Movie review, 'El Bola'
By Robert K. Elder
The old often believe that the young have no problems of substance. Director and screenwriter Achero Manas uses this fallacy as foreshadowing when an aging woman complains of back pain and tells Pablo, the 12-year-old protagonist of "El Bola," "I bet nothing is bothering you; you're fine."
She can't see the purple bruises under his shirt or sense the oppression under which he lives. Why should she even look? He's a nice boy who works for his father in the neighborhood hardware store.
Pablo (Juan Jose Ballesta), nicknamed "El Bola" (Spanish for "pellet") for the ball bearing he keeps in his pocket as a good-luck charm, looks like any other child - a bit solitary, but otherwise seemingly well adjusted. When new classmate Alfredo (Pablo Galan) befriends Pablo, he finds out differently.
Despite "El Bola's" many cliches and opportunities to derail into a Lifetime movie of the week, director Mana brings his characters into sharp relief through the dynamics of their relationships. Alfredo and Pablo are drawn to one another and the train-dodging games of their classmates - but Mana leaves it to his audience to figure out exactly why.
Even Pablo's complicated relationship with his father contains fissures and gray areas for the viewer to project into. For example: Before he was born, Pablo's parents had another child, a boy killed in a car accident. "He must have been an idiot," Pablo says. "My father is always comparing him to me." Are we meant to believe Pablo's abusive father (played by Manuel Moron) had something to do with the child's death? Or is his iron-handed discipline a reflection of his guilt in losing his first child? No clear answers are offered or explored.
Mana's screenplay also juxtaposes the boys' father figures by use of a compelling metaphorical architecture. Alfredo's father, a tattoo artist, is the typical iconoclast, yet warm and loving. He brands his son with ink, marking him forever. Pablo's father also marks his son, but in more profound ways, leaving psychological scars that linger long after the bruises heal.
Despite an abrupt ending, Mana gives us compelling, damaged characters who we want to help - or hurt. Perhaps most important, "El Bola" forces us examine our personal motivations for each impulse and their consequences.
--Robert K. Elder/ Chicago Tribune - Review
February 5, 2003
By Holly E. Ordway
Best Film, Best New Director, Best New Actor, Best Original Screenplay: a film that scoops up such a sizable number of top awards in its country's national awards is one that merits close attention. Such is El Bola, the film by Achero Mañas that caused a splash at the 2000 Goya awards (the Spanish equivalent to the Academy Awards).
Mañas shows great confidence with his story from the very first scenes, showing a group of young teenaged boys playing a dangerous game on a railroad track on the outskirts of their Madrid neighborhood. This image of the onrushing train, and the potentially lethal consequences of the boys' game, recurs throughout the film, keeping the viewer always aware of the life-and-death nature of even seemingly small issues.
We meet young Pablo (Juan José Ballesta), nicknamed "El Bola," as well as his seemingly ordinary working-class family; a little later, we meet Alfredo (Pablo Galán), a new boy at school whose family is much less conventional. El Bola challenges us to look beyond the surface, offering us a portrait of two young boys who live quite different lives... the most important insight for the viewer being to see that the differences lie not in the surface details of their lives, but in their more important family relationships.
In seeing the typical activities of the boys, from family dinner to how they spend their free time, we get a glimpse of a different culture than in the United States, which gives El Bola an additional depth and interest. But the themes of the film are broad and reach beyond cultural boundaries to touch on issues that might be faced by any child growing up in an imperfect world.
The film centers around the perspective of the two boys, giving us a glimpse back into the world of childhood where adults are often mysterious figures who often seem peripheral to the boys' own world that revolves around their friends; at the same time, though, the adults are frighteningly powerful in their capacity to grant or deny happiness or security. At their age, both Pablo and Alfredo are torn between the need for a family to depend on and the desire to strike out on their own; both must also deal with frightening events in their lives.
El Bola may be about a child, but it's far from being a happy nostalgic look at childhood. The central thread of El Bola, as we come to see as the film develops, is child abuse; the film gives this disturbing topic an honest and compellingly realistic treatment, forcing viewers to confront the fact that yes, family relationships can go horribly wrong. Mañas handles the material deftly, never shying away from showing the brutal reality of the situation, but at the same time not presenting a tidy, easily resolved situation. The viewer is really an equal participant in this film: not passively receiving a "message," but compelled to continually re-evaluate and update his or her assumptions and preconceptions about the characters involved. In fact, one of the most chilling insights of the film is never explicitly stated; instead, a few clues scattered throughout the film allow the viewer to put the pieces together independently.
Mañas doesn't so much invert stereotypes as discard them completely: his characters are, one and all, individual human beings. The conclusion of the film is as honest as the rest of it: the viewer will find a sense of closure, but will also realize that this is no fairy-tale "happily ever after" ending. Satisfying and unsettling at the same time, in the end, El Bola offers an unexpected development of a story and characters who have come to seem very real.
