Dir: Manuel Guttierez Aragon. Spain. 2004. 110 mins.
It's doubtful that audiences can recall seeing so many cows in a single film since O Brother, Where Art Thou' The ruminants in veteran director Gutierrez Aragon's 15th feature don't get machine-gunned like their cousins in the Coen brothers' Odyssey-caper, though one does get used as a shield by an escaping murder suspect at one point. Cows apart, this rural comedy-romance-thriller set in the remote Pas valley is superficially like a Spanish version of the Claude Berri's Jean De Florette - Manon Des Sources diptych. But it has neither the star cast nor quite the same Year-In-Provence urbanite appeal of that mid-1980s yuppie-pleaser.
Though the film has a certain charm as an elegy for a disappearing way of life and though it has some deftly painted characters, it jumps around too much from genre to genre and from comic to serious registers to really bring home the beef. Spanish distributor Alta Classics should have no problems milking Your Next Life for the local market, but world sales (outside of a few Latin American territories) are another thing entirely. The film played in competition at Berlin.
Hard-headed, hard-working farmer Gildo (Juan Diego) lives with his two daughters in a remote Pas valley dairy farm. One day, an argument over a cow between Gildo and a neighbouring farmer, grumpy old misanthropist Severo (Celso Bugallo, last seen in Mondays In The Sun), leads to an altercation in which Severo is killed, apparently by Gildo. The latter swears the only witness - his eldest daughter Val (Marta Etura) - to secrecy, and forces her to visit Severo's son Rai (Luis Tosar, another Mondays In The Sun face) - who has returned from the hairdressing salon he owns in the city - to find out how much he suspects.
Romance blooms between Val and Rai, with Val's younger but more savvy belly-dancing sister Genia (Clara Lago) acting as both love-coach and confidante. But after a tumble in the hay and a brief romantic idyll, things start to go awry: Gildo turns madly jealous of Rai's relationship with his daughter, and we begin to suspect that his tyranny over his two girls may have an unhealthy side to it, with Val being increasingly forced to take the place of her dead mother (and to wear her dresses). When he is charged with Severo's murder, Gildo goes on the run, alarmed not so much by the prospect of prison as by the fact that he won't be able to enter Vanessa, his prize milker, in the forthcoming agricultural show.
There's plenty of harping on about the proud independence of pasiego culture: interfering Madrid is represented by the policemen who round up the cows of farmers exceeding their EU quotas, and a local saying, 'what is never said, never happened', is trotted out more times than are good for us or it. But there is a more convincing side too to the director's celebration of this rural enclave: the sense of place is acute, especially when the action moves up-valley to the high mountain pastures with their elemental chromatic juxtaposition of blue and green and grey and russet (that's the cows). Faces are warmly lit, colours are deep and saturated.
What works less well is the script's attempt to reconcile crowd-pleasing comic tropes (like a repeated visual gag in which Vanessa only lets her milk flow when she hears mambo on a tinny radio) with more serious themes. Your Next Life's tendency to genre-hop is disorienting, and the fragmented, fairy-tale syntax of the last half hour or so does not quite work. But the exercise has a certain quirky charm, and Marta Etura's persuasive performance as Val - a complex young girl full of repressed passion and withheld strength - sticks in the mind after the end credits have rolled.
Production co: Tornasol Films
Co-prod: Continental Producciones
International sales: Latido Films
Producers: Gerardo Herrero, Pancho Casal
Screenplay: Angeles Gonzalez-Sinde, Manuel Gutierrez Aragon
Cinematography: Gonzalo Berridi
Production design: Felix Murcia
Editor: Jose Salcedo
Music: Xavier Capellas
Main cast: Juan Diego, Luis Tosar, Marta Etura, Clara Lago, Celso Bugallo