El río que nos lleva (1989)

Adventure, Drama


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8 November 2003 | khatcher-2
| Fascinating sociological document
José Luis Sampedro took ten years to write the book, bumping into all sorts of bureaucratic and censorship problems in the process, gathering his material as he walked up and down the banks of the River Tagus (Río Tajo) in its upper reaches through the sparsely populated province of Cuenca. Things were not much better in 1989 when Antonio del Real started making the film, as he too met up with all kinds of problems, among them the fact that RTVE and the Cinematic Arts Council were not handing out funds so liberally as they do today. However, with Sr. Sampedro's help all along the way, the film got off the ground, thankfully, and is, as far as I am concerned del Real's best work, as the others which I have seen - such as 'Cha-cha-chá' (qv) - are not worth much at all.

'El Río que nos Lleva' is basically a historical-sociological film as it hearkens back to 1946 and shows us through excellent photography the hardships which many rural people in general had to go through, and, in this case, the lives of the 'gancheros' working on the River Tagus, the longest river in the Iberian Peninsular. The 'gancheros' (literally 'hookers') transported tree-trunks from the vast forests of the upper reaches down river to the collecting mills at Aranjuez, south of Madrid. This profession no longer exists: roads and lorries have reached those lonely wood-rich hills. The journey could take anything up to 5 months to complete; this film narrates the adventure of a group of 'gancheros' taking one of the last consignments downstream over rapids and falls to Aranjuez.

No stand-in stunt-men: the actors themselves had to learn to keep their balance on the floating trunks so as to make this film. They themselves had to lever the trunks off the banks into the water, and prod and push them so as to get them floating off down-river.

Thus, this film, rather than a story-driven piece, is more a sociological document of the types of people who made up these 'gancheros' teams, and through it we see the hard simplistic philosophy, their hard-drinking enjoyment; and the harsh but beautiful scenery along the banks of the River Tagus imprints a genuine reality on the film. Maybe a far cry from Canadian loggers in Timberland, but the authenticity of such a feat can only be admired.

Well supported by the musical offering: Lluís Llach has long been known as one of the founder singers of the 'Nova Cançó', otherwise known as 'Cançó Catalá', together with Joan Manuel Serrat, María del Mar Bonet, Ovidi Montllor (who is in this film), Guillermina Motta, Rafael Subirachs and Raimón among others. However, his songs, such as 'Cal que Neixin Flors a Cada Instant', 'L'Estaca' and 'Qué feliç era Mare' are a long way from his musical contribution in this film: he captures the mood wonderfully, even though at times the music seemed somewhat reminiscent of other sources.

Some of the scenes are really worthwhile: the faces of the actors as the camera slowly scans over them, especially perhaps in the 'bullfight' scene; in those days some towns were so poor they could not even afford a real live bull for their fiesta! Nice performances here, especially from Alfredo Landa (Los Santos Inocentes) (qv), and ably helped by the rest of a well-chosen cast. Fernando Fernán Gómez was as usual magnificent in his short appearance on screen as a priest. And if you would like to see the best of Santiago Ramos you should not miss 'Como un Relámpago' (q.v.) in which he is just pure genius.

This must be about the third time I have seen this film, but I enjoy it immensely each time. However, I should add that I do tend to go for films with real people living real lives, albeit in times gone by. Watching films like 'Tasio' (qv) 'Las Ratas' (qv), or that Italian masterpiece 'L'Albero degli zoccoli' - qv - by Ermanno Olmi, will make everything clear.

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