nicknamed "El Bola," as well as his seemingly ordinary
working-class family; a little later, we meet Alfredo (Pablo Galán), a new boy
at school whose family is much less conventional. El Bola challenges us
to look beyond the surface, offering us a portrait of two young boys who live
quite different lives... the most important insight for the viewer being to see
that the differences lie not in the surface details of their lives, but in
their more important family relationships.
In seeing the typical
activities of the boys, from family dinner to how they spend their free time,
we get a glimpse of a different culture than in the United States, which gives El
Bola an additional depth and interest. But the themes of the film are broad
and reach beyond cultural boundaries to touch on issues that might be faced by
any child growing up in an imperfect world.
The film centers around the
perspective of the two boys, giving us a glimpse back into the world of
childhood where adults are often mysterious figures who often seem peripheral
to the boys' own world that revolves around their friends; at the same time,
though, the adults are frighteningly powerful in their capacity to grant or
deny happiness or security. At their age, both Pablo and Alfredo are torn
between the need for a family to depend on and the desire to strike out on
their own; both must also deal with frightening events in their lives.
El Bola may be about a
child, but it's far from being a happy nostalgic look at childhood. The central
thread of El Bola, as we come to see as the film develops, is child
abuse; the film gives this disturbing topic an honest and compellingly
realistic treatment, forcing viewers to confront the fact that yes, family
relationships can go horribly wrong. Mañas handles the material deftly, never
shying away from showing the brutal reality of the situation, but at the same
time not presenting a tidy, easily resolved situation. The viewer is really an
equal participant in this film: not passively receiving a "message,"
but compelled to continually re-evaluate and update his or her assumptions and
preconceptions about the characters involved. In fact, one of the most chilling
insights of the film is never explicitly stated; instead, a few clues scattered
throughout the film allow the viewer to put the pieces together independently.
Mañas doesn't so much invert
stereotypes as discard them completely: his characters are, one and all,
individual human beings. The conclusion of the film is as honest as the rest of
it: the viewer will find a sense of closure, but will also realize that this is
no fairy-tale "happily ever after" ending. Satisfying and unsettling
at the same time, in the end, El Bola offers an unexpected development
of a story and characters who have come to seem very real.
El Bola is presented in
a non-anamorphic widescreen transfer that preserves the film's original aspect
ratio of 2.35:1. In general, the transfer is very good, and if it had been
anamorphically enhanced it would have gotten four stars. The picture is very
clean, with no noise appearing at all, and only a very occasional minor print
flaw. Edge enhancement is pleasantly minimal. The image does have a slightly
grayish tint to it overall; it's slight but it does change the color balance
slightly. Contrast is a touch on the harsh side, with a few very dimly-lit
scenes being a bit overly dark, but on the whole it's quite satisfactory.
I was very pleased to see that
the English subtitles offered for El Bola are optional.
El Bola's original
Spanish soundtrack is delivered in Dolby 2.0. The sound quality as a whole is
quite good, with a clean-sounding track that effectively balances dialogue and
environmental effects. Viewers may have some trouble understanding the
children's speech, as they tend to mumble at times and to use a lot more slang
and to speak less clearly than the adults in the film, but this is to a great
extent reflective of how children tend to speak in general, rather than a
problem with the soundtrack. Optional English subtitles are provided.
The El Bola DVD is
nicely rounded out by its special features. A short behind-the-scenes
featurette takes a look at the making of the film; a theatrical trailer and
biographies of the actors and directors are also included. There's also a
preview for another Film Movement DVD: Richard Lowenstein's He Died with a
Felafel in His Hand.
The standout special feature on
El Bola, though, has absolutely nothing to do with the feature itself:
it's the inclusion of a short claymation film by Mark Osborne, titled MORE.
Only slightly over six minutes long, and accompanied only by music, this film
packs a tremendous amount of insight into human longing and the pressures of
society into a tiny, scintillating package. With its expressive claymation
protagonist and its psychedelic animated sequences, MORE wins hands down
the prize for most unexpectedly impressive short film. I have no idea why Film
Movement chose to include it with El Bola, but I'm glad they did.
El Bola is the perfect
antidote for viewers who are sick of saccharine "movie of the week"
treatments of domestic violence. A compelling look into the life of a young boy
and his new friend, El Bola doesn't back down on acknowledging either
the complexity or the horror of the situation, and doesn't take any easy ways
out. Film Movement has given this award-winning film a solid DVD presentation,
with a good (if non-anamorphic) video transfer, good sound, and interesting
special features. It's highly recommended.