***Warning: This Review Contains Spoilers***
Summer 1993 is a beautiful Spanish film charting the emotional journey of a six year old girl in the aftermath of her mother’s death; set against the backdrop of rural 90s Catalonia.
There are a number of feelings and nuances explored by way of examining the human condition through the eyes of Frida; our six year old protagonist. The child gaze, is masterfully handled in a way that doesn’t dip into the usual tropes of sympathy and sentimentality - considering what she has been through. Cinematically; the film is almost entirely shot from her eye level - the camera follows her as she wanders through the house, and her every move without seemingly ever being acknowledged or voyeuristic. This unobtrusive and documentary-style approach reminds me of the French Film ‘Etre et Avoir’ which took the festival circuit by storm when it premiered back in 2002. There are not many films that depict childhood so honestly as Summer 1993. It is worth noting, Spain has produced some of cinema’s most resonant child characters including Spanish Actress Ana Torrent in The Spirit of the Beehive (El espiritu de la colemena).
Frida is rushed off during the night and sent away from her Barcelona home, when she arrives she is unsettled, and silent. Disturbed and confused; Frida declines the family’s warm-doings to her - in the form of milk and biscuits, and rejects playing with the family’s child - Anna, who is younger than Frida. The household is strict and seemingly uncaring; with the father, who is Frida’s uncle, showing a slight leniency to her.
When Frida unpacks her backpack of teddy bears and soft toys; Anna reaches out to grab one only for Frida to refuse to let Anna touch them. This, and a number of other exchanges between Anna and Frida, reveals to us Frida has a maternal quality to the way she commands herself and her interactions with the house. She refuses to be told what to do by her new mother and father whilst bossing around Anna to do various chores for her, and almost giving ‘life lessons’ to her as a growing woman in the world when they’re playing outside during the long summery days. What comes of this is a slow, underlying acquaintanceship between the two girls that doesn’t really develop into a friendship but a means for Frida to motivate her own understanding of dealing with her grief. Although loosely realised; and perhaps as an overtly examined opinion of her character - it could be said Frida’s mother lives within her.
She feels emotionally disturbed because of the grief, and adding to that, being displaced - in a world that is completely alien to her and isolated from the hustle and bustle of Barcelona. We don’t see too much of her life in Barcelona in the beginning of the film; because the events unfold so quickly we already begin with Frida’s departure. These feelings are very raw and vivid; and by using a situation of grief - Carla Simon lets us access the imagination and mind of a young child experiencing pain and confusion. She feels all these emotions yet is unable to comprehend the cause of her mother’s death innately due to her age - when she asks her Aunt-In-Law about how she died, later on during the film, she explains to Frida in a way she can understand stating that it was a virus that couldn’t be cured.
One of a handful of poignant scenes in the film is in garden where Frida is sunbathing on a lounger, outgrown for her size. In this scene; she puts lipstick on her cheeks to blush them, an endearing portrait of what have might have been her mother or someone she aspires to be - an iconic shot in the film is of her rosy-cheeks; with the buildup of pieces of lipstick on her cheek as she scrapes it on. Anna interrupts this process only for Frida to scold her, saying: “Be a good girl and let me rest”. Reminded me of Lolita.
When the family take Frida to a local dirt playground to play with the local children; she grounds herself watching on as the children play football in the distance. Trying to integrate she finds the children not wanting to play with her; tagging her ‘it’ and fleeing from her when she tries to catch them. She trips over and scrapes her knee; with one of the kids coming over to her to ask what the matter was. The mother of the child runs over to scold him and tells him not to touch her - and what follows is a subtle realisation of internal defeat and sadness in her eyes that will captivate audiences, it certainly captivated mine.