El Bola is presented in a non-anamorphic widescreen transfer that preserves the film's original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. In general, the transfer is ve
--Holly E. Ordway/ DVD Talk - Review
April 5, 2002
A Father's Brutality, a Son's Defiance
By Stephen Holden
Because of its graphic portrayal of parental child abuse, only the most cold-hearted viewer could fail to respond to Achero Mañas's wrenching film ''El Bola.'' The movie's title (Spanish for pellet) is the nickname of Pablo, its sensitive but spunky 12-year-old protagonist, who carries around a ball bearing as a good-luck charm. That charm may give Pablo (Juan José Ballesta) courage, but it doesn't protect him from regular, vicious beatings by his father, Mariano (Manuel Morón), a hardware store owner and domestic tyrant.
The movie, which the New Directors/New Films series is screening at the Museum of Modern Art tonight and tomorrow afternoon, offers no pat psychological analysis or history of familial abuse to explain the violence Mariano wreaks on his son as the boy's mother, Aurora (Gloria Muñoz), stands by, helplessly pleading with her husband to stop. The only clue dropped is that Pablo had an older brother whose death in an accident many years earlier left Mariano embittered and convinced that his younger son didn't measure up to the son he had lost.
Mariano is so brutal, however, that it doesn't seem far-fetched to suppose that he might have killed the older son in a spasm of rage and made it seem like an accident. This blunt, menacing block of a man wears two expressions: a look of glum suspicion and resentment when lost in thought, and the fiery glare of a charging bull when piqued.
The volatile chemistry between father and son makes you wince. Because Pablo's spirit hasn't been broken by the abuse, he's no cowering, obedient puppy. The boy deliberately incites his father through small acts of rebellion and displays of sullenness. Even while Mariano is attacking him, Pablo screams his hatred and spits in his face. The more extreme Pablo's defiance, the more he places himself in mortal danger.
Pablo has other self-destructive tendencies. He hangs out with a group of boys whose favorite pastime is playing a variation of chicken in which they dare one another to dash across the railroad tracks in the face of an oncoming train. This risky behavior ominously mirrors Pablo's interactions with his father.
''El Bola'' traces Pablo's relationship with Alfredo (Pablo Galán), a more confident, sophisticated schoolmate who befriends him and takes him to an amusement park, where Alfredo exchanges a chaste kiss with the older male ticket taker for two free passes. Alfredo becomes a role model of independence and fearlessness for Pablo. And when Pablo introduces Alfredo to his friends at the railroad tracks, Alfredo shrugs off the other boys' contempt after he refuses to play chicken.
As their friendship deepens, Alfredo leads Pablo into the bosom of his extended family, where Pablo discovers an easygoing camaraderie and nurturing warmth that are the exact opposite of the prisonlike atmosphere of his home. Alfredo's father, José (Alberto Jiménez), is a free-spirited tattoo artist and the center of a bohemian group of friends, many of whom have died of AIDS. One day Pablo accompanies Alfredo to the hospital to visit Alfredo's ''godfather,'' who is near death.
Is José gay or bisexual, and was the godfather once his lover? Without offering any direct evidence, the movie throws out the possibility that Alfredo is being brought up collectively by two couples, one gay, the other lesbian. Mariano, sensing his loss of control over Pablo, forbids his son to see ''those people.'' But when Pablo is absent from school for two weeks, Alfredo tracks him down, notices his bruises and deduces what has happened.
As blunt as it is in depicting child abuse, ''El Bola'' is a movie steeped in an ambiguity that lends its conflicts a symbolic resonance. Its juxtaposition of two such radically opposing models
--Stephen Holden/ New York Times - Review
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Jeff in Seattle - Customer Review
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Bryan Pfleeger - Customer Review
Films thrive on parallel universes, and writer/director Achero Mañas' El Bola takes full advantage of contrasting two fathers and their family lives through the eyes of their sons. Although the Spanish film won four Goya Awards in 2000 for Best Emerging Director, Best Emerging Actor, Best Screenplay, and Best Film, it was ignored by American theaters until now.. Although largely a heavy-handed indictment of parental failings and the indifference of Spanish social workers and legal system towards child abuse, the film retains ambiguities that make it well worth watching. Part of what makes the film compelling are the first rate performances by its young cast. Pablo aka El Bola (Juan José Ballesta) is a twelve year old living in Madrid. His life radically changes when he meets Alfredo (Pablo Galán) a new boy who joins his class. What follows is a comparison of two parallel family situations that remain ambiguous enough to keep the careful viewer wondering what exactly is going on in the families and the motivation for Pablo's father Mariano's (Manuel Morón) extreme violence towards his young son. In contrast is the homelife of Alfredo, a bohemian mix of couples that are willing to show their child the love and affection that is missing in Pablo's life.Alfredo's family atmosphere is completely foreign to Pablo—a much more relaxed, loving, and accepting bohemian lifestyle that appeals greatly to the boy. Exactly what the relationships are between the adults in Alfredo's family remain unstated—a gay subtext may or may not exist, as the family certainly are friends with many homosexuals who have died from AIDS. Alfredo's father, José (Alberto Jiménez), makes a living as a tattoo artist and anchors the extended family. The filmmaker leaves his sexuality ambiguous, which is irrelevant to the two boys—he's a levelheaded, caring father who has their best interests at heart. El Bola is at its heart a story of friendship between two young boys and the devestating effects of parental abuse. While the film is not always easy to watch it is very well made and well worth a viewing if not only for the story presented but for the questions it raises.