what would become of Zinemaldia San Sebastian Film Festival without a good controversy. Last year he came for the Donostia Award to Johnny Depp, and this one for the inclusion in the Official Section of Sparta, the film by the provocateur Ulrich Seidl who, according to Der Spiegel, exploited child actors by violating labor regulations in Romania, where this film was shot about a pedophile who sets up a school for judo to surround himself with children. According to the media, the director also hid from the minor actors and their families the subject of the film, which is competing for the Golden Shell.
When the article came out, Seidl flatly denied the accusation. “If, as Der Spiegel claims, parents had objections about the filming or how we treated their children, or if the children were uncomfortable with us, they wouldn't have continued to work with us for as long. It goes without saying that I never forced any child (or any of the actors) to do anything on camera that they didn't want to do," he said, noting that child actors were always "under constant supervision" and that parents were informed. In addition, he added that in the summer of 2019, after filming ended, he visited all the boys and their parents and "none of them complained or showed discomfort." A scandal that the Romanian press had already launched before, but that came to nothing since there was never any firm complaint or accusation.
Despite everything, the Toronto Film Festival, where it had also been selected, withdrew the title from its selection, leaving the ball on the court of José Luis Rebordinos' team, who kept the film in competition. In an interview in elDiario.es, Rebordinos He made his position clear: “we are not judges to investigate what has happened on a shoot, nor are we judges to judge whether there has been any criminal behavior. We can only judge movies. In the film there is nothing that we see that could be susceptible to any problem. The accusations speak of some sequences and some images that are not in the film. I always say the same thing, the only one who can really annul that pass is a judge. We respect the law."
To add fuel to the fire, Seidl canceled his visit to the festival at the last minute, where he had planned to attend the media. “I am very grateful to José Luis Rebordinos for supporting Sparta from the beginning, despite the media pressure and the sudden and unexpected controversy that he has caused. It means a lot to me. My initial impulse was to go to San Sebastian and not leave alone the film that my team and I have worked on for so many years. However, I have come to realize that my presence at the premiere could cast a shadow over the film's reception. Now is the time for the film to speak for itself”, he said in a statement sent by Filmin, which will distribute the film in Spain. With all the mess, the screening of Sparta became the main event of an Official Selection dynamited again by a controversy.
And how is the movie?
Sparta never hides, not even from her synopsis, that it is a film about a pedophile. Its protagonist is a man we first see in a relationship with a woman, but who goes to the parks and plays with the children. He cannot maintain relations with his partner, and at one point he leaves his home and goes to a town in the interior of Romania to set up a judo camp for the local children. We see the pedophile train the children, take pictures of them, and even take a shower with them -in the most uncomfortable scene of the film-, and here comes the complexity and intelligence of the film, we never see him commit the crime. There is never any on-screen abuse, we never see him cross the line from pedophilia to pederasty. We see him tempted, but never falling.
It is a journey into the mind of a patient. Many would like to have seen a monster as the protagonist, but Seidel never gives them that. It is clear that he would like to satisfy his sexual desire, but he never does. To make the film more uncomfortable, the director shows this space as a refuge from the dog life of these children, with abusive parents, who want their children to be violent.
I have realized that my presence at the premiere could cast a shadow over the film's reception. Now it's time for the film to speak for itself"
Ulrich Seidl — Director of 'Sparta'
Seidl plays with the expectation of the viewer, who knows that this is the story of a pedophile, and with it configures his gaze. The games that children have in their underwear would not be uncomfortable in another movie, but here they are because you know the context and that the character next to them is a pedophile. Just like the homoerotic references to Greek culture. But it is necessary to influence, there is not a scene in which neither the abuse nor a naked minor is shown. In fact, the camera always stays stark and distant with long shots and wide angles.
The director, who has specialized in showing the miseries of Western Europe, dealing in his films with themes such as the sexual tourism of bourgeois women to Africa, or the basements of Austrian families, full of Nazi symbolism and heritage, once again plays the provocation in Sparta. There is nothing new here. It is the subject, thorny, and his way of approaching it, without concessions to the viewer, which makes everything more murky.
To complicate things a bit more, Seidl even includes a political layer that puts the focus back on recent European history. The father of the pedophile is a Nazi who in his dementia sings fascist hymns, and the son does not set up his children's camp in his country, but goes to Romania, placing a clear fascism / communism confrontation at the bottom of the issue . A film whose controversy is outside the film and which would have been good if its director came to defend it.