Thursday, May 17, 2018

Verónica (2017)

Warning: I am going to spoil parts of the ending!

Madrid 1991. When fifteen year old Verónica (Sandra Escacena doing a pretty perfect job with the role) isn’t going to Catholic school, she’s the replacement mom for her three younger siblings. It’s not that their mother is completely absent or neglecting her kids on purpose, but after the death of her husband, she has had to take on dire hours running a bar, leaving little mental and physical capacity for the other fulltime job of running her family. Which of course doesn’t change the fact that Verónica’s clearly missing out on space and time for not being a grown-up herself.

Verónica’s not the kind of girl who’ll let her little kid brother and sisters down, so her only tiny rebellion consists in an interest in the occult – or really, the bit of the occult you can learn about by buying one of these cheap weekly magazine “encyclopaedias” about them (personally, I remember buying similar stuff about the blues and classical music). When a solar eclipse is coming around, Verónica, her best friend and a girl who is clearly Verónica’s competition for the best friend role sneak down into the cellar of their school for a bit of a ouija séance to contact Verónica’s father. Something goes very wrong indeed during the séance, though Verónica doesn’t seem to be able to remember what exactly happened. In any case, her friends – such as they are – shun her afterwards.

Worse still, the séance seems to have opened a door to something very malevolent that is now following Verónica and threatening her and her siblings. The kid doesn’t have much of a support network to help her either. Her mother’s pretty much useless, so there’s only a strange, blind nun (Consuela Trujillo) and the cheap occult encyclopaedia to help her out. That just might not be enough.

As a guy who was fifteen in 1991, with a dead father and a single mum, I can relate to Paco Plaza’s Verónica rather well, even though I didn’t have to care for any siblings, and my part of Germany is more laid back protestant than Catholic. Also, there has been a decisive lack of non-metaphorical ghosts and hauntings in my life. There’s a great feeling of veracity to the film, its portrayal of the period shaped by what feels very much like lived experience; not a product of nostalgia so much as an attempt to show how environments shape experience. This is supposedly based on a true story, but as the narrative unfolds, the supernatural threat is really an embodiment of all of Verónica’s fears, the feeling of grief for her father, an outsider’s desperate clinging to the only real friend she has, as well as the usual teenage malaise even those teens suffer under who don’t have to carry the weight of a whole family.

If a viewer wants, she can even explain most of the supernatural occurrences as products of Verónica’s mind, but some of Plaza’s directorial decision late in the film consciously block this reading from being completely correct. The supernatural isn’t a metaphor, but all of Verónica’s fears and problems externalised and made real in the world of the film, all the nagging big and little things turning nasty. So when the interior rot she feels suddenly presents itself outside of her, under her family’s mattresses, it’s an example of one of the oldest and best moves in the horror playbook: fears turning into something tangible and deadly.

Speaking of deadly, Verónica is an excellent example of horror filmmaking that manages to be ruthless without having much of a body count, winning its tension by making the lone death that happens desperately important as well as terribly unfair. For while one could read the movie as Verónica being punished for transgressing through her use of the ouija board, Plaza plays it very much as Verónica being punished for nothing that’s at all the fault of a teenage girl, the things she has no control over whatsoever: her loneliness and having to carry the load of a grown-up.

All this is packaged as a highly effective horror film that uses a lot of the elements you find in most mainstream horror productions right now. However, Plaza uses the style in very careful ways, timing jump scares and figures lingering in the background exceedingly well. The director always keeps in sight what the louder moments of the film actually mean for the characters, finding a thoughtful middle between some very creepy moments – Plaza makes a lot out of the supernatural invading intimate spaces and actions - and those that are more disquieting through their implications about the inner life of our protagonist.

Plaza also keeps in mind the age of his characters, so Verónica’s final fight against what threatens her and her siblings is done via crap found in that magazine encyclopaedia, drawings made by a four year old, and no help by any theoretically responsible adults. That the film ends how it ends seems practically inevitable, but because of the way Verónica tells its tale, I also felt much sadder about it than most horror films make me.

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