TIFF 2021 review: The Odd-Job Men (Neus Ballús)

“Regardless of minor narrative shortcomings, The Odd-Job Men is a truly lovely film that manages to make you think while simultaneously putting a smile on your face.”

Screened at the Toronto International Film Festival following its premiere in the main competition at Locarno, Neus Ballús’ episodic charmer The Odd-Job Men (Sis Dies Corrents) follows two handymen who gradually learn to accept and work with each other despite their differences. This modest feature benefits immensely from Ballús’ ability to find gentle humour in mundane situations as well as the wonderful performances of its joint leads Mohamed Mellali and Valero Escolar, who deservingly picked up Locarno’s best actor prize last month. Playing characters that share their own first names, both Mellali and Escolar (who are real-life plumbers appearing in their first film) manage to create multi-layered, affecting characters and carry The Odd-Job Men beyond the domain of improvisational docu-fiction. Contrary to what one might expect given the setup, this is not a thinly fictionalized chronicle of an ordinary week from the lives of two plumbers, but instead it functions as a fully developed exploration of the immigrant experience in contemporary Spain and the rejection of immigrants by ordinary, well-meaning European citizens. It should travel widely and earn many accolades with its potent combination of political relevance and kind-hearted storytelling.

The film is divided into chapters named after the days of the week and recounts the story of Mohamed, who is trying to get through a week-long trial period in order to replace Valero’s retiring colleague Pep. From their first encounter onwards, Valero is unwilling to give Mohamed a chance and treats him in a passive-aggressive manner, if not with outright hostility. Everyone else (including an eccentric photographer who takes an interest in Mohamed when the men come to her studio to fix an air conditioner and the old man who hilariously keeps talking about his anti-aging secrets throughout the plumbers’ visit) seems to like this Moroccan immigrant, but Valero repeatedly mistreats him for trivial reasons. He criticizes Mohamed’s Spanish pronunciation, blames him for a faulty electrical connection, considers him to be an inefficient and slow worker. But crucially, Valero is not a racist monster or an obvious villain despite his clearly problematic behavior. It is to Ballús and Escolar’s credit that we continue to see Valero as a decent man, whose frustration about various other aspects of his personal life brings his prejudices and micro-aggressions to the surface without him even noticing it. Valero is troubled by the pending retirement of his long-time colleague and close friend Pep, his inability to lose weight, and several unfortunate events that keep on coming despite his best efforts. His pickup truck gets towed, old pipes refuse to function properly, complex electrical systems cause a plethora of problems. Mohamed’s presence simply offers him an excuse to direct his anger and disappointment at a stranger in a more vulnerable position than himself. Ballús seems to argue that anti-immigrant sentiments and half-veiled racism in Europe can be observed in every part of daily life, in every quotidian conversation or in every seemingly insignificant task carried out by people you know.

The Odd-Job Men approaches both of its protagonists with the same degree of affection and humanism. We see Mohamed and Valero in their own spaces, in the cramped apartment Mohamed shares with two other immigrants or in the house where Valero lives with his wife and daughter. They are not stereotypes used to get a socio-political message across; instead they are people that we can genuinely understand and care for. Mohamed tries to learn Catalan (a language that even many native Spanish-speakers in the city do not attempt to master). Valero hopes to be able to fit in an old suit despite his growing beer belly. Simply spending time in the company of Mohamed and Valero as they pursue minor but relatable goals like these is a wonderful experience. Ballús’ attention to such details turns The Odd-Job Men into a moving and entertaining character study, keeping the film from descending into dry didacticism.

Each chapter of the film is devoted to a different encounter with eccentric customers (perhaps the strangest one among them is a psychoanalyst who lives in a massive house guarded by all sorts of advanced electronic devices), and it is somewhat at odds with the overall naturalism of the film that so many bizarre supporting characters populate Mohamed and Valero’s story, especially considering how endearingly ordinary the two handymen are. Ballús also attempts to bring these episodes together near the end of the film and uses voiceover narration to convey the idea that infrastructure is a grand metaphor of how connected human beings actually are. Despite all of its virtues in depicting mundane events and operating on a micro-level, The Odd-Job Men becomes less successful when it strains to make such sweeping statements and clumsily tries to link all of its pieces to one another. But regardless of minor narrative shortcomings, this is a truly lovely film that manages to make you think while simultaneously putting a smile on your face.