Growing up poor and powerless is never easy and Judge Bill Gibron got a clear indication of such circumstances thanks to this evocative, if flawed, Spanish film.
Three Bored Teens. One Deadly Hot Summer.
Rai, Javi, and Manu are three teenage boys living in a depressed slum/suburb of Madrid, Spain. It's summer, and the unbearable heat has most of the citizenry headed to the sea shore for a well-earned and relaxing holiday. But for these kids, there is no relief. Their parents are unable to afford the daily staples, let alone a fanciful family holiday. As they roam the streets looking for ways to earn money (selling flowers stolen from the local graveyard, petty thefts from neighborhood merchants), they dream of a day when it "rains coins." Yet their individual circumstances at home seem destined to drive these young men to tragic ends: Manu's father is hiding a secret about his supposedly successful big brother; Javi's parents are splitting up over money; and Rai's absentee guardians and personal impatience will lead him to befriend some of the Barrio's more notorious figures—and face the potential criminal consequences that come with such a choice.
Not everyone's coming of age is compelling. Sometimes, a slice of life is just that—a dull snapshot of everyday existence. Initially, Fernando Leon de Aranoa's Barrio suffers from such a drab sense of direction. It wants to highlight the turmoil and pitfalls that plague the impoverished middle classes of Spain, but only in a manner that seems meaningless and meandering. The movie makes no bones about its intent; it sets it all out for our critical consideration—three rather unlikable youths, wandering aimlessly around a dirty, dour Madrid, each one obsessed with sex and money while avoiding their miserable, slightly soap opera-ish home lives. Add a touch of unnecessary pathos, some underage ogling, and frequent run-ins with the law, and you've got something that's hard to celebrate, let alone enjoy. For the first 40 minutes or so, Barrio truly does try our patience. While we see snippets of '70s teen dream classics like Over the Edge and Bless the Beasts and Children in these aimless, rebellious youths, the filmmaking is so random and reckless that it's hard to get a handle on how we should respond.
Around the time that the police become involved, however, Barrio pulls itself back from the brink. The infusion of order makes the adolescent anarchy seem less gratuitous, and it's almost as if de Aranoa realizes his story requires some structure. Soon we peek in on Manu's mythical brother and sense the tragedy that's about to ensue. Indeed, one of the more unsuccessful aspects of the film is its ending. While it won't be spoiled here, let's just say that it's telegraphed early on, and appears random and rather unnecessary. We really didn't need death to sneak into the mix. We were already convinced that life was only going to get harder for our heroes, and in some ways, they deserve such a plight. Barrio makes it very clear that a cycle of poverty and dependence rises up from families to these kids, parents unable to hold jobs taking out their failures and frustrations on offspring only used to a situation of struggle. The dynamic between adult and child is left implied, and could have been explored to a much greater effect. But Barrio is more interested in the Pilgrim's Progress of its three main characters—for better or worse.
The acting is uniformly good, though it's hard to get a handle on how de Aranoa coached his kids. They are more types than tricked-out individuals. Críspulo Cabezas' Rai is the most animated, his nonstop patter perfectly suited for someone who is going to live (and possible die) by his wits. He's the clear star here, and the personality the movie focuses on. Timy Benito is all mopey mouth-breather as Javi. His standard reaction is to stand and stare, jaw agape, as life delivers yet another unfair body blow. Equally blank, in a different, almost all-encompassing way, is Elio Yerba's Manu. Though he has the most emotional arc (the truth about his brother is handled well), he's the least open and approachable. When you toss in the eye-candy effectiveness of Marieta Orozco (she's the personification of the sex the boys seek) and the work of the older actors, Barrio becomes something to celebrate. It's just too bad that the director decided that the directionless and the focused could function together. While the movie's still enjoyable, Barrio feels like an incomplete experience.
Lionsgate gives this 1998 title a rather weak DVD presentation. Not from the purely technical aspects, however. The full-screen image (no 1.78:1 option, sadly) is colorful and bright, carefully controlled, and loaded with detail. During an underground sequence in the subway, the carefully placed lighting used to accent the homeless human horrors therein is flawlessly captured. On the sound side of things, the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix is a little music heavy (the faux rap and salsa tunes drown out anything they come in contact with), but overall, the dialogue is easily discernible—offered in Spanish only with excellent English subtitles—and the hot, humid atmosphere created by de Aranoa maintained throughout. Where the disc lets us down is in the added content department. In fact, there is none. No trailers. No commentary track. No indication of how or why this movie was made. Distributors need to learn that audiences will not come to unknown titles without some indication of an explanation. Extras help to provide the context for a foreign film's commerciality. Barrio lacks even the basics.
Clearly a vision of the man behind the camera, Barrio bumps into itself now and then until finally settling down into slightly maudlin dramatics. Luckily, the last-act redirection makes the previous aimless antics resonate with some pointed social commentary…until the end, that is. Then things go askew again.
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