Toronto 2023 review: The Rye Horn (Jaione Camborda)

“Anchored by an explosive first performance from lead actress Janet Novas, Camborda tactfully portrays the peaceful environment of Galicia while also showing the general sense of uneasiness and anxiety of the times.”

In her second feature The Rye Horn Jaione Camborda recreates the idyllic village life of Galicia’s Illa de Arousa during the rule of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.  An island off Spain’s far western coast, it seemed distant enough from Franco’s oppressive regime, but Camborda’s nuanced approach shows how the dread and harshness still encroached on the lives of unassuming villagers.  Anchored by an explosive first performance from lead actress Janet Novas, Camborda tactfully portrays the peaceful environment of Galicia while also showing the general sense of uneasiness and anxiety of the times.

The film tells the story of Maria Catarina (Novas), a farmer who doubles as a midwife on Illa de Arousa.  She has delivered many of the community’s babies, and the film opens with a roughly eight-minute scene of her assisting a birth.  Later a young woman comes to her to request assistance in performing an abortion.  The experienced Maria creates an elixir from the rye horn, which will help pass the fetus from the body. 

Unfortunately for Maria the authorities learn of her deeds, and she must flee the island for nearby Portugal.  It’s very notable that the film is set in 1968, which is only seven years prior to the end of Franco’s dictatorship.  Interestingly, Portugal was also in the throes of a brutal dictatorship, that of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar.  Presumably the two nations were not working together to prosecute individuals who committed such crimes as Maria’s. She flees the island by boat, leaving all her possessions and loved ones behind.  Shortly afterward she must make her way by foot to Portugal from mainland Spain and cross the closely guarded border at the Minho River. There’s no doubt that with these sequences Camborda wants to draw parallels to the current situation in many countries where abortion rights are still being restricted.

There are four stunning sequences in the film.  The first two are the opening scene of childbirth juxtaposed with the lengthy and strenuous scene of the abortion, in which Camborda shows the pain and labor of the process through the use of the rye extract.  Both scenes are shown in great detail in order to portray the physical pain and extremity of both birth and forced expulsion of the fetus; powerful acting by the actresses in both situations conveys the mental anguish and pain that must be faced by all women who decide either way about having their child.  Camborda’s precise and clinical portrayal of these events leaves politics to the side and simply demonstrates things as they are.  As she has stated, the mammalian nature of both childbirth and abortion are shown in long shots to reveal the pain of the women.

Two other scenes show Camborda’s versatility and the ability of the film to avoid complete dourness and heaviness. The first of these scenes is at a party that takes place after a magician comes to Illa de Arousa.  Before any of Maria’s troubles begin she dances with the magician in the town center, and Camborda’s use of music and camera elevates and electrifies the scene.  She again spikes up the energy when Maria must cross the river to Portugal.  The scene is harrowing and the film does a fantastic job at creating the right amount of tension while remaining realistic.  Two things completely upend expectations and move the film away from being a run-of-the-mill drama:  Camborda consistently presents the environment through idyllic and lyrical shots despite the grim oppression of the Franco regime, and she ends the film in a way that is perhaps not expected.  Both techniques allow her film to push through any basic narrative beats and move toward the territory of great drama.  Unfortunately the film still feels slightly overlong and lacks an overall thematic structure.  It’s hard to tell what Camborda wants to say with her film, but it’s undoubtedly important to draw the comparison between her portrayal of childbirth and abortion while setting the film during the time of a dictatorship that treated humans like nothing more than lowly animals.  While the film may not work completely on a structural or thematic level, The Rye Horn demonstrates Camborda’s growing talent, and her potential to be one of the directors to watch in the coming years.