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Edinburgh Spanish Film Festival: Backroads (review)

Backroads, the 1997 film from Emilio Martinez Lazaro, presented as part of ESFF, deals with the simultaneous growing pains of a young man and his country

Fifteen-year old Felipe (Fernando Ramallo) and his entrepreneurial father, widower and helpless ladies’ man Lozano (Antonio Resines), barrel down the Spanish coastline in their black Citroen DS with precious little else to their name in this novelistic coming-of-age tale adapted from the work of writer Ignacio Martinez De Pison, released in 1997 but set in 1974. 

Both man and boy are rudderless. Felipe has just been expelled from yet another school for his annual act of rebellion, and his acting out is in no small part down to an unmoored existence helmed by a grieving man whose every exploit has led to financial ruin. Ramallo gives a suitably exasperated performance against Resines, who switches between begrudging guardian and espouser of moral lessons as if behind a pulpit. Only, his allegiances are not with God but with money and women. Lozano presents himself as a successful talent agent to singer and new girlfriend Estrella (Miriam Díaz-Aroca), who soon leaves him when she sees through the charade.

When Lozano’s latest infatuations collide, provoking the young and erratic Paquita (Maribel Verdú of eventual Y Tu Mama Tambien fame) into stealing an empty cash register, father and son find themselves plunged increasingly into a life of poverty from which they cannot turn back. Lozano has a previous conviction; a light slap on the wrist is unlikely if caught, even for a victimless crime such as this one.

Set against the backdrop of transition-era Spain at the time of Francisco Franco’s death (by which point the country had been under his dictatorship for the last thirty-five years), Paquita embodies a generation; the first to experience the sexual liberation brought on by the change of regime. Generationally, she sits awkwardly between her lover and his boy, who is albeit no doubt closer to her in age. However, this does not make the scenes in which she teaches the young man how to kiss while his father is out, or wordlessly places his hand on her breast, any less eyebrow-raising in the cold light of 2023. When the two part ways by publicly making out on a bus, Lozano’s line that she ‘seems more like your girl than mine’ breaks the tension but the scene is a reminder that we are watching a film set almost a half-century ago.

Not wanting to suggest that this is presented as the norm, the scene rather serves to further the themes of difficult transition when liberation in all forms – sexual, fiscal, political – happens suddenly and with little precedent in a nation’s living memory. Members of Felipe’s generation would go on to recall that the advent of colour TV in the country meant that their memories are themselves split into the grayscale of Francoist Spain and the exciting, invigorating hues of after. Yet staring through the glass of the AV store, Felipe’s first look at the new technology is of broadcasts of protests. The police would go on to earn the respect of those they served, says De Pison in a Q&A after the film, but on the screen which should symbolise a hopeful future we see their brutality as-yet unchecked.

Like the fifteen-year-old at its centre, Backroads is brooding and gradually sheds itself of its innocence. What starts as a jovial two-hander of a road movie – the characters clean behind the ears and in their shiniest shoes despite their lack of direction – paints an increasingly unflinching picture of freewheeling it as reality sets in for Felipe and Lozano. Both must reckon with some of the most difficult decisions of their lives as their fortunes change with the landscape.

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The 10th Edinburgh Spanish Film Festival runs until Friday October 20th.

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