Balancing Act: Luis Prieto's Bamboleho

Mark Le Fanu

Perfection in art is probably only discussable in relation to the minor genres like fabergé eggs or royal porcelain. The works that are truly great in any sphere - whether in music or literature or painting or movies - transcend the bonds of polish and form where such a criterion naturally prevails. Paradoxically enough, therefore, the accolade of perfection is not the highest honour that can ever be bestowed on a work of art, though the attribute is rare enough in all conscience and deserves to be saluted (it goes without saying) when met with. Short films are a minor genre by definition, but when they work well they have the intense concentration - the internal consistency - of a fine lyric poem: they are open in their own way to perfection. The "perfections" (why not call them that?) of Luis Prieto's twelve-minute short Bamboleho seem to me to be threefold: a perfection of casting, a perfection of symbolism and finally a perfection of structure. Let us briefly examine each of these categories.

1. Casting: the principal actors
What constitutes "interest" in a face? What constitutes "beauty"? Central to any movie, these are among the hardest things to get right. The film looks at the lives of two lovers from the teeming, popular quarters of Barcelona: Migue (Etol Yobra) and Mara (Alicia Gorina) are maybe 16 or 17 years old. Migue has quitted home young, while it's not clear whether Mara lives with her family or not. They are in love, they are happy, they are carefree. The prelude to the love-making scene on the roof-top which governs the central section of the film's structure is shot with a grave sweet attentiveness that expresses perfectly both the seriousness and the playfulness of these characters: they are self-confident (their youth and health guarantee this), but tentative; streetwise but unsophisticated; in charge of their lives but at the same time open to chance and fortune. They also have a companion. When not making love, the couple share their rooftop hideaway with a young Moroccan immigrant, Ahmed (Hafid Abou El Hakam) - maybe 12 years old or so - who is fond of them both in the nice, hero-worshiping way that is common enough with kids of that age. While the story focuses on the elder pair, the defining song of the title is sung by their young friend, and in an important way which belongs to Bamboleho's understated tactfulness it is this boy's film too: his destiny too is being contemplated. All three of them have a beautiful open innocence: their bearing and their interaction with each other comes across as vulnerable, tender and teasing. Acting isn't so much the issue here as casting: in a way that resists further annotation, they simply look right and feel right for their parts.

2. The symbolic sphere
A successful short is carried by attention not only to character and dialogue, but to things, objects, symbols. Bamboleho is crammed with objects: let us list some of them and think about them. In the prologue delineating an episode from Migue's childhood there is the malfunctioning television set and the mysterious bucket of snails that the boy refuses to eat out of. Then there are background things: a motionless donkey with a boy asleep on the back of it; a toy go-cart; a football and a teddy bear in the hands of the youthful ball-player (future star of Barsa?). Also: an aeroplane flying overhead, to which eight year old Migue raises his eyes wistfully. (Important moment, though we don't in fact see this object, we only hear the noise of its engine.)

In the main section of the film I would suggest that the primary objects are the stolen video camera and the block of hashish. Then the animals: the painting of the lion, the cat that turns into a lynx, and the seagull passing over the rooftops which the camera follows as the girl is balancing on the parapet. Secondary objects we might designate as the billboard with the poster of the crouching model and the naked woman she turns into when the hashish begins to kick in. The guitar which Ahmed accompanies himself to while singing the film's title song might also be included, along with the coloured backdrop to the love-making scene which at first we take to be a genuine view over the city, but which reveals itself in due course (as the camera tracks slowly backwards) to be merely a skillfully painted mural.

Not all these objects, of course, come over to the audience as possessing the same symbolic temperature. Some signs or marks are more important than others: "importance" anyway begs the question, because subtlety is the quality that is at issue - objects have to be themselves before they can be symbols of something else. The objects here resonate with delicate harmonies, they reach out to each other with mysterious correspondences, they build up an internal coherence in the universe being constructed, while avoiding the schematicism that arises when a system is imposed by an artist too deliberately or too ambitiously.

Thus starting with the bucket of snails: it's "just" a bucket of snails in one way (indeed you could almost miss it at the speed the film goes by). In the central section of the film, however, it is taken up again when Migue, ten or so years older now, discusses distant Paris with his young Moroccan friend. Paris is miles from Barcelona, where the action of the film is unfolding: don't they eat snails there? he wonders. "There are snails in Morocco too", his companion replies. So in the prologue snails are a symbol of poverty; in the "main section" a symbol of riches, exoticism, exclusiveness. This in a way is what the whole film is about: the struggles, dreams, aspirations of the poor. Has Migue remembered the bucket of snails of his childhood (the refusal to eat which precipitated his departure from home) when he comes out with his stoned question to Ahmed? Possibly - or possibly not. But in any case, we make the connection - if we choose to: it certainly isn't emphasised or highlighted.

Or we could take the nexus encompassed, in shorthand, by the trio "hashish, camera, seagull". If hierarchies have to be imposed, these seem to me to be the film's governing objects. The hashish allows the young people to dream, and what they dream is seen through the viewfinder of the stolen camcorder. So a domestic cat is transformed (by accidentally pressing the telefoto lens?) into the lion or lynx which the Moroccan boy failed to find in Africa; while the woman on the neighbouring rooftop engaged in hanging out the washing turns into a naked beckoning siren. Behind such quasi-comic transformations, sweet and innocent as they are (the rooftop lady has been mediated, or "set up", by the billboard - also seen through the viewfinder - whose image of a sleek, crouching model crosses over into the feral beauty of the lioness) - behind these transformations, of course, is the notion that marijuana lets you "fly" or "take off": it releases your imagination into the ether. Images of balancing and flying, therefore, flicker through the film. The girl swaying gracefully on the parapet to the rhythm of the Moroccan boy's guitar is taken up again at the end when we see little Migue - Migue as nino - arms outstretched, tiptoeing along some dilapidated wall with the air of a daydreaming tightrope walker. By the same token, the prologue's reference to the soaring aeroplane is taken up in the parapet scene, where the girl notices and follows with her eyes the flight of the seagull, wishing, of course (or even believing), that she could fly too. Is the image of the seagull here a symbol of freedom? Of course it is. But how exactly it operates (what it says about freedom) is only finally revealed by the film's clever structure.

3. Shape and structure in Bamboleho
The film tells the main "present tense" story twice, with a crucially different outcome the second time around. In the first version of the story the camera leaves our young couple on the roof about to make love, crosses over onto another rooftop, and moves down into the street where little Ahmed is emerging from a shop he has gone to buy beer in. A limo draws up in the distance and gangsters get out. They give chase to the boy and his companions who manage however to escape capture, while alerting Migue to the danger he's in (the audience doesn't yet know why) by shouting his name up onto the rooftop. The scene now moves back to the rooftop itself where a couple of gangsters are chasing after Migue. After an exciting chase, nimbly-edited, he eludes them by a swift daring leap from a parapet which lands him on another rooftop on the far side of the alley, safe from the arms of his pursuers.

That was version (1). At the end of it, the narrative moves into flashback mode. A momentary fade-in to black and out again takes us back to the time when the boys are sizing up a possible victim for a "rumble". The guy that they have in their sights looks like a stout, well-dressed tourist (they turn out to be tragically wrong about this). Anyway, he is carrying an inviting-looking shoulder bag. They dash up behind him and snitch the trophy. Joy and elation when they discover that it contains not only a camcorder but a thick slab of dope. Now come the scenes already discussed when the children fool around on the rooftop with the camcorder. Negotiations follow (unseen: the film has an ellipsis here) which culminate with them handing over their loot to a third party (he will soon identify and betray them) - in exchange, evidently, for a fair sum of money and a generous slice of the hashish.

Version (2) of events is quietly catching up with version (1). The hash takes effect. Ahmed sings his song, breaks his guitar like Jimi Hendrix and, after joshing around with his friends, leaves to buy the beer. We're back now to where the film proper started (after the prologue), with the young couple preparing to make love. As they lie there enjoying each other's bodies, Ahmed's cry from the street alerts them, and the chase is on. But this time around, there is a different ending to the adventure: Migue's mighty leap fails to clear the chasm separating the houses in the alley, and in a swiftly edited montage he plunges to his death below. As he falls, he remembers the cry of his mother - "Mi - gue!" - calling out his name all those years ago. His last memory (the penultimate image of the film) is of the day he ran away, and the wall he was walking along, with his arms outstretched, not a thought in his head, the sky blue and inviting above him.

Since the early 1990s it has been the mark of a number of clever feature films that their scripts double back on themselves, undermining audience expectations in intriguing and complicated ways. It was probably Reservoir Dogs that first renewed the fashion for this kind of "baroque" script construction, dormant since the heyday of film noir, and it appears again prominently - setting the seal on its utilisation- in Tarantino's follow-up movie Pulp Fiction. Elsewhere, Wong Kar Wai uses the device in movies like Chungking Express, and more recently still it has been deployed to great effect in the Mexican movie Amores Perros. These are feature-length movies, of course, where there is time and space within the confines of their given plot parameters to develop the conceit and give it a sophisticated polish. What, on the surface, is surprising is to find the device working without any sense of strain using a format so concise and so time-sensitive as the classic twelve-minute short. Yet it does indeed work perfectly here: Prieto's film doesn't seem at all overheated. On the contrary: the director even finds the opportunity daringly to slow down the pace at certain moments, most noticeably in the "foreplay" scene where the girl takes her time to count out ten well-spaced kisses on her lover's lips as a prelude to their making love in earnest.

So this dual narrative is certainly clever. But cleverness isn't the thing that is most striking about the movie. No: what most impels admiration is the film's seriousness. At the moment when, the second time around, Migue's leap crashes to disaster, Bamboleho suddenly changes key. From being gay and light-hearted, the film becomes in an instant grand, tragic and somber. Human beings can't fly - though they may dream of doing so. They may even feel they are capable of taking wing under the benevolent regime of a hash trip. But hashish is only a metaphor. The real meaning of the film is profoundly abstract and poetic. Life is never anything other than a balancing act. Though everyone has his dreams (and these dreams are touching and beautiful) reality, for the poor, continues to be harsh and precarious.

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