Dir: Jose Luis Guerin. Spain 2001. 125 mins.
A humorous and poetic chronicle of the impact on a working-class neighbourhood of a major construction project, Work In Progress was one of San Sebastian's most original discoveries. Screened to a packed auditorium of over 1000, the film held the audience's attention and suffered a remarkably low number of walk-outs. The reviews were also enthusiastic, and the film went on to win a Special Award from the main jury as "a tale that refers to many aspects of life in today's Spain, narrated with original cinematographic talent," as well as the prize of the international critics' jury (FIPRESCI). Its length and the quirkiness will inhibit prospects theatrically but it should catch the eye of adventurous television programmers and will shine on the specialist festival circuit. Potential attention at the rounds of end-of-year awards would be an added boost.
The subject, announced in an opening title, is described simply as "sights and sounds recorded over two years", a period which saw the construction in Barcelona's red-light Barrio Chino district of an upscale apartment block. Pressure is on to get the job done quickly. Comparing it to a lovely old church across the way, one worker muses wryly that, unlike their own project, it could be built with time and care because "Jesus was not in a hurry." But one thing is certain: as a garrulous old man complains at the beginning of the film, the block will dramatically change the character of the area.
Technical credits are top-notch. Recorded under evidently tricky conditions, Amanda Villavieja's soundtrack is detailed and evocative, while Alex Gaultier's luminous images consistently delight and surprise for the way they find beauty in the most unexpected places. The film-makers abandoned 35mm in favour of DV at an early stage, with a slight but detectable loss of image quality, although the decision was understandable given the exceptional amount - 120 hours - of footage shot.
Just one of the film's best sequences, about the exhuming of Roman skeletons during an archeological dig on the site of the demolished building, drew on over 40 hours of footage. The result, lasting some 15 minutes, brilliantly develops its comic momentum, as passers-by ruminate entertainingly and ingeniously on the discovery.
A kid maintains that the skeletons get up and dance at night; someone else wonders why they aren't wearing clothes; a third deliberates whether they're men or women (and which of the two has the extra rib). In a way, the sequence also acts as a kind of metaphor for the film as a whole, which patiently digs away at its subject to uncover layers of meaning.
Work In Progress also contains dramatic scenes, some more compelling than others. These follow a handful of local residents over two years, including a prostitute and her pimp, and various construction workers, who play essentially themselves and were re-staged, chiefly for practical reasons such as the high noise levels on site and the excessive length of the shoot.
Catalan director Jose Luis Guerin says that his aim was to "reflect the misery and grandeur of everyday life". But Work In Progress, which has no voice-over narration, allows its vision to emerge obliquely without labouring its points. It's an affectionate celebration of the wit and curiosity of ordinary people.
Prod co: Ovideo TV
Co-prods: Arte France, Institut National de L'Audiovisuel, Televisio de Catalunya, Canal + Espana
Sp dist: Wanda Vision/ Nirvana
Int'l Sales: Ovideo TV
Exec prod: Antoni Camin
Prods: Jordi Ballo, Gerald Collas
Cinematography: Alex Gaultier
Ed: Mercedes Alvarez, Nuria Esquerra.
Main cast: Juana Rodriguez, Ivan Guzman, Juan Lopez, Juan Manuel Lopez, Santiago Segade, Abdel Aziz El Mountassir, Antonio Atar.