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SAN SEBASTIÁN 2018 Competition

Review: The Black Book

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- SAN SEBASTIÁN 2018: As unabashedly anachronistic as it is passionate, at the beating heart of Valeria Sarmiento’s period piece lies the motherly bond between a child and his maid

Review: The Black Book
Lou de Laâge and Tiago Varela da Silva in The Black Book

An adventure story set in the seventeenth century, but one that puts the old standards of romance, treachery, scheming, ambition and enmity on the back burner (although never out of sight), in favour of a pure affection between two people that will accompany them to the end of their days. The intense emotional connection underpinning The Black Book [+see also:
trailer
interview: Valeria Sarmiento
film profile
]
— the latest film from Chilean director Valeria Sarmiento, screening in competition at the 66th San Sebastián International Film Festival — is an ode to the finer sentiments, avowedly at odds with contemporary narrative precepts. “If any viewers are looking for something more naturalistic, I’d advise them not to come to see this film,” admits the director herself with a grin.

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Sarmiento has come back to a script penned by Portuguese screenwriter Carlos Saboga for the late Raúl Ruiz, her husband and close collaborator over a near lifetime; an adaptation of the novel O livro negro de Padre Dinís by Camilo Castelo Branco. The black notebook in question holds the sum total of everything that is known of the mysterious origins of Sebastian, an orphan who has been under the care of a young servant, Laura (Lou de Laâge), for some years. Laura’s own background being equally uncertain, she feels a special affinity with her young charge. Following the death of his first tutor, the boy is entrusted to the Marquis Lusault (Niels Schneider), who agrees to Laura accompanying him on his move to Paris, shortly before the eruption of the French Revolution. Silently escorting them are a number of shadowy figures (including Stanislas Merhar’s mysterious cardinal) who will ultimately have a decisive influence on their lives.

The self-sacrificing Laura, a woman who knows her own mind but defers to the implacable social rules of her era, often plays with fire as she negotiates a string of emotional dramas (her romance with the Marquis is quickly crushed following the arrival of a friend of the Marie Antoinette, an illness brings her to her knees, Sebastian is finally snatched away from her and her origins suddenly become less of a mystery) that have her meandering back and forth across Europe, a volatile continent in a tumultuous age.

Sarmiento rests the weight of the film on Laura’s shoulders, sketching out a feminine (and feminist) narrative that she acknowledges was not present in Saboga’s original screenplay. What in Ruiz’s hands would in presumably have been awash with stylistic flourishes and oscillations in time (and pace) is bathed in a cool theatrical clarity in Sarmiento’s. Always eschewing the constraints of realism and naturalness and focused on the vagaries of history and its protagonists, the film flaunts a delectable anachronistic quality that won’t be to everyone’s taste, but that holds a great deal of charm for those able to forget about the way things happen in real life.

 Paulo Branco, a frequent collaborator of both Sarmiento and Ruiz and a titan of European cinema, produced the film in trademark style for his own companies Leopardo Filmes (Portugal) and Alfama Films (France), and we can detect certain parallels, both technical and creative, with much of his earlier work. Alfama Films is also managing international sales.

(Translated from Spanish)

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