Dir: Santi Amodeo. 86mins. 2003. Spain.

It's the same old story: if Astronauts (Astronautas) was set in Savannah rather than Seville and shot in English instead of lispy Spanish, this misleadingly-titled indie gem might take off. Instead, it is likely to follow in the wake of so many bygone but deserving European sleepers before it. Despite taking home a special mention at last autumn's Valladolid Film Festival, where local reviewers praised the direction and acting, Spanish distributor Alta Films will release the film into Spain's crowded marketplace March 5 on a limited number of screens. Foreign distributors might also have a hard time pitching Astronauts to their audiences, but adventurous arthouse buyers should have a look via sales agent Kevin Williams Associates (KWA) in Berlin or AFM. Norway's As Fidalgo snapped up local rights after a screening in Lanzarote.

Amodeo was co-writer and -director with Alberto Rodriguez of 2000's The Pilgrim Factor, a rambling London-set ensemble comedy shot in English. Several of the same troupe of multi-faceted performers turn up in supporting roles in Astronauts. As Rodriguez proved last year with his follow-up The Suit (El Traje) - a related Seville-set tale co-scripted by Amodeo, produced by Tesela and premiered in Berlin - Amodeo grows with this solo sophomore effort, creating a more tightly controlled and cinematographic piece whose light comedic tone softens the tragedy of the story at hand.

Too-seldom seen actor Nancho Novo (Lovers Of The Arctic Circle) is understated yet charismatic as Daniel, the likeable ex-heroin addict with a sharp tongue and unexploited artistic talents. When the attractive Laura (charming newcomer Hurtado, chosen from hundreds in a casting call), his disappeared neighbour's 15 year old sister, camps out in his stairwell, he takes her in. In turn, she provides support for his self-styled ten-step recovery program that includes simple instructions on everything from 'Personal Hygiene' to 'Socialisation' and 'Sex.' His evolution parallels the physical knocking-down and repainting of walls they undertake in his apartment, a theme further captured by cinematographer Alex Catalan's careful use of natural light.

Astronauts' abrupt, harshly-lit opening - a dishevelled man, locked vomiting and disoriented in a barn, escapes into the mountains - is quickly replaced by a languid pacing that lasts to the end. Some viewers may find the rhythm slow, but it proves key to the tale of a forty year-old man's struggle to reconstruct his life, step by tiny step, after ten years of heroin addiction. A Velvet Underground-esque soundtrack, made up mostly of songs by Amodeo's own band Lavadora, adds to the mellow mood.

Amodeo uses Daniel's comic-like drawings and retro-pop collages (crafted by artist Miguel Brieva) as decor in the apartment, bringing them to whimsical - though perhaps overbearing - life in the credits and as animated narrative interludes. They also serve to occasionally fly Daniel away to the dream world he ostensibly inhabited on heroin. The animated collages contribute to the upbeat and heartening tone that writer-director Amodeo has striven for, despite the characters' near-desperation and the film's light dose of social critique. The title comes from Daniel's sense in 'normal' society of being like an astronaut who has just landed on the moon.

Prod cos: Tesela PC and La Zanfona Producciones
Spain dist:
Alta Films
Intl sales:
Exec prod:
Jose Antonio Felez
Assoc prod:
Gervasio Iglesias
Santi Amodeo
Alex Catalan
Art dir:
Javier Lopez
J Manuel G. Moyano
Main cast:
Nancho Novo, Teresa Hurtado de Ory, Juan Manuel, Juan Motilla, Alex O'Dogherty, Jons Pappila, Enrico Vecchi, Manolo Solo, Julian Villagran