Venice 2023 review: Sobre todo de noche (Víctor Iriarte)

“Iriarte carefully threads the needle between the artsiness of his visuals and the emotion of the three-way relationship those visuals convey, creating in Sobre todo de noche a brilliant piece of arthouse cinema.”

After the Spanish Civil War and the rise of the Franco regime, newborn children of Republican parents started being abducted by the Nationalist government to be placed with people sympathetic to the regime who were unable to conceive. At first a sort of ‘political cleansing’ (as opposed to the ethnic variant), and abetted by the Catholic Church that was in bed with Francoism, the practice allegedly turned into a lucrative business after Franco was toppled, and continued until the 1980s. An estimated 300,000 children were thus ‘disappeared’, the so-called ‘Lost children of Francoism.’ This is the background for Víctor Iriarte’s singular debut Sobre todo de noche, a film built on a triangle of motherly love that defines mother-son relationships in the face of injustice, but framed as an artistic detective story that turns into a heist movie.

Mother, son, mother. Three people are about to come together on the banks of the Douro River, but for that to happen they first have to find each other. Vera (Lola Dueñas) has been looking for her son for years. Forced to give up her son after birth, her search is hampered by authorities simply denying her case exists. Vera’s tenacity in her investigative work eventually turns up a name: Egoz (Manuel Egozkue). A letter leads to a meeting, not just with Egoz but also with the mother he has always known, Cora (Ana Torrent). This piano teacher who has cared for her adoptive son for all of his (almost) 18 years bonds with Vera, and the three individuals grow into a strong unit. Strong enough to take revenge on those who have denied them happiness and the truth all those years.

A premise like this might have led to an emotionally charged film, but Iriarte takes a different approach. The film’s detached, rigid style and its conspiratorial tone, in which much of the story is told in voice-over through letters sent between the characters, probably diminish the emotional impact the story could have, but make the viewing much more satisfying, albeit academic. Hands trace routes across a multitude of maps, hands that are looking for a human connection. A whole section of the film is shot in circular frame, huddling together the makeshift family unit of three, tightening their bond. Gloriously shot in 16mm by DP Pablo Paloma, it is hard to pin down the exact era the film is set in. Sobre todo de noche is artsy almost to a fault, but most of the radical choices have thought behind them. It limits the audience, but shows a director with a distinct voice willing to go beyond the safe choice of turning this story into melodrama. The emotional moments are definitely there, but wonderfully underplayed by Dueñas and Torrent who deliver remarkable performances in what is by definition not an actorly film.

The film’s excellent music (by Maite Arroitajauregi) adds to the atmosphere surrounding Vera’s search for her son, becoming that of a sleuth movie. Guns hidden in books, keys exchