The Movie Waffler SXSW 2023 Review - TOBACCO BARNS | The Movie Waffler


Tobacco Barns review
A summer in rural Spain as experienced by four generations.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Rocío Mesa

Starring: Ada Mar, Vera Centenera, Tamara Arias

Tobacco Barns poster

The subject of the modern world's encroachment on rural Spain has been tackled by several Spanish filmmakers recently. Joining the likes of Jonathan Cenzual Burley (El Pastor), Carla Simón (Alcarras) and Rodrigo Sorogoyen (The Beasts) is writer-director Rocío Mesa, an American-based filmmaker who draws on her childhood in Southern Spain's Granada region for her feature debut, the charming Tobacco Barns.

At the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountain range lies the film's setting, a tranquil village where the locals have long made their living from farming tobacco. It's an area that's gradually disappearing as land developers buy up the farms and fill up the land with tracts of homes. Over the course of a summer - one that is troublingly arid with one character noting the lack of frosted tips on the distant mountains – four generations gather. There's seven-year-old Vera (Vera Centenera), spending the summer with her mother (Tamara Arias) and her grandparents. Across the village we find teenager Nieves (Ada Mar), who works on her parents' tobacco farm all day and parties with her boyfriend and her boisterous friends all night.

Tobacco Barns review

With these four generations, all played in convincing fashion by non-professional actors plucked from the area, Mesa suggests life in this part of the world goes through four stages. Stage One is Wonder, as expressed by the young Vera, for whom every morning presents a new adventure. She finds nothing but enchantment in the area, and is fascinated by the giant structures that give the film its title. Stage Two is Anxiety, represented by Nieves, who longs for nothing more than to get away from her stifling home town. Stage Three is Resentment, seen in the form of Nieve's father, who embodies everything Nieves fears she might become, a middle-aged man depressed by the cards life has dealt him. The final stage is Acceptance, a state achieved by Vera's grandparents, who probably went through the previous two stages for much of their adult life but have now come to view life through the same lens as Vera. For them, every day is another gift.

What separates Vera and the other children of her age from the adults is that they can see a "monster." Created by DDT, the Spanish FX company whose work can be seen in the likes of Pan's Labyrinth and A Monster Calls, two films with similar coming-of-age themes, the creature is a Jim Henson-esque creation that resembles a giant bird with huge tobacco leaves for feathers and branches for eyebrows. Rather than fleeing in terror as an adult might, the kids see only wonder in this creature, and follow it as it wheezes its way through the local woods, unseen by adults who have become too distracted by the weight of reality.

Tobacco Barns review

Mesa seems to suggest that life beats our childhood sense of wonder out of us, that it's only late in life that we once again begin to appreciate the simple joy of being alive. There's a very affecting scene in which Vera's grandparents take a seat outside and attempt to complete a magazine crossword. It's an everyday moment for people like this, and yet its simplicity is overwhelmingly romantic. How many couples will make it to that age and still find joy in each other's company in such a manner? The two amateur actors, whose names I'm unfortunately unable to find anywhere online, play the scene beautifully, with a natural ease that suggests they may have played a role in improvising its creation. I wouldn't be surprised to learn they're a real life couple.

The bulk of the film concerns Nieves, wonderfully played by Mar in what might be the most striking performance by a non-professional teenage actress since Katie Jarvis in Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank. There's something of the young Penelope Cruz about Mar, not just in her movie star looks but in how she's able to effortlessly convey a simultaneous mix of feistiness and vulnerability. For a first-timer, Mar's work here is remarkable, especially in two key scenes, one involving her reaction to an admission from her mother, the other a moment where she confesses her discontent to her dismayed boyfriend. If Mar doesn't go on to become a professional performer it will be cinema's loss.

Tobacco Barns review

As a director, Mesa makes an equally impressive debut. Like her leading lady, she's able to express two different states at once, portraying her childhood home as both a place of wonder and stifling confinement. As the narrative progresses the tobacco barns of the title morph from sanctuaries to prisons and back again. With its lack of opportunities for anyone who doesn't want to commit their life to working the land, you can see why Mesa left the region. And yet the way she captures its beauty suggests that it may well call her back at some point in the future, if it hasn't been bulldozed into oblivion by then.

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