July 1816, after the end of the Napoleonic wars. The French frigate Medusa sets sail for Saint-Louis, in Senegal, with the aim of recovering the former African colonies from the English. On board are almost 400 people, including soldiers, sailors and the captain, the naval officer Hugues de Chaumareys. It was a state-of-the-art ship, built from the finest quality oaks. Like a forest floating in the middle of the ocean. None of that mattered.
Chaumareys made several mistakes that ended in great tragedy. When entering shallow waters, the ship ran aground on a sandbar and the crew had to abandon it. But there was a problem: in the boats there was only room for half of the passengers. The less fortunate ended up on a tiny raft that ended up adrift after loosening the moorings. What came later ended up being represented by the painter Théodore Géricault in one of his most famous paintings: a ring in the middle of the sea for survival with fights, suicides or cannibalism.
That is precisely the story that tells The belly of the sea, a film directed by Agustí Villaronga that this Friday, November 12, premieres on Filmin. His director attends elDiario.es on the other end of the phone, two days before undergoing an operation for a cancer he suffers. Even so, he is happy to be able to share a film born precisely in a turbulent context that has nothing to do with a storm surge, but with a pandemic.
The movie is based on a real shipwreck. How was the documentation task?
It started from the novel Ocean sea scored by Alessandro Baricco. Within it is a separate chapter called The belly of the sea, where he told the shipwreck of the Medusa raft. There is also the diary written jointly by the officer Henri Baptiste Savigny with the cartographer Alexandre Corréard, two of those who escaped the shipwreck. Also, a lot has been written about the Medusa. There are novels or movies, and I’ve been looking at all of that, but it’s very circumscribed to what Baricco wrote. It is not usual for there to be so much documentation of a shipwreck, but this case was a black mark for the French navy because everyone behaved very badly.
Of the 147 passengers, 15 survivors were left who carried out all kinds of atrocities. What does this account say about human nature?
Atrocities did not do, but found themselves in a terrible situation. The atrocities were done by those who sent them there. There were 150 people in a raft that had neither edges, nor keel, nor rudder, nor anything, at the mercy of the waves. The first storm already destroys half of humanity that was there. Then add the sun or the scarcity of food. Many of them went crazy, others committed suicide, even ate each other. But I would not call this an atrocity, but one of the traits of survival.
In an extreme situation, would humans give us all the same?
I think so. But it is also that in this specific case, of someone who has died and you eat a piece to survive, I particularly would not have the slightest problem and anyone who has done so would not deserve any disapproval from me. There are other things that do, because there comes a time when it establishes itself as a ring in the middle of the sea. And of course, the fewer that survive, the more food there will be. So there the war does intervene. There are three things that have always been present in the history of humanity: war, famines and pandemics.
The film revolves around two stories: that of an officer and that of a common sailor, the first colder and the second, more human. It is a struggle between two powers, the one above and the one below. Do these types of confrontations continue to occur in today’s society, in other environments?
Yes, it does. A shipwreck is not only about water. You can be shipwrecked in a thousand ways: there are people who are emotionally shipwrecked, in a war, in a natural catastrophe … I am thinking, for example, of the people of La Palma. Many of these people are as if they were in a shipwreck: they have to get by in a new situation, they do not know how things will go and who can save themselves.
In fact, in the film, the case of the Alliance shipwreck is contrasted with more current images of migrants at sea. What do both situations have in common?
The issue of power acting on the weak is something that has been, is and will be. In the wreck of the Medusa they were obviously all white, but we have put mostly black characters as if to imply that these shipwrecks continue to occur today. And currently it only happens with people who come from Africa. We must remember what happens in the Mediterranean, because it is not something that happened 200 years ago: it happens every day next to us.
At first it was going to be a play, but due to the pandemic it has ended up being a film made expressly and with a limited budget. Do you think that these conditions have negatively affected what you wanted to tell?
Not at all. It was born during the state of alarm, at the toughest moment of the pandemic, and we already knew the conditions from which we were going to start: that we would have very little money and a reduced team. With which, the whole script was adjusted so that it was not a film that needed too much. From the lack to the end we have ended up making a virtue.
It is, in fact, quite a conceptual film even though the story lends itself to being explicit. Are you afraid this will alienate more traditional viewers?
Well, it may be, because it could be told in a conventional way. But in my opinion it is much more interesting to show it like this because, although in the news we see that there are people who want to leave their countries to reach the coasts, they do not talk about what is going on in their heads. The most interesting thing is that our story shows the inner life of people faced with that tragedy, especially that nature so loving and at the same time so treacherous as the sea is. That is very interesting, because an experience of this type makes people inconsolable and does it for life.
His film opens on Filmin. It seems that after the pandemic, digital platforms have gained ground in the debate on whether they are suitable for distributing films. Almodóvar himself, who was very critical, will release his latest film on Netflix. This affects the entire industry: from creators to exhibitors. What then does this paradigm shift imply?
There are very disadvantaged people, who are those who work in cinemas. I think they will fall little by little and some rooms have their days numbered. Not all of them, but you can see how a producer cannot trust theaters unless it is a very commercial product. With this movie, for example, I have more confidence in what a movie rig does. I’m glad to know that movies like Maixabel by Icíar Bollaín or other Spanish films do well at the box office, but of course they are not the numbers of 2019 or earlier.
Platforms also change the way of seeing cinema, not only if it is seen on a big screen or on a computer: it changes the attitude towards it. Sometimes there is little concentration with the work that wants to communicate in a more internal way.
And this change in attitude, would it harm creators who want to make more introspective works?
Yes, it is very possible that it will happen. But it also depends, because you never know how people react. Years ago Ingmar Bergman was not a commercial director, but people went to the movies to see him. Then it can happen again, that there are other ideas. What happens is that there are already many proposals and many films [risas].
Like other of his previous films, this is a film shot in Catalan. Do you think that in Spanish cinema there is little representation of the different languages of the country?
That is clearly so. In Catalonia now there are the Gaudí awards and this year only four films spoken in Catalan are presented. The number has been dropping to the point of being at risk of disappearing. Perhaps part of the European broadcast could be used for films in languages other than Spanish. I do not know if this will come or if it helps at all, because I believe that the most basic aid has to be industrial aid. That is, think things from the industry itself.
Pa black it swept in 2011 with nine goyas, including the best film. Now that a few years of that have passed and it can be assessed from a distance, does the life of a director change anything after receiving a Goya?
It totally changed me. Before he was a more or less interesting person in the cinema, a bit damn. But it was definitely nothing more than a little weird. So, of course, by winning so many Goya with that movie you place yourself in the industry. Suddenly it is as if they accept you into what is the world of cinema. Offers began to fall on me from people I never imagined would call me. It’s not that my life was very different, because I continued more or less faithful to the things I wanted, but it does change.