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BERLINALE 2024 Forum

Review: The Undergrowth

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- BERLINALE 2024: Canarian director Macu Machín’s debut feature is an enigmatic documentation of familial bonds and their contradictions

Review: The Undergrowth
Elsa Machín and Carmen Machín in The Undergrowth

The story goes, a man encountered an injured pig on his way through Las Palmas. Initially, he walked past, but then he heard squealing and the pig spoke with a human voice, promising him the whole land ahead of him, if he could get some help. Such a fable opens The Undergrowth [+see also:
interview: Macu Machín
film profile
]
, the debut feature by Spanish filmmaker Macu Machín, premiering at this year’s Berlinale, in the Forum section. Machín turns the camera on her own family – her mother and her two sisters, to be precise – in a mix of verité and staging to explore the complexities of emotional articulation after a lifetime of repression.

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After 20 years, it’s time for Carmen, Elsa and Maura to divide up the inheritance, a plot of land near the island volcano. The purpose of their reunion is clear: a decision must be made. But how to arrive at an understanding, when you struggle to express your feelings? Machín captures the paradoxes of being a family well, with a slow-paced film shot in persistent close-ups on ageing faces, hands and objects; where you can be on the cusp of knowing each other’s most intimate aspects, but never quite bridging the gap. The Machín sisters speak through silences and never raise their voices; they progressively seem to learn how to talk to one another as the film unfolds. Perhaps this has more to do with the particular circumstances of the shoot, rather than a premeditated plan or a decision made in the editing room. Still, when memories resurface, it feels like another, much freer kind of world illuminates the syllables that make them up.

Farm animals, almond trees and domestic fireplaces are all markers of the forgotten, idyllic past once shared by the sisters. Today, the debilitated Maura and Elsa (who’s become Maura’s full-time carer) join Carmen, the caretaker of their childhood home, only to encounter things they’ve failed to remember. This dialectic of remembering and forgetting is then intensified by the quaking earth, a distant rumbling and the flaming skies: the sisters quarrel, the volcano erupts.

The Machíns’ house is surrounded by mountains and forests, far from any other dwelling, which makes the audience’s involvement even more enrapturing when the camera roams around both in daytime and at night, to explore all that hangs in the air, however ephemeral it may be. Cinematographers José Alayón and Zhana Yordanova, most of the time, keep the sisters frames apart, on the one hand allowing us to give each one our full attention, and on the other, signalling the rift between them and the rivalry it engenders.

Even when utilising the intimacy of filming those closest to her, Macu Machín manages to retreat when necessary and allow enough distance for the family to use the film space in whatever way they might need: be it a battleground or a safe place for consolation. A very promising debut, The Undergrowth becomes a touching exploration of familial dynamics, unearthing the ambivalence dormant in every silence and every gesture that the sisters exchange.

The Undergrowth was produced by Spain’s El Viaje Films, and Split Screen handles the world sales.

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