Locarno 2023 review: The Permanent Picture (Laura Ferrés)

“A tremendously compelling and often deeply thought-provoking film that serves as an excellent feature-length debut for Ferrés.”

Our lives are essentially nothing more than a series of stories that interweave with one another, existing concurrently with one another – and our responsibility is merely to impart those stories to one another. Most notably to those who represent the future generations, who take these stories and craft them into indelible parts of our collective history. For some, our stories are unspoken, and are best reflected on our faces – and Laura Ferrés uses this concept as the foundation for The Permanent Picture (La imatge permanent), in which she explores the past and present in tandem through an engaging and poetic portrait of the human condition. The film tells the story of a casting director exploring the rural and working-class areas of Spain in order to find the perfect subject for a project she is working on. In the process she encounters a beguiling older woman whose own history is a layered, complex series of moments that reflect the cultural details of the world in which she was raised, shown in sharp contrast to the one she has been forced to navigate, despite not being adapted to such treacherous urban terrain. A tremendously compelling and often deeply thought-provoking film that serves as an excellent feature-length debut for Ferrés, The Permanent Picture is an exceptional work that unsettles the past in its fervent quest to understand the future (one of the many dichotomies presented throughout), and proves to be an exciting film for many reasons, most of all its incredible compassion that is meaningful without being gaudy, an important element when it comes to some of these concepts.

As a medium, photography has always been one of the most fascinating forms of artistic expression. But even if we look beyond the act of taking a photograph and instead focus on the actual concept that occurs in that vague space between the camera and its subject, the split second in which it takes reality and commits it permanently to the world of art, we see that it is far more complex and engaging. Photography is a central theme that drives this film, as it is primarily focused on a photographer trying to find the perfect subject – someone who is photogenic enough to fit into the mould of the project on which she is working, but not too authentic, since there is something disconcerting about capturing raw emotions on screen. This is the exact reason for Ferrés’ examination of these ideas in The Permanent Picture, which centres itself on these celluloid preservations to become a fascinating account of the art of reflecting life in its most simple, static form. A film composed of unforgettable images, each one working in symbiosis with those around it to create a striking visual poem about the most intricate details of humanity, and so we find ourselves growing increasingly curious alongside the protagonist. The Permanent Picture looks at a kind of photography that doesn’t necessarily set out to capture the architecture or natural world of a given location (although these do become supplementary to the main subject), but rather focuses on faces, each one representing a different person and a range of experiences, a foundational theme from which the film extracts its most meaningful conversations.

It is in this endeavour to capture the faces of people encountered by the protagonist that we discover the true scope of The Permanent Picture, which becomes a deeply compelling story about Spain and its residents, particularly the women, whom we see as occupying an important but often understated place in the nation’s history. The opening sequences set roughly half a century before the main narrative show the burden of tradition, but also the responsibility thrust on these women to be pillars of their community – and as we voyage through the story, we find that the same principle applies to the modern day. This film functions as a fascinating social document in which we find the folk traditions of the past intermingling with the modern world – Ferrés may trade the pastoral surroundings of rural Spain in the 1960s for a more urban space, but there are small details embedded in her interactions with these characters, particularly the enigmatic Antonia. It is her childhood we witness in the first act and that proves to be the subject of our protagonist’s fascination, showing just how much the past impacts the lives of future generations, both directly as they age and through the legacy left behind by their ancestors. The seamless transition between eras is handled well by the director, who works closely with her actors (particularly Rosario Ortega as the adult Antonia, in an extraordinary performance in a film filled to the brim with exceptional work from the cast) to bring these ideas to life with vigour and honesty.

Decoding the secrets that sit at the heart of The Permanent Picture is a daunting but welcome challenge – it takes some time for the themes to fully develop and become cohesive, and it does require the viewer to pay attention to the smaller details, since they may not have much narrative importance but enrich the experience and help us comprehend the underlying message. This is a film built out of the intention to make something that is both visually striking and extremely meaningful, and we find that many of the film’s most compelling moments emerge through the oscillation between style and substance, which work together to tell this fascinating story. The cinematography is extraordinary, but it is the sounds that linger with us the most, the divine discord of the modern world contrasted with the haunting melodies of the past, coming together to amalgamate the different eras into one interminable stream of existential malaise based around factors that include gender, economic status and identity. A whistle-stop tour of the human condition, The Permanent Picture plunges us into the ambiguous space between the past and present, telling a story that is driven by a peculiar musicality and an off-kilter poeticism. This allows the intentionally disjointed, jagged narrative to explore some deeply compelling themes. Simple and evocative, and truly extraordinary in how it captures the very essence of humanity, this film proves to be an astounding debut for Ferrés, and one of the year’s most thought-provoking works.