Tobacco Barns [Secaderos] — HSBC Spanish Film Festival 2023

Review by Michele E. Hawkins.

In a rural town nestled at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains live families who have worked tobacco farms for generations.  Harvesting the plants and drying them in tobacco barns is monotonous hard work.

Arriving in town during the harvest is nine-year-old Vera (Vera Centenera), who spends every summer holidays at her grandparents’ home.  Vera loves these holidays, and especially the freedom she enjoys adventuring in and around her grandparent’s tobacco barn.  Soon after she arrives for this holiday, Vera discovers and is enchanted by a magical creature who inhabits the barn and its surrounds.  Vera follows the creature and eventually shares her discovery with her local friends.

Nearby lives teenager Nieves (Ada Mar Lupiáñez), who has no option but to work with her parents on their tobacco farm.  Nieves, sick of the boring work and general lifestyle, wants to travel and have adventures away from her dreary town and is becoming disenchanted with her crass boyfriend, but doesn’t know how she can escape her stifling life.

Both Vera and Nieves are eventually touched by their encounters with the magical creature; but exactly why or how they are, the movie leaves unclear.   Also, who and what the magical creature is, and his or her purpose, remains a mystery throughout.

The performances are uniformly excellent.  Vera Centenera as Vera is outstandingly natural and believable, whilst Ada Mar Lupiáñez is equally commendable as the jaded teenager Nieves.

The cinematography brings the viewer almost palpably into the heat and dust of the tobacco barns, down the long fields of tobacco plants ready for harvest, and panoramically into the surrounding barren hills — a barrenness that brings into focus the sense of the isolation and stagnation of life for the town and its residents; in particular, for Nieves.  By contrast, Vera runs free in amongst the lines of wind-flurried trees near her grandparents’ tobacco barn.  Here life is verdant, a safe playground for a curious child, and a place where her imagination can flourish and adventures be had with her childhood friends.

Tobacco Barns doesn’t present as a fully integrated piece.  The script contains two simple stories: of Nieves, a coming-of-age story; of Vera, a tale suggesting the magic of childhood.  Vera, though a truly delightful child, doesn’t appear to be made different by her holiday; Nieves learns one or two painful lessons, but with no sense that her future will change in any substantial way because of them.  And although these protagonists’ paths cross, their interactions serve no discernible purpose, leaving unanswered the question of why their stories appear in the same film. Nonetheless, the performances are worthy, and the film may repay later reflection.

Screening at Palace cinemas.

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