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Movie Review: Burning the Bridges at the Glasgow Film Festival 2009

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Burning the Bridges (Quemar las naves) contains themes, issues, and problems that at one time would have shocked and appalled. However we've come a long way in the world of the movies and subjects such as incest and homoeroticism don't strengthen a movie by simple reason of their inclusion.

The film's sensitive approach, although coming off as caring about some of its more universal subject matter, makes its treatment of these issues rather tame in comparison to other racier pictures. It has strong performances which are worth seeking out but rarely is it as emotionally provocative as it wants and needs to be.

Nineteen-year-old Helena is devoted to the care of her dying mother, while her bother Sebastian is mainly at school. But after their mother dies, Sebastian becomes attached to the new boy at his Catholic school and Helena struggles to keep herself and Sebastian together.

It's quite peculiar that a film with such risky themes chooses to almost ignore them completely. We get such things as questioned sexual orientation or possible incest dangled in front of us but the film seems reluctant to explore them in any great detail. Although only just over 100 minutes long, it seems far longer as we meander through the plot with only parts here and there to hold interest.

It's an undoubtedly beautiful picture, shot in a soft and sensitive kind of way. It's therefore a film easy on the eyes, as opposed to, for example, the films of Pedro Almodovar, which are vibrant and startlingly colourful. This soft look reflects the sensitive treatment of the main story that deals with loss and trying to move on.

The performances are what effectively save the picture; they are as believable and realistic as one could hope for, particularly the performance of Irene Azeula as Helena, who holds back from falling into the melodrama trap, making for believable viewing instead of the eye-rolling that could have occurred. Her character is responsible, tough yet caring, and she stands in direct contrast to her brother Sebastian, played well by Angel Onesimo Nevarez. He is naive, hopeful, almost desperate in his actions, and unable to control his emotions as well as his sister does. At least when the film sags, as it often does, we have some rounded, three-dimensional characters to latch onto.

The story of this brother and sister taking care of their dying mother is plenty to work with for a film with a brief runtime. Death is inevitable and that fact provides potential for all sorts of drama. But the screenwriters Francisco Franco (who also directs) and Maria Renee Prudencio feel the need to cram in as many issues as they possibly can; in trying too much they achieve too little. It's like a recipe – the right ingredients in the right amounts can be perfect, but put in everything in the kitchen and it's not going to end up tasting so good.

Although it's impressive for a first-time director to have such a grasp of sensitivity, it is evident here that he'll go on to better things in the future. There's a certain feeling that Franco doesn't quite know how to balance all of these things he's attempting and here he fails, for the most part, to keep the pace going for the full runtime. Cutting about 15 minutes from this piece certainly wouldn't have been the worst idea in the world.

The odds are that if you attempt so much in a film, particularly one that feels as small as this one does, that you'll get right at least some of what's been aimed for. And Burning the Bridges does have some genuinely heart-wrenching, emotionally charged moments, such as a physical confrontation between Helena and Sebastian, that have you glued to the screen. But unfortunately the pendulum also swings the other way and most of the film's dramatic points aren't handled well enough to have the intended effect.

The central theme of the film, suggested by its title, is to burn the bridges of the past and move on from pain and loss. And it's easy to fall for that as an audience; in fact, we do. But you need more than a message to carry a film and unfortunately Burning the Bridges, although not through lack of trying, doesn't accomplish all that it sets out to do.

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