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Review: Light Falls Vertical


- Efthymia Zymvragaki explores her own painful past in parallel with the story of a man in search of redemption who reached out to her to ask her to make a film about how he abused his wife

Review: Light Falls Vertical

In her first feature-length documentary, Light Falls Vertical [+see also:
film profile
, Crete-born, Barcelona-based director Efthymia Zymvragaki uses a current story of an abusive man to finally process the pain of her own abuse at the hands of her father. It makes for a bumpy, painful viewing experience despite the dreamy island atmosphere. The film is screening at Biografilm in Bologna after its world premiere at IDFA and a string of showings at other festivals.

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Zymvragaki's gentle voice-over leads us through this complex story of fathers and husbands who lack the emotional capacity to treat their families with love and care, but who are also painfully aware of their ineptitude. The director opens the film with images of Tenerife and her memories of leaving Crete, which, she says, wasn't a departure, but an escape.

She is in Tenerife because a middle-aged man called Ernesto reached out to her, asking her to make a film about him. Almost 40 years ago, he left his wife and son because he was afraid he would hurt them and turn his son into a version of himself, which is what happened with himself and his father. He intends to find redemption through the art of cinema and wants the film to be a fictional one. The only request he has is for his girlfriend, Juliana, to always be present during filming. They set up an arrangement where whenever he descends into a violent crisis, she is to leave and not come back until he calls her.

Baptised as Juan Ernesto, he has compartmentalised his drive for abuse and humiliation: Juan is the bad, violent man, and Ernesto is the kind, loving one. Zymvragaki creates a couple of fictionalised scenes that portray this inner struggle, but she prefers to make a documentary about him. So, a part of Light Falls Vertical is a psycho-drama in which he recreates the scenes of his childhood, playing himself as a boy, his father and his mother. Another part sees him "directing" a fiction film: Zymvragaki hires three actors to play his role, and his pointers to them are the most viscerally painful element of the whole enterprise. He describes how he mistreated his wife out of a totally misguided jealousy, beating her, threatening her with a knife (which is what his father did to his wife) and raping her if, in a jealous rage, he didn’t manage to find another woman to have sex with.

The main overarching element is Zymvragaki's own story, which she directly juxtaposes with Ernesto's narrative. The key point is that neither of these men knew how to love their families, even though they achingly wanted to. Zymvragaki's father comes across as an emotionally stunted, horribly graceless and awkward person, like a bull in a china shop. On the other hand, we see how tender Ernesto is with Juliana, full of love for her but blaming himself for who he is. There is an intense neediness, an almost manic drive in his quest for redemption.

Far from judging these men, Zymvragaki displays a sad understanding and empathy for them, alone in their emotional deficiency. This is reflected in the way she explores the two islands with her camera: there is a feeling of desolation in the handheld, gently bobbing images of the sea, the rocks and vegetation that she often films through the gaping windows of old structures. There is never anyone in these scenes, as if the islands were deserted. The lapping waves, wind and cicadas never sounded this lonely. The sharp, metallic strings and twanging acoustic guitars in the score further cement isolation as a thorny, unmanageable central emotion of the film.

Light Falls Vertical is a co-production between Spain's Gris Medio, KaBoGa art & films and Novena Nube, and Germany's THURNFILM.

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