How do you solve a problem like Marina?

If this well-intentioned comedy, based – one assumes – rather loosely on the early life of Spanish premier league player Valdo Lopez, was a musical, that would be the question its opening number posed with regards to its familiarly unconventional nun protagonist, the sunglasses-wearing, Walkman-slinging Sister Marina, one small consonant away from her gaily singing predecessor. The answer, moreover, would be as unsurprising as its selection to introduce this year’s selection of Spanish and Latin American film at HOME, the 29th ¡Viva!.

Which is not to say that Llenos de gracia‘s comforting yarn of a ragtag group of disaffected orphans brought together as a football team by the aforementioned maverick Bride of Christ (while, I might add, the future of their school hangs in the balance through the machinations of a Machiavellian priest) is not without its merits, but rather to acknowledge that its tropes seem so familiar that, were it not for its subtitles, it could almost be British. Indeed, if one overlooks the frankness with which the film indulges the hormonal monomania of Sebas, one of its often broadly-drawn gang of teenage rapscallions, it’s barely a bus stop away from the likes of early Cliff Richard vehicle, The Young Ones.

Llenos de gracia. Used with permission from HOME.

Llenos de Gracia. Used with permission from HOME.

Setting aside the questions both of its suitability as an opening night premiere, and how representative it might be of Spanish language film-making as a whole, it emerges eventually as a solid piece of work, if one exhibiting somewhat more in the way of championship competence than premiership flair. With a playing time of almost two hours, moreover, its extra time is not necessarily to its advantage, and there’s a definite sense that its intersecting dramas might have been drawn more tautly if pared down to a match-friendly 90 minutes.

That said, a number of its set pieces are well-worked, and there are some good individual performances. Carmen Machi as Marina brings warmth and nuance to a part that otherwise might have merely conformed to type, wordlessly conveying the shift in her resolve when she decides not to retrieve her stolen Walkman. Likewise, Nuria Gonzalez is credibly world-weary in her role as a Mother Superior carrying the full weight of her responsibilities.

Extending the metaphor further, there are a number of opportunities that are missed, when through an open goal. There’s real glee, for instance, in the scenes in which the orphans exaggerate their Dickensian predicament to pluck on the heartstrings of shop owners and bishops, and a sense that more could have been made of this subversive spirit.

One moment, though, has the poetry of Eric Cantona at his most sublime. In an otherwise discursive excursion to a funfair, the young Valdo, played by with watchful gravity by Dairon Tallon, steals a kiss in the dream house of the Hall of Mirrors, a scene that lifts him out of the prosody of the plot and, in doing so, reminds the viewer of cinema’s own capacity to do more than merely reflect the everyday. It’s the one time that the ‘grace’ the film’s title invokes seems something other than ironic, and hints at how director Roberto Bueso might himself develop along less formulaic lines in the future.

Modelo shows on March 23 as part of the Viva! Festival. Image used with permission from HOME.

Modelo, part of the ¡Viva! Festival. Image used with permission from HOME.

The beauty of ¡Viva!, of course, lies in the breadth of its programming. If Llenos de gracia may for some be more a tale of the conventional than the convent, the month beyond offers films which take less familiar paths to more surprising destinations. You may not have to climb ev’ry mountain to find them.

By Desmond Bullen

Main image used with permission from HOME


¡Viva! Spanish & Latin American Film Festival is running until March 30, 2023. For more information, click here.