A Film a Week - Sunday's Illness / La enfermedad del domingo

It is strange how festival programming could define the destiny of a particular film. Screened in a wrong selection at the right festival, it could get lost on the circuit and end up forgotten. This year Ramón Salazar’s fourth feature Sunday’s Illness serves as a perfect example: after the premiere at Berlinale’s Panorama and a very short spring festival tour, it ended up on Netflix (in the “International” section) in the early summer interesting only to the niche audience. Great reviews and “word of mouth” did not help much, so one of the best features of the year is largely overlooked.

The plot can be summed up in one sentence: a woman in her 40’s shows up in her estranged socialite mother’s life with a strange demand that two of them spend 10 days together in a mountain village and at home the mother abandoned without looking back. Over the course of days filled with scarce passive aggressive communication some personal and family secrets are revealed changing the lives for the both of them.

It all sounds like a bog standard material to be worked with in either the quiet arthouse mood piece register or as a more luscious Almodovar-esque melodrama, but Sunday’s Illness is something special right from the start. The film opens with a sharp contrast of messiness of younger Chiara’s (Bárbara Lennie) walk through the wooded area in the mountains and older Anabel’s (Susi Sánchez) preparations for hosting a charity dinner at her upscale, mansion-like home. The forest is wild and threatening, the inside of the house seems safe, but with more than a hint of rigorousness in the DOP Ricardo de Garcia’s symmetric framing and tone-down lighting, while the contrast is highlighted with the women’s hair colours – raven black and silver, almost white.

Their first encounter, with Chiara being on of the waitresses at the party and the very one to pour the last glass of wine before bedtime for Anabel, is awkward, as is Chiara’s request that will ensue. The next day, when the request is formally granted, with Chiara signing the papers stating that she will not seek further compensation, Anabel’s rich husband (Miguel Ángel Solá) seems relieved, but Anabel is not so sure what she is getting into. For a good reason, that is, since she is aware what she had done to her daughter when the latter was only 8 years old.

It would be bad to spoil the plot any further, even though the revelation comes at the two-thirds mark after a stretch of an exceptionally well written, elaborate banter between the two. Let us just say that Sunday’s Illness transcends both of the niches, the artsy and the melodramatic ones, by offering a genuine feeling of the drama with artistic elegance and striking emotion.

Sunday’s Illness depends a lot on its actresses, and they are both brilliant choices for their roles. On the surface, Susi Sánchez might seem as a link to Almodovar films (at least the last three where she featured), but here her performance is as strong as it is nuanced, which makes her character arc compelling. This year might prove to be crucial also for Bárbara Lennie who appeared in significant parts in four high-profile titles, including also the Cannes opener, Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows, but her performance in Sunday’s Illness leaves the viewer virtually speechless.

Salazar rarely misses the step in constructing the story (the dying bird detail is a tad too blatant character-building stunt for such a subtle work), while he shines as a director, employing a lot of purely visual storytelling through the predominantly static shots, with the excursion to something way wilder than that in the film’s technically most demanding shot of the two women riding some kind of cart down the slopes.

It is fair to say that Sunday’s Illness is one of the best films of the year for both its formal and narrative merits.

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