¡Olé! Ghent Film Festival celebrates the cinema of Spain


Belgium’s largest film festival kicks off this week with more than 100 feature films, dozens of special guests, the World Soundtrack awards and a focus on Spanish cinema

More than Almodóvar

If the only Spanish films you’ve ever seen were made by Pedro Almodóvar, then you owe it to yourself to attend the Ghent Film Festival this year. Almodóvar is a master, a legend, an auteur, etc etc, but how many other names of contemporary Spanish screenwriters/directors do you know off the top of your head?

Exactly. Time to check out the Focus on Spanish Cinema section of the programme. Spain is the festival’s guest country this year, so, along with the several new features are a smattering of classic films.

A special Tribute to Agustí Villaronga means that six of the director’s feature films (which is most of them) are on the programme, and the man himself will be at several screenings to talk about them. While comparisons to Almodóvar are easy – both men are gay, criticise religion and produce provocative work that include sexual trauma – Villaronga has made far fewer films that are much more difficult to watch.

His first movie, In a Glass Cage, sickened film-goers from the first scene: A boy tied up and tortured by a Nazi paedophile. Later, the tables are turned when the man winds up in an iron lung, and one of his caregivers is a previous victim.

Not for the squeamish

The 1986 film – described by The New York Times as “not for the squeamish” and “unforgivably hateful in its cruelty” – would colour Villaronga’s work to follow, particularly on the international scene. That was only partially unfair: His entire genre is indeed challenging in its visceral tragedy.

But it’s also brutally honest in its examination of what human beings are capable – and sometimes all too willing – to do to achieve total ideological victory. In A Glass Cage is on the Ghent programme, and there are other stand-outs that illustrate Villaronga’s preoccupation with the Spanish Civil War. El Mar (The Sea) sees three 20-somethings in a sanitorium reliving civil war nightmares from their shared childhood, while Black Bread explores the fallout when a boy in post-civil war Catalonia discovers dead bodies in the forest.

Other Spanish films worth checking out are Petra, in which a young artist spends a residency with an aged callous sculptor and both get more than they bargained for (pictured above), and The Days to Come, in which an unexpected pregnancy raises nothing but doubt and fear in both mother and father. The latter film stars a real-life couple who were in fact expecting, and was shot in real time.

In the Spanish classics section, there is naturally a Luis Buñuel, and a good one. In Viridiana, a young woman about to take her final vows is urged to visit her dying uncle in his big country home. If you know Buñuel, you know nothing good can come of this.

And, yes, there is an Almodóvar, but just the one: Matador, in which Antonio Banderas and a younger protégé discover the ultimate orgasm – through murder.

What else should I see?

You’d also be wise this year to look at the Flemish movies on offer, as there are several intriguing options. Ghost Tropic is Bas Devos’ third film and will possibly prove to be his best, as an older Muslim woman falls asleep on the metro and must make her way through a Brussels night filled with quirky and unpredictable strangers who pepper her path home.

Also premiering at the festival is Muidhond, the new movie by Patrice Toye (Little Black Spiders). Based on the book by Dutch author and psychologist Inge Schilperoord, it’s a tense but thoughtful story of a 25-year-old man struggling against dangerous sexual proclivities.

And while it’s not a Belgian film, The Mustang stars our own Matthias Schoenaerts. He is getting – as usual – raves for his performance as a prisoner entering a programme in which he must learn to break wild horses. It’s in English and is the festival’s closing film.

Of the rest of the vast programme of movies, don’t hesitate to consider these:

Amazing Grace Film Fest Gent is home to the World Soundtrack Awards and therefore always has a special section devoted to concert films and documentaries about musicians. The best of the bunch by far this year is Amazing Grace, an electrifying, emotional 1970s journey through a two-night live recording session with the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin.

The Unknown Saint If you’re running from the police through the desert and need to ditch the bag of money you’ve stolen, where do you put it? You bury it in the sand, of course, and, in the case of our anti-hero in this Moroccan film, you add a cross to make the mound look legitimate. But what to do when you come back after a long prison sentence to find that a shrine has been built on top of it? A hilarious and poignant look at faith and, well, bad luck.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael Perhaps no single person shaped the course of film criticism as much as Pauline Kael, who famously wrote reviews for The New Yorker from 1967 to 1991. With the stated goal of moving the genre from an academic level to a conversational one, she was nonetheless a brilliant thinker and writer, striking the perfect balance between expertise and familiarity. This documentary (pictured above) looks at her life and work, which is interesting enough, but I have an ulterior motive for suggesting it to you: The editor of Flanders Today – which would be me – is moderating a panel on film criticism in a digital world following the screening on 15 October. See you there!

I’ve seen 10 movies, what now?

The public is welcome at the World Soundtrack Awards, which honours the best scores and songs in international cinema over the last year. Many renowned composers will be present at the event, including those whose work will be played by the Brussels Philharmonic: Marco Beltrami (Free Solo, A Quiet Place, The Hurt Locker) and Tamar-kali (Mudbound, Come Sunday, The Lie).

The Philharmonic also gets into the Halloween swing of things with Hollywood Nightmares: Scary Symphonic Scores, during which it will play iconic music and soundscapes from such films as Psycho, Dracula and King Kong.

And should your Dutch be up to it, Flemish directors with movies at the festival are featured at the Daily Talkies. These free chats at De Krook library give you a bit of background on the making of the movie. Patrice Toye (Muidhond) and Bas Devos (Ghost Tropic), for instance, are both on the programme.

Film Fest Gent, 8-18 October, across Ghent

Els Debbaut contributed to this story