REVIEW: DVD Release: El Bola

Film: El Bola
Release date: 23rd August 2010
Certificate: 15
Running time: 84 mins
Director: Achero Mañas
Starring: Juan José Ballesta, Pablo Galán, Alberto Jimenez, Manuel Moran, Anna Wagener
Genre: Drama
Studio: Axiom
Format: DVD
Country: Spain

There are many films that deal with parental child abuse, but few match the poignancy or unflinching realism of El Bola, a multiple award-winning 2000 Spanish drama directed by Archero Manas.

Twelve-year-old Pablo, aka El Bola (Spanish for pellet, a nickname that may derive from a small wooden ball he carries around with him as a good luck charm), is a bit of a loner: a sensitive yet tough-minded boy who leads what at first appears to be a very ordinary existence; attending school and living in an unremarkable Madrid apartment with his stern father, tired looking mother and elderly, incontinent grandmother.

Pablo (Juan Jose Ballesta) has no close friends, though he does have limited interactions with some of his fellow school pupils. Out of school, their favourite pastime seems to be playing a dangerous game of ‘chicken’, which involves leaping across train tracks moments before speeding trains pass.

Pablo’s life, and what we know about it, begins to change, however, when he befriends Alfredo (Pablo Galan), a rebellious yet level-headed new boy at his school. Where Alfredo’s family background is comparatively unconventional yet loving, it becomes clear that beneath the seemingly ordinary surface of Pablo’s life lies a disturbing secret.

Pablo’s father doesn’t like the fact that his son is spending more and more time with Alfredo and his family, and we become increasingly aware that, far from just being taciturn, he is a violently abusive authoritarian who hides beneath a veneer of civility. The more Pablo starts to come out of his shell and stand up for himself, the more brutal his father’s responses to him become, and the film culminates in a harrowing sequence of events from which there is no turning back for either Pablo or those around him…

With El Bola, director Archero Manas has achieved a striking yet subtle balance between tenderness and the stark, brutal reality of Pablo’s treatment at the hands of his father. Lesser filmmakers would have ramped up the sentimentality, or revelled in the graphic violence, but Manas does neither. Instead, he is sparing in the access he allows us to Pablo’s moments of quiet joy, as well as his most terrifying experiences.

There is also a strong sense of frustration - conveyed through Alfredo’s family when they become aware of the abuse and try to act to stop it - at the cruel absurdities of a social system that seems to be designed to protect the abuser rather than the abused.

Juan Jose Ballesta puts in an astonishingly accomplished performance as the 12-year-old Pablo in his debut film role. The demands of playing such a character must have been enormous, but Ballesta conveys a wide range of emotions with natural, understated poise: from loneliness, shame and confusion to innocent curiosity and unfurling happiness; from bullish self-assertion to outright desperation.

Manas, who co-wrote the screenplay with Veronica Hernandez, ensures that there are also flashes of comic relief, black though they may be. In one pivotal scene that may point to the origins of Pablo’s father’s abusive behaviour, Pablo reveals to Alfredo that he had a brother who died in a car accident before he was born, and comments that “he must have been idiot” because his father “keeps comparing him to me.”

It is small details such as this that make El Bola such a touching and convincing film. The ending is abrupt, and the details Pablo reveals about the abuses his father inflicted on him are shocking, to say the least, but this is not a film without hope. In the form of Alfredo’s tattooist father Jose (Alberto Jiminez), Pablo has at least experienced the protective, fatherly love of a man who was prepared to do what was best for him, even if it was to his own disadvantage.

Director Archero Manas’s debut feature film is a powerful and intensely moving exploration of fathers and sons that tests commonly held perceptions of what is normal or healthy and what is not. JG

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