Frida’s innocent-nature combined with a conscious dare-devil arrogance happen on two further occasions; when she is asked by her aunt-in-law to retrieve a Lettuce from the Garden she runs to the allotment and picks up a Cabbage instead - windmilling herself back and calling out from out the back of the house assurance she will pick up the right one. Frida’s Grandma and Grandpa arrive by surprise to stay for a while which causes a minor frictious household as they too reel from the death of their daughter’s death. Atypically from a contemporary Spanish of this type; there isn’t a sense of an overburdening favouritism towards religion or depiction of faith as a central theme - nor is the way the film is executed structurally anything original, there is a slight nod to Christianity when her dying mother asks her to pray each night by reciting The Lord’s Prayer. One night, Frida steals away to the bottom of the garden where she comes across a statuette of the Virgin Mary; where she places a packet of cigarettes and sends them off to her mother in her thoughts.
Within the second half of the film; there is a stronger underlying sense of self-rejection where she causes unintended harm to Anna on two occasions. On the first; Frida is reluctant to take Anna with her into the woods to explore and begrudgingly makes her hold hands before walking into the woods. Frida tells Anna to stay by some trees while she ventures further into ‘uncharted territory’, almost as if making the coast clear and highlighting a child’s imagination when it comes to their interpretation of the scale of the world and what’s out there, even if only a few hundred metres from the villa’s back garden. The mother and father in worry call out for “Anna”, repeatedly only to hear no call - Frida rushes back to try and find where she told her to remain safe but she is not there. Frida finds Anna with a hurt arm and procedes to come back to the house together - with Frida getting severely told off. Frida blames Anna for venturing off further ensuring that she remained safe in her company throughout.
On the second occasion; Frida is swimming in the local public lake; Anna watches her, smiling. Frida convinces Anna to come in for a swim - Anna climbs into the lake; standing on a shallow bed of rocks, walking forward she is unsure if the water is deeper. Frida is confident that she can swim so convinces Anna to make the steps forward to come closer to her, she falls into the deep part of the lake and is clearly drowning. Frida’s sudden look of anxiety develops extremely quickly as soon as she saw her flailing. The Dad realises and jumps in to save her - seeing that she’s drowning.
In one of the last exchanges between Anna and Frida while Frida is packing her back in the middle of the night ready to leave; she tiptoes into the kitchen where they find each other. Anna asks why Frida is leaving; only to hear the most endearing response - “Because no one loves me here”, with Anna responding “I love you”. Frida then proceeds into the night calling out “Mummy” (in Spanish) and we follow her through with a handheld shot one of her face with a torch on it, in an partly-existential lapse of time where Frida is in complete despair.
Laia Artigas’ performance is extraordinary as Frida - the kind of perfectly matched personality with a character that formed Natalie Portman in one of her career’s most defining roles in Leon: The Professional. Frida’s character is explored in great detail; with great maturity and as said before; with a great sense of realism without pandering to the sentimentality. The mother has a similar charm to Victoria’s Laia Costa. It is more than apparent; that the film is an exploration of the director’s own parental loss - having lost her mother at the age of 6 - which can be deduced alone from the director’s birth to the time the film is set in. Simon offers us a portrait and self-reflection which allows us into the sensitive life of the filmmaker through a fictional lens.
About the Filmmaker
The film was written and directed by Carlo Simon, born in a small Catalan village in 1986. She chose film to portray the complexity of the human condition and family relationships in particular. She graduated in Audiovisual Communication in Barcelona after an exchange year at the University of California. After an MA TV Fiction course; she enrolled at the London Film School where she directed Born Positive and Lipstick which screened at numerous international film festivals.
About Summer 1993 at LFF
The film Summer 1993 is part of the First Feature Competition at this year’s BFI London Film Festival; which I am honoured to be working on as a member of the Young Jury, working with a panel of young experts ranging from young film theorists and researchers to the practitioners of tomorrow. I’ll also be sharing with you my thoughts on Beast, a British thriller with a heady insanity of sexual obsession set amidst a primed witch-hunt in bleak Jersey and Winter Brothers, a savagely beautiful rendering of the hermetic world of brothers and limestone quarry workers in Iceland - later on this week.
General Public Tickets for Summer 1993 can be purchased on Thursday 14th September 2017 and will be available to watch at the following dates & times:
Tuesday 10th October 2017
Thursday 12th October 2017
Sunday 15th October 2017