The Story of a Satellite, which screens as part of the Chicago Underground Film Festival, is a lighthearted comedy about dark, heavy themes, and this friction between form and content keeps the film compelling despite its frequent preciousness. Spanish writer-directors Miriam and Sonia Albert-Sobrino, who credit themselves as "the Also Sisters," address the subjects of death, freak accidents, and deadbeat parents while trading in deadpan visual humor and quirky characterizations. The latter elements are so prominent, in fact, that you may not realize how sad the movie is until after it ends, though the melancholy aspect of Satellite isn't entirely hidden from view: critical scenes take place in a cemetery, and the main character lives in constant fear of death. As in certain films by Pedro Almodovar (whom the sisters cite as an influence), humor seems like a coping mechanism in the face of material that might be too difficult to approach seriously.
The hero of Satellite is a twentysomething man named Rafael (Alfonso Miguez, a dead ringer for the young Frank Zappa). Early in the movie, the directors reveal that, two decades earlier, Rafael's father was killed by a satellite as it fell to earth. This event was the defining moment of Rafael's life—even as an adult he continues to believe that he'll meet a similar fate and obsesses over the possibility that another satellite will fall near his home. Rafael collects news articles about errant satellites and carries a small electronic device that informs him when a satellite orbits overhead. Often clad in a miner's helmet, Rafael suggests a cartoon image of overpreparedness, and his single-minded focus on satellites suggests a life bound by childhood anxieties.
Rafael works as an undertaker, though the film never shows him practicing his trade. (One of the movie's subtle running gags is that, despite the hero's obsession with death, it never materializes.) He spends most of his time attending to his private obsessions and lecturing his preadolescent apprentice, Melito. The directors mine plenty of humor from the fact that Melito is more mature than his grown-up counterpart; this dynamic and the fact that Rafael still lives with his mother reinforce the idea that Rafael remains something of a child himself. The mother has survived breast cancer, and though this detail is somewhat extraneous, it adds to the theme of life marked by tragedy.
About a third of the way into Satellite, Rafael discovers that his father wasn't actually killed by a rogue satellite; rather, his mother invented the story to avoid telling him that his old man ran off with another woman. In one of the film's funniest visual gags, Rafael returns to the scene of the father's "accident," examines the wreckage, and discovers that the leg sticking out from under the fallen satellite is nothing more than a cheap prosthesis. Transformed by this revelation, Rafael hopes to track down his missing father and make sense of his own life.
What follows is an extended shaggy-dog narrative in which Rafael and Melito explore the nearby countryside. The directors never explain why the characters limit their quest to such a small area, but this constricted search reinforces the notion that Rafael and Melito are little more than children adrift in an adult world. The journey does yield some surprises, however. In one sequence the characters stumble upon two Italian soldiers lost in the woods who believe that World War II has just ended. In fact the directors never reveal exactly when Satellite takes place; it seems to be set in the present, yet the characters use no 21st-century technology and the news reports they hear on the radio relate various events from the last 50 years. However mannered this aspect of Satellite may be, its melancholy deepens as the film lingers in the memory—as though Rafael's trauma is so profound that it leaves him lost in time.
Satellite concludes with a classically Spanish scene—a bullfight—after Rafael learns that he has a half-sister and she's a matador. The directors play the scene as a non sequitur joke, and as a result, the ending comes off as anticlimactic. This isn't the only quality that makes Satellite feel less like a feature than an extended short film—the characterizations are all one-note, and the filmmakers tend to circle around their themes rather than developing them. Still, the movie conveys a distinctive sensibility, making one wonder what this directorial duo will come up with next. v
Check back later this week for more coverage of the Chicago Underground Film Festival, running Wednesday, June 6, through Sunday, June 10.