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El Bola

I am not especially proficient at languages, but every few years I wish I could learn a new one. Not so I could travel more (though that would be nice), but to better understand the various movies I see. A few years back when Iranian cinema was exploding, I briefly contemplated learning Farsi. And lately I've been thinking of boning up on that high school Spanish of so long ago.

That's because Spanish-language films are some of the most interesting and exciting anywhere in the world right now. The overheated Almodovar has given birth to the brilliant Guillermo del Toro (Devil's Backbone), the mysterious Alejandro Amenabar (The Others), the blistering Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Amores Perros), and the provocative Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien). It's not just Mexico and Spain, either. The word from various film festivals is that, with cheaper digital technology, a renaissance is taking place in Argentina and other South American countries, though it might take some time before it shows up here.

The most prominent Spanish-language directors, for all their differences, share a florid style that emphasizes striking visuals and hot-as-fire
narratives. But that's not true of all Spanish-language cinema, and this week Chicago audiences have a chance to see another side of it. El Bola is a beautiful, touching movie about two boys and their friendship.

El Bola, which translates as Pellet, is a twelve-year-old boy from a middle-class Spanish home. His father runs a hardware store, and the boy spends much of his free time with friends down by the railroad tracks. There they play a particularly dangerous game of chicken with the trains that race past. Except for those brief bursts of excitement, Pellet's life is pretty normal and pretty boring.

Then one day Alfredo comes to school. Alfredo is also twelve years old but of a more independent spirit. He smokes for starters, though he's responsible enough to put out the cigarette when the principal asks him. Pellet is intrigued by this combination of free spirit and obedience, so he follows Alfredo home one day. Alfredo is uncertain at first and unwilling to let down his guard (just as twelve-year-old boys are around the world), but the two soon overcome their initial wariness and strike up a friendship. Pellet comes to Alfredo's house, they spend a day at the amusement park, and Alfredo joins the group at the tracks though he steadfastly refuses to play.

The first half of El Bola parallels the routine of the two boys. Nothing much exciting happens, but the movie still holds our interest as we learn more about Pellet and Alfredo and, just as importantly, more about their families. Pellet's father Mariano (played by Manuel Moron) is a stern taskmaster who rarely smiles but does let his boy go out for the day with Alfredo. Alfredo's father Jose (Alberto Jimenez) works at a tattoo parlor (a place that particularly intrigues Pellet) and is one of the friendlier fathers you'll see in movies, though he knows how to discipline as well.

Alfredo's family is particularly interesting, as it's not clear if his parents are actually married. Alfredo's godfather dies of AIDS early in the
movie, and Jose's sexual orientation is never spelled out. Is he married to Alfredo's mother, or is this a relationship of convenience? The fact that the movie doesn't need to spell this out is typical of its understated approach. It lets the audience think for itself and, in the end, subtly
argues that the marriage certificate isn't as important as the love that's obviously present.

The plot picks up in the second half, when it becomes clear that Pellet is being abused by his father. Now, what is Alfredo's responsibility? What can Jose do, and what should he do? In contrast to other Spanish-language directors, this narrative shift is handled without histrionics. There's even a long car ride involving Jose and Mariano in which not a voice is raised. This doesn't mean the film is unemotional. In fact, the even-handed tone makes the stark emotions even more powerful, and the small scene of violence is more brutal for its rarity.

The film's success hinges on its two young actors, and their performances--Juan Jose Ballesta as El Bola and Pablo Galan as Alfredo--are
genuinely fantastic. I've long held a theory that European child actors are so much better than their American counterparts because they don't spend all their time auditioning for sit coms and commercials. As with Galan, many child actors in Europe are "untrained," which only means that they haven't learned to overact.

Ballesta looks like a young Jonathan Taylor Thomas (the cute kid from "Home Improvement"), but with sad, sad eyes. His expressions of joy when he's with Alfredo's family is perfect, as is the fear he shows when he confronts his father. And Galan has a sturdiness we don't usually see in twelve-year-old boys, which fits his part perfectly. Alberto Jimenez, as Jose, has a charm that translates well to the big screen. We can understand why Pellet would prefer him as a father figure.

I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that El Bola is the first movie of a new concept called Film Movement. Started by the people who created the wonderful Shooting Gallery series, it's another attempt to get small independent and foreign films out of the big cities and into the rest of
the country. Those of us in Chicago are fortunate to be able to see it on the big screen (it plays for a week at the Gene Siskel Film Center,
beginning this Friday), but Film Movement has created a way for others to see it as well. Their website,, has all the details. El Bola is a worthy beginning to this worthy project.   

by J. Robert Parks 12/15/2002



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