Contemporary Spanish Cinema
by Barry Jordan, Rikki Morgan-Tamosunas
"The Secret Life of Words" (aka, La Vida Secreta de las Palabras)
The worst thing about this intense character study from Spanish writer-director Isabel Coixet is her title -- in Spanish or in English. While subtly applicable to developments of the story, it's terribly awkward and likely to keep people -- even arthouse patrons who would appreciate it -- away in droves. A bitter irony because it's one of the most remarkable films I've seen in 2006.
Besides the little green light signals on this site as a way to find rare and less noticeable works of serious themes and significant talent, you might also consult Tim Robbins' filmography. A highly successful actor in many a big mainstream movie ("War of the Worlds," "Mystic River"), one gets the impression that he particularly seeks out themes of importance residing within scripts that might never have seen the light of a projection bulb were he not so eager to take scale in order to participate in arthouse treasures. Thus we see him play an evil Apartheid detective in this year's estimable "Catch a Fire." And, while I'm paying homage to his taste for films of social relevance and character power, there is also the exceptional "Arlington Road," a film no discerning filmgoer should miss.
There are actors like that, and his Canadian co-star here is another one of them. I read somewhere that Sarah Polley turns down big commercial parts as a matter of policy in order to be available for meanigngful material, like sigficance and depth. Her filmography is a study in Canadian and French obscurity ("My Life Without Me," "eXistenZ"). This film may well add another notch on that belt of less accessible intrigue and could not have found a better conveyer of a woman repressed by brutal experience whose rejection of a normal life can yet be transformed by love and trust.
When we first meet hearing-impaired Hanna (Polley) we see her hard at work in a factory, a study in concentrated activity. When she's brought into her supervisor's office, she thinks she's going to get sacked. He assures her, with humor, that her perfect record of attendance and exemplary productivity could hardly make sacking a possibility. He has, however, received complaints from her co-workers. We're not told why, but the inference is that it 's because of her silent detachment. What she needs is a holiday, a month off. Not a suggestion -- an order.
At home, she's anally orderly, carrying her minimalist existence into her private activity and in the modesty of her personal needs. In a first sign of disturbance, she receives a phone call and says nothing while listening to mysterious Inge (Julie Christie) doing all the talking. Inge's expression tells us she wishes for something from Hanna but she's strangely understanding when she gets an earful of silence.
Later, overhearing a man's phone conversation in a restaurant concerning a lethal oil-rig accident and a survivor needing care she presents herself before the man and volunteers her services. "I'm a nurse," she declares. Almost immediately, she's on a helicopter. There, she confers with Doctor Sulitzer (Steven Mackintosh) over their patient's burns and temporary blindness. When she sees Josef (Robbins), and the extent of his injuries, she assures the doctor she's treated worse cases.
While the appearance of a highly attractive blond on the rig is unsettling to a few of the men, her reticence to communicate is accepted as a need for privacy. In time, she feels comfortable enough to converse and becomes integrated into the spare social life on the rig, which includes gourmet cooking by the rig's chef Simon (Javier Camara).
It doesn't take Josef long, either, to comprehend his nurse's reluctance to say anything personal about herself, though he's clear about his delight in having her company and attention. His male-comeon lines, despite his physical condition and vulnerability, are more humorous than challenging or tension building, and his basically adaptable, understanding personality develops into an empathetic bond. In time, they share personal facts, then secrets, then the intimate details of their lives, recognizing a growing attachment they feel for one another. Finally, the pain of his wounds is eclipsed by her anguished revelation of the inhuman cruelty that caused her mental crippling and withdrawal. Could these wounded individuals have found a cure for their ailments in each other?
Despite Croixet's annoying directorial understatement in bringing us to this core development of her drama, the relationship's tempered evolution and the astute craftsmanship in the dialogue is what makes it worthwhile and, I'm certain, what attracted so accomplished a pair of film artists as Robbins and Polley to the project. It surely overweighs script weaknesses. The lesson in it, too, is that no basic story structure ever wears out. At its core, what we have here is a love story, a romance -- as different from others as the individuals and their personal courage make possible.
It's full of symbolism: out in the north sea, on an oil rig, where there's no harbor for pain both physical and psychological -- except what one's own damaged psyche or contact with the right human being may provide. This is material that should appeal greatly to discerning arthouse patrons who are advised not to let the cumbersome title keep you away.
~~ Jules Brenner
(Spanish version, PAL format)