Dir/scr: Jaime Rosales. Spain-France. 2008. 85mins.
The most-hyped of this year’s Spanish selection in San Sebastian, Bullet In The Head is a disappointingly austere and rather frigid cinematic exercise from Jaime Rosales, whose Solitary Fragments won this year’s Best Picture Goya over favourite The Orphanage. This near-wordless study of the everyday life of a Basque terrorist is intriguing in parts and will find favour with festivals and cineastes, but outside its home market theatrical prospects look slim.
On the evidence of three films (his first, The Hours of the Day, debuted in Directors Fortnight at Cannes in 2003), Rosales’ abiding interest is the way dramatic events do not necessarily have dramatic backstories; or to put it differently, the way in which time is spent between turning points (coffees in bars, cashpoint withdrawals, train rides, hours spent in the bathroom or waiting for buses or queuing) is as significant as anything else. He constructs his films from the parts of life which Hollywood wouldn’t allow into the script, let alone the cutting-room floor.
So we follow, to the accompaniment of traffic noise and other ambient sounds, and mostly through windows, the life of a stout, bearded man whose name we never know. (The pressbook calls him Ion, like Ion Arretxe, the actor who plays him and is also Bullet’s production designer). Ion buys mints from a newspaper stall; meets a woman and a young boy in a park who may or may not be his wife and son; takes an older woman out for dinner and later begins to have sex with her in her apartment; and has intense roadside conversations with another bearded man with a professorial look. Somehow, we understand that they’re ETA terrorists.
The reticent camera with its default high-zoom setting, the lack of miked speech, and the fact that vehicles and passers-by often block our view, suggests that we’re seeing things from the point of view of a surveillance camera - though not entirely, given the crispness of the image and the tracking shots in later scenes.
It’s not until 50 minutes in that the first piece of significant action occurs: Ion gets into a car with the ‘professor’ and another associate, and they drive across the border into France. Movement comes as a huge relief, and the final half hour builds very slowly to a tense and rather shocking denouement. There’s even a single, repeated line of dialogue at one point.
Wordless cinematic observation can be a fascinating and dramatically rich exercise, as last year’s In the City of Sylvia demonstrated. But the exercises Rosales’ film forces the audience to undertake are simply less interesting than Jose Luis Guerin’s fine work. What Bullet in the Head tells us, in the end, is that terrorists are people too, which is something we might have already surmised.
Les Productions Balthazar
The Match Factory
(49) 221 539 7090
Jose Maria Morales
Nino Martinez Sosa