A conversation with Uruguayan filmmaker Daniela Speranza (part one)

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Speranza (center) on the set of Rambleras
  • Nico Soto/Guazu Media
  • Speranza (center) on the set of Rambleras
As I wrote last Thursday, I'm an admirer of recent Uruguayan cinema in general and Daniela Speranza's Rambleras in particular. A wise, generous, and visually stunning comedy about overcoming life's disappointments, Rambleras strikes me, after three viewings, as a nearly perfect film. Every detail of characterization or decor reflects careful consideration, and the graceful storytelling allows one to savor each one. As ingratiating as it is, though, the film is founded on some rather serious questions about what makes life worth living, as each of the three main characters struggles to find meaning in a life beset by loneliness and failure. Patricia is a thirtysomething, broke, and clinging to a man, Gustavo, who has no intention of leaving his long-term girlfriend. Ofelia, the elderly woman whom Patricia moves in with when she can no longer pay her rent, is so isolated that she can't even find someone to help her cross the street so she may walk along her beloved rambla, or oceanside boardwalk. And Jacqueline, the wife of Patricia's boss, can't convince her husband to make her a business partner even though she does half the work in running his bakery. These characters register as fully formed individuals, yet their conflicts feel universal. Indeed Rambleras achieves a sense of timelessness with greater ease than any other recent movie I've seen that aspires to such a quality. I hope someone brings it back to Chicago before long.

Last week I had the great pleasure of speaking with Speranza before she introduced the movie at the Chicago Latino Film Festival. In our hour-long conversation, she explained the development of Rambleras, the nature of film production in Uruguay, and what informs her view of human nature.

Ben Sachs: I've enjoyed all of the Uruguayan films I've seen in the past decade, though admittedly not that many have come to the United States—maybe 15 or 20 altogether. Still, I feel there's a common sensibility among these films. They strike me as very kind towards their characters, and they're all rooted in the reality of working for a living. I always get a clear sense of the main characters' daily routines and how they earn their money. I find it very easy to relate to them. I won't ask you to speak for all Uruguayan filmmakers, but could you talk a bit about this sensibility?

Daniela Speranza: Speaking for myself, when I watched movies and TV shows as a child, I remember thinking, "These characters don't care about economic problems—they don't even have economic problems!" But I could see my dad and my mom just worrying about having money at the end of the month to pay for the lights and the water and all that stuff. Why are there so many Uruguayan films with those details? I guess it comes from this concept of "little stories," which is a tradition in our literature.

In Rambleras, there are little conflicts but big decisions that people have to make. I think people relate to that because these things happen to all of us. This kind of film is the opposite of movies where something big happens to the characters and they have to solve something. I can't say if that's what other Uruguayan filmmakers have in mind.

Regardless, there's a strong consideration of the characters' working lives in those movies. Even in Tanta Agua, which is about a man on vacation with his kids, you sense his frustrations about the job he has to go back to. I'm curious as to how people in Uruguay talk about work. The movies create the impression that they regard work as practically organic—either it reflects the characters' lifestyles or ends up informing them.

It is an important theme in our lives—not just the job you've got, but whether you want to change jobs, where you're going to live and with whom, how you're going to pay the rent . . .

In the United States, when people first meet, they'll say, "What do you do?" And it seems expected that when you state your occupation, it will communicate all these other things about you.

Like that's your identity.

But in these movies, there's a sense that people aren't just what they do, but how they do it.

Well, Patricia in Rambleras works in a bakery, but she isn't defined by that job. That could change next year, she could find something else she wants to do. Jacqueline, one of her bosses, she's also trying to find what will fulfill her in terms of work.

Is this a common experience in Uruguay?

Not for all people. Like my sister, she's a librarian, she's worked from eight to two in the afternoon for 20 or 25 years. But I teach, I do some films, I do all sorts of things.

I read that you made another film in 2002. Is that the only other film you've made?

Yes. That movie is really four shorts that are linked by a narrator, and they all have to do with bad luck. It's called Mala Racha—"a stroke of bad luck" in English. But that was made on video. So, in a sense, Rambleras is my first film because it's on film, there were more days of shooting, a bigger crew . . .

What did you do in between these two movies?

Everything happened to me. [laughs] I actually started thinking about this film in 2003. I got a scholarship to go to Spain for script consulting, and I worked with the screenwriter of Strawberry and Chocolate, Senel Paz. He helped me with the script, which was really good. Then I got an award—in Uruguay, there is a fund to make films. It's not big money, but it helps you to find more. Many times, the project got stuck. The movie is a coproduction with Argentina, but the first Argentinean producer got out of the project and we had to find another one. It was really hard to get together all the money we needed.

So, from the first draft of the screenplay to the first screening, it was ten years. That's too much. People have asked me, "How could you stay with the same idea for ten years?" But the interesting thing is, the film was changing for me, and I was adapting to the film. Today, I see things in the world I couldn't have seen when I started. At the beginning, I thought the movie would be very sad. I considered the three women to be lonely. And that's still true, but now I see the interdependence between them. Like, Ofelia takes a step and that impacts Patricia somehow.

Ofelia (Adriana Aizenberg), preparing to cross the street
  • Ofelia (Adriana Aizenberg), preparing to cross the street

What you describe is a bit like how the movie itself develops. You took all these little steps that slowly added up to a feature film.

I feel like I was locked into this idea. I couldn't do other [films]. Sometimes I just had to wait a while for the next step on this.

How were you getting by during this time?

I teach filmmaking at different places in Uruguay.

How many film schools are there in Uruguay?

There is one—the School of the Uruguayan Cinematheque in Montevideo. And then there are communications programs at other universities, which offer courses in filmmaking as well as journalism, advertising, and other things.

When did you start teaching?

I taught from 1996 to 2002, and then from 2006 on. For a couple of years I worked in Cuba as the head of the production department in the film school there.

You said that Rambleras is the first thing you shot on film.

Yeah, on Super 16 [millimeter], and then we blew it up to 35.

It's getting harder and harder to shoot movies on film.

I think that may have been an impediment. Maybe we should have switched to digital.

I really like how the movie looks, though. It's very warm. It feels almost like a storybook at times, with that warm tone and all the bright colors. I was curious whether you decided on the colors of all the locations beforehand or whether you found some of the places and costumes as is.

We painted everything. You know the pensione where Patricia and Ofelia rent their rooms? That was an abandoned building. So we had to paint Ofelia's room, and then we had to make it look lived-in—add humidity to the walls and so on. The bakery was also an empty space. Everything was made up for the film. I worked closely with our art director [Mirtha MolinaPaula Villalba]. I think she's really good, very detail-minded.

I thought of the French director Jacques Demy. The settings of his movies were very colorful, like in old Hollywood musicals, but he created them in real, everyday environments. That's a bit like the settings of Rambleras.

They have something old about them, yes.

Ofelias room
  • Ofelia's room

What inspired the film's sense of color?

In Uruguay, we say that the country is gray. Like, the Brazilians are the happy ones, and we're just [She makes a straight line with her hand]. That's really common, but I fight that idea. I don't like that—I don't think we're like that.

That line sounds like something out of the Uruguayan comedies I've seen. In all of them, the characters seem prepared to weather anything, no matter how bad. The philosophy of these movies seems to be that even when life is going well, there's still something a little miserable about it.

Yeah, life is like that! [laughs] That's a common perspective—I think it comes out of a sort of nostalgia, actually. But if you go walking in Montevideo, you see color everywhere. You want to pay attention to it all.

The costumes of Rambleras are very colorful too. Was your art director as closely involved with the wardrobe as she was with the sets?

Yes. For each character, she would show me all the outfits she would like for her to wear, and I would pick the ones that were closest to my idea of the character. And she'd do with everything. For example, we shot some makeup tests for Jacqueline [Maria Elena Perez] to see how it would look on film. I didn't want it to look too beautiful, so we brought the makeup down, made it a little more common. Mirtha would show me a range of colors for each character, and I would say, "OK, let's work from here to here."

Maria Elena Perez as Jacqueline
  • Maria Elena Perez as Jacqueline

And so we end up associating each character with a different range. Like, Patricia is often wearing darker shades of green.

Except when she's out at night with Gustavo, when she's made herself prettier. Otherwise, we wanted her to look not so feminine, like she's not so worried about her appearance.

Ofelia is my favorite character in the film. She reminded me of my grandmother in the years between the death of my grandfather and when she moved into a nursing home. She was still independent during that time, but she was less and less capable of doing things by herself. It got to the point that if she ran an errand or went for a walk or something like that, it would be the center of her day. And if you talked to her, she would tell you a long story about it. It was clear from how she talked that, from her perspective, this was a big event.

For sure. To cross the rambla, for Ofelia, is just such a big challenge. It is like the central part of her life. So she's asking Nelly, who owns the rooms, then Patricia to help her. You know, sometimes we think the important things in life involve money, but that's not true for everybody. Crossing the rambla is very important to her, and I wanted to respect that.

When movies present these "little" challenges faced by elderly or disabled characters, there's a tendency for them to get overly sweet about it. Yet Rambleras doesn't feel sentimental.

Well, Ofelia knocks over Patricia's flower pot [when she's mad at her]. She has this miserable side too.

Yes, but the movie always has sympathy for Ofelia. It just doesn't cross over into sentimentality.

I was worried about that. So, I always thought about the shadow of each character. Like, Jacqueline could be a good friend, but she can be kind of frivolous. Patricia is kind of irresponsible, a failure, even—you know, she obsesses over this candle and this plant [Gustavo gives her]. Any character has to have both sides, and they both have to be on the screen in some percentage.

Read part two of this interview.

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