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VIFF 2018 Review: Petra

Petra film

Petra is the film of an artist (played by Barbara Lennie) who seeks tutelage from a legend (played by Joan Botey) but gets more than what she bargained for.

Interesting how a lot of films I’ve seen at the VIFF are to do about deep dark secrets being exposed. Petra is one of those films that exposes some dark secrets.

The film is seven chapters starting with the second chapter. Petra is a young budding artist. She is arriving at the estate of a well-known artist named Jaume. Over at the place, we sense an unhappy vibe. The house consists of wife Marisa, son Lucas, housekeeper Teresa, her husband Juanjo and their son Pau. She is seeking artistic guidance from Jaume, but gets nothing but insults from her. That leads her disheartened with her own work. Jaume is actually a tyrant to everyone he works with. Lucas talks with Petra of a dark ‘confession’ and tries to advance to her, but she rejects.

In the third chapter, Jaume had just finished having sex with Teresa. He criticizes her for not enjoying the non-consentual sex and threatens to tell Pau. Teresa later commits suicide. At the funeral Lucas looks at his father with contempt. Moving to the first chapter, Petra’s mother is dying. She tells of an artist she loved. However she does not reveal it to be Jaume. She doesn’t want Petra to have Jaume in her life. In the fourth chapter, Petra confronts Jaume with reason to believe he is her father. She tells him of a letter her mother wrote years ago. Marisa later admits there has been infidelity in both their lives. Throughout their marriage, they both have had their share of various lovers.

In the sixth chapter, Jaume does admit to Petra that he is her father. Right as Petra is pregnant. He also tells that truth to Lucas. Lucas is infuriated. He tries to shoot Jaume but Jaume reminds him he doesn’t have what it takes. Instead Lucas shoots himself. In the fifth chapter, we learn that Petra and Lucas have become more than just friends. They even get romantic. In the seventh chapter, the people try to deal with their lives after the death of Lucas. Marisa confesses to Petra that Lucas is not Jaume’s son, but the son of an extramarital affair she had. Petra is infuriated and tells Marisa never to see her again. Jaume is seen conversing with Pau. Then as Jaume walks away, Pau shoots him dead. The film ends with Petra looking after her daughter and Marisa showing up as a meeting of goodwill. The film ends with them conversing together in a friendly manner.

The film is definitely one in which goes from something simple to being a film where dark truths are exposed. At first you think Petra is there to see Jaume to learn how to be a better artist. That would appear to be the case. However then it becomes clear that Petra is soon after a truth. A truth that could not just destroy Jaume, but those around him too. In time, a truth about Marisa is also exposed. Dark secrets come to the forefront and a lot of lives are destroyed because of it. You sometimes think there’s no way the film would end with anyone at peace, but somehow it does.

The unique thing about Petra is not just telling the story, but doing it in a non-chronological order . This may be a film of seven acts, but it begins with act two, continues with act three, but then leads into act one. There’s also the shift from act four to act six, and then leading back to act five. That shifting around of the acts works because the film presents itself in situations that has the viewer asking why the situation? Why the friction? It’s when it goes back to the recent past that we get the answers why. This playing around in time, just like it’s done in Pulp Fiction, works for telling the film’s story.

Also it’s unique how this film takes place in the world of art. I know I’ve seen a lot in terms of the freeness or even the foolishness of the way actors live out their love lives. It’s interesting seeing this about an adulterous artist whose wife is just as adulterous. It often leaves you wondering if they lived a strained marriage where they decided to stay together for the sake of Lucas? Or were they an open marriage? There are a lot of open marriages in the world of arts and entertainment. It makes you wonder.

Whatever the situation, the film sometimes seems it’s as much about Jaume as it is about Petra. Petra is a woman searching for the truth and relating to the people she meets along the way. However the film shows just how much of a monster Jaume is. I know that arrogance is common among artists and even berating behavior, but Jaume appears to be a person with no conscience. He berates the artists he works with and Petra’s work, he berates Lucas for being unable to break away from him, he lures his housekeeper in sexual temptation, and even appears at the end as if he doesn’t care about Lucas’ death. It’s no wonder after Jaume is shot to death, Petra and Marisa appear to be at peace as they meet. I think that was it about the film. Jaume was the tyrant in people’s lives and Petra would be that missing link that would free others.

This is the latest film from Spanish arthouse director Jaime Rosales. Rosales has developed a reputation over the years starting with his 2003 short film The Hours Of The Day¬†which won the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes, his 2007 feature Solitary Fragments which received a lot of critical renown, and 2014’s Beautiful Youth which was nominated for Un Certain Regard at Cannes. Here he directs a story he co-wrote with Michel Gatzambide and Clara Roquet. He places it in an artistic setting with a mostly quiet environment, but that doesn’t take away the intensity of the friction. Instead the quiet slow nature makes you feel the friction. Barbara Lennie does a very good job of playing the lead protagonist, but it’s Joan Botey playing the tyrant Jaume that steals the show. Both do an excellent job of managing their roles well.

Petra is a film that tells a story in a varying chronological order. However it does so to get us to the heart of the story in a surprising way.

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