María y el Araña: a story of hidden pain
“With this film, I felt the need to plunge into the world of kids, of marginal teenagers. To tell a story from the points of view of María (Florencia Salas), a 13-year-old girl who lives in the shantytown of Villa Rodrigo Bueno, and that of Araña (Diego Vejezzi), a 17-year-old teen dressed in a lousy Spider-Man costume who scrapes a living by juggling balls in the subway. María and Araña are surrounded by adults who do little or nothing for them. Sometimes, they even hurt them for life. I care about their inner worlds. What do they feel? What do they think?,” says Argentine filmmaker María Victoria Menis about her new film María y el Araña, co-written with Alejandro Fernández Murray, who also co-wrote the scripts of Menis’ two previous films, El cielito and La cámaraoscura.
María lives with her grandmother (Mirella Pascual) and her sentimental companion (Luciano Suardi), a younger man with a secret. She also works in the subway, but is now about to finish elementary school and has received a scholarship to enroll in high school, something she and her grandmother have dreamed about for a long time.
As Araña and María slowly, but firmly, fall for each other, which makes her grandmother’s companion mad. Sooner or later, the secret he keeps, which involves María, will be revealed indirectly. It is then when things take an abrupt turn – and not for the better.
María y el Araña is a film that begins with a straightforward premise: to portray the thoughts and feelings of a girl and a boy as they fall in love. Or so you’d think during the film’s first half, which mostly deals with introducing the characters, establishing their longings and desires, and placing them in diverse situations of their everyday reality. However, as the film unfolds, another story comes to the foreground, a story of subjugation and hidden pain.
And this is one of María y el Araña’s main assets: its ability to smoothly switch the dramatic focus without ever feeling contrived or arbitrary. It’s not that the filmmakers decided to merely add another layer for shock value or go socially conscious for the sake it. On the contrary. It’s plainly clear that the two stories — the visible one and that kept in the dark — have always been conceived together as the two sides of María’s present, blissful and dreadful at once.
As regards the love story, expect subtlety and tenderness. In fact, a great deal of its appeal is due to its meditative tone that says lots of things with no stridence, few words and even silences. Menis’ camera examines and caresses María’s sweet face, which is arguably the film’s delicate heart. It effortlessly catches the smallest of expressions and gestures, and this way it brings her closer to viewers. Remember that, above all, this is an intimate film. Neither María nor Araña are fully fleshed-out characters, but they are no stereotypes either. After all, this is not a profound character study. All the same, they have enough personality traits to make you care for them (more so María), and provided that what matters most is both their falling in love and how they behave in their worlds, you get more than the basics just by observing without knowing that much about them.
María y el Araña is, at least partially, a film about moments and details, and that’s why it’s so important that they are captured in an honest, substantial fashion. You have to believe them and feel their immediacy. It helps that Diego Vejezzi and Mirella Pascual do deliver convincing performances that add to that of Florencia Salas, a non-professional actress who truly excels.
On the minus side, there’s a problem with the film’s tempo and with some scenes that, instead of adding something new, merely say more of the same. Even for a contemplative feature, María y el Araña sometimes drags and so its emotional impact is diminished. It’s as if sometimes it takes too long to say something which is not really that interesting. But even with its flaws, it meets most of the expectations it arises.