November (2003)Reviewed By Aaron Ducat
Posted 07/02/04 10:41:10
November tells the story of Alfredo, an acting student intent on transforming the standard facets involved in theater productions. Driven by the connection his homemade puppets make with his handicapped brother, Alfredo drops out of acting school, preferring the immediate and improvisational (and as we quickly see, confrontational) nature of acting without boundaries on the streets of Madrid to the standard theater demarcations separating performers and audience. A group of other dropouts soon join him and the street performance group “November” is born. The actors quickly establish a strict code of conduct for their performances, the foundation of which is the premise that they will take no funds, not even to cover basic costs, for their performances.A host of performances follow, all driven by the passionate intensity, vision and charisma of Alfredo, played wonderfully by Oscar Jaenada (who stands out from an otherwise marvelous cast). Each performance subsequently escalates, in terms of viewership, intensity and social critique, and soon several group members are arrested. Refusing to be hindered by social constraints, the group continues to push the limits of the permissible, eventually staging an assassination on a street in downtown Madrid.
After being banned from street performance the group is approached by a carnival owner looking to cash in on their notoriety: the only stipulation is that the group must receive payment for their performances. This remuneration brings expectation and constraint from the owner, and the tension between free artistic integrity is thrown into stark contrast with being indebted to money and the wishes of those behind it. The group disbands after the carnival performance, only to be brought back together by Alfredo for the grand finale: a performance at the Madrid Royal Theater, to be undertaken midway through a professional performance by the Theater’s troop. In one of the most memorable, passionate and heart-rending endings I’ve seen we are shown what art can be, and then we are violently shown the place it is often relegated to once it suffers under the constraints of money, social requirements, security and fear.
Writers Achero and Frederico Manas deserve tremendous praise for making a movie which challenges the viewer to question the relationships between artistic integrity, financial pressures and societal expectations which is at once engaging and thought provoking yet never falls prey to overt didacticism. Wonderful metaphors and images are used throughout, from Alfredo’s personification of art struggling to maintain its integrity to the group’s performance of a passion sequence upon accepting payment for their services: the parallels to Judas selling out Christ scream scandal. The passage of time is fascinating: the documentary style in which it is shot juxtaposes the young actors, performing in the late 90’s and early 00’s, with their middle-aged selves reminiscing on their experiences: the distance created by this jumping of time adds a degree of sympathy and compassion to our experiences of the young actors’ feverish performances. Further, the group’s taking the name “November” for its association with the revolution which overthrew Franco’s regime (which actually occurred in October, making this acting group the new or next revolution) to the last scene in which art is sacrificed for “security purposes” in September, 2001, serves to root what we see in recent, tangible history.
The only element lacking is in the development of Alfredo’s relationship with his brother, a relationship which obviously inspires him yet, because we never fully understand how and why, serves to keep Alfredo at a distance: he is at once passionate and removed, inspiring and unavailable.
I saw this film at the Seattle International Film Festival, and it’s sad to think that it will never find a mainstream U.S. audience outside of such events. Given the gigantic corporate structures, advertising firms, political lobbyists, marketing companies, etc., which are so involved, directly and indirectly, in the creation of art, especially film (see the ruckus surrounding Fahrenheit 9/11 for a recent example), November is a neo-Marxist’s dream which challenges not just what, but how, and for whom, that which we call art comes into being and is transmitted.
The film demands viewers interpret it on the level of hope for the future of art: Can art be made which is sincere, vibrant, experiential and experienced, heterogeneous, able to challenge social structures, inspire us to greater heights and comfort us in knowing that we’re not alone? Or is art, by its unavoidable fact of being created in the human realm of competition, fear, corporate and individual avarice, market swings and political hegemony, destined always to be a selling out, the making of a packageable product whose merits are measured either only by those who can afford to be in the know or on the basis of the quantity of those who consume it?Those of us interested in such questions are indebted to the makers of November for not only challenging us, but for demonstrating, via the film itself, the only honest answer to both questions: yes.
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