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IFFR 2023 Bright Future

Review: La mala familia


- Spanish directors Nacho A Villar and Luis Rojo deliver a powerful piece of naturalistic cinema that immerses us in the world of protagonists subjected to systemic inequalities

Review: La mala familia

The first feature by Spanish music video and TV ad directors Nacho A Villar and Luis Rojo, of the collective BRBR, La mala familia [+see also:
film profile
, which has had its international premiere in IFFR’s Bright Future section, is a powerful piece that addresses systemic inequalities in society in a naturalistic manner. Billed as a documentary, it actually features non-professionals playing versions of themselves, but its effect is so raw that such formal distinctions become irrelevant.

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The film opens with what seems like the climax of a rowdy night on the streets of Madrid. But already in the next segment, we learn that it was actually the aftermath of a crime. Switching from a handheld 16:9 and street lighting to a static, crisp 4:3, the directors take us to the courtroom, where six young men are being sentenced for assault with a deadly weapon. The sentence is suspended as long as they pay for damages and reparations, but one of them, Andrés, who is the closest to a central figure that the film has, still ends up in prison.

Then the doc takes us a few years into the future, where we see in mobile-phone video messages what our heroes are up to. Most of them are working hard, menial jobs to pay off the sentence, and when Andrés finally gets weekend leave, they organise a reunion at a reservoir out of town on a hot summer’s day.

Here, the visual style branches out as we meet the extended familia, a larger group of youngsters. Filmed with a static camera with a hazy quality of image, they sit around and talk about their lives and the injustices they have suffered, mostly at the hands of the police and the legal system. And as they barbecue the meat, drink, smoke and cajole in the water, a more naturalistic, handheld camera captures the camaraderie and the love they have for each other.

In the dreamy, post-lunch nap segment, the camera slowly traverses their bodies, closing in on their skins of all possible colours, their scars, tattoos and piercings. The crickets in the sound design are louder than the film's only musical theme, which sounds like a heavily processed loop of an old recording of an orchestra. Before Andrés reads out loud a letter for his friends that he never sent, tears welling up in his eyes in the film's most poignant sequence, we reflect on the class and racial inequalities that led them to the situation they are in.

Most of them are immigrants from Latin America, but even if some of them are not black or brown, they are still a primary target for the police. Life in the "hood" and years of hustling, petty crime, drug dealing and addiction have marked them as clearly as a brand on the skin, and it is easy to grasp the vicious circle that most of them will probably remain caught in for the rest of their lives.

The directors' decision to focus only on the protagonists themselves and immerse us in their world means we lose many details to ellipses, but the trade-off is to our advantage. Near the end of the day at the reservoir, some resentments surface, and the most bitter guy gets worked up enough to break the fourth wall, which actually strengthens the authenticity of the film. Its emotional power is undeniable, and it transcends the pitfalls of the formal boundaries set up by the directors.

La mala familia is a co-production by Spanish companies Tasio, Blur and Icónica, and France's BIRTH.

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