Film Review: SUMMER 1993 (2017) DIR. Carla Simón
By Belle McIntyre
This is a beautifully rendered elegiac film about loss, revelation and transition. The title says it all. It is a year in the life of Frida (Laia Artigas) age 6 years old, at a critical turning point in her very young life. The film opens as she is watching her whole life in Barcelona packed in boxes. She is moving to a new life in the idyllic Catalonian countryside to live with with her aunt, Marga (Bruna Cusi), uncle Esteve (David Verdaguer) and her four-year cousin, Anna (Paula Robles). Frida seems uncomprehending about what is happening to her world and why. This is the genius of this film’s ultra naturalism. The director has successfully conveyed the experience through the eyes of Frida in the moment. The personal immediacy makes even the most mundane events fascinating. The story line is still unknown to her.
Her new family is attractive, loving, warm and welcoming. They seem to strike a balance between overly solicitous and normal. Esteve is the brother of Anna’s father, who was, apparently, fairly dissolute and died young. Frida lived with her mother who was equally unfit, but was looked after by her grandparents who did not trust her mother. The back story of Frida’s circumstances are revealed gradually in dribs and drabs through inadvertent comments and conversations between the relatives and it is left to the viewer to connect the dots and piece the story together. The grandmother is very protective of Frida and inserts herself in unwelcome ways in the new situation with Frida’s adopted family which only adds to the stress to their marriage.
As Frida comes to grips with the fact that her old life is over and begins to grapple with an entirely new and unfamiliar reality new coping mechanisms are being tried on like clothes. Her moods and behaviors are unpredictable and often unfathomable, exacerbated by her inability to verbalize her feelings and emotions. Understandably, as she has been air lifted from all that was familiar, a solitary city life of benign neglect, and dropped into alien territory with a real family, attentive parents, rules, and an adoring younger sibling, the transition is a rocky one.
There is also the awkwardness of having to make new friends at school who don’t know what to make of her. And there are unfathomable customs in this part of the country which involve parades with the locals wearing strange costumes and masks while performing traditional songs and dances.
We gradually learn about Frida’s mother in a scene where Frida is pretending to be her, wearing makeup, sunglasses and smoking a cigarette and being glamorous. The grandmother is constantly telling Frida that her mother loved her very much, but it has a hollow ring since Frida did not even know that she was sick. The mysterious illness turns out to be AIDS which was fairly common in Spain in the early 1990’s. That fact, unknown to Frida, causes anxiety among those who come in contact with her, and necessitates frequent blood testing which she does not understand. Her sense of isolation is palpable.
For a film in which very little actually happens it is full of exquisitely observed small moments which are expressed eloquently by the entire ensemble, and particularly by the young Laia Artigas, who is so transparent and raw with her fitful bouts of grief, sadness, and anger mixed with tentative happiness and childish optimism. It made sense when I read that this story is autobiographical for the director. She has managed to brilliantly capture the way a young psyche processes life, before the narrative is formed or understood. There are signs that Frida will eventually be OK and be able to be happy. But nothing is neatly tied up here which is to the director’s credit and makes the film so honest.
The film was Spain’s entry for the Oscars and wind Best First Feature at the Berlin Film Festival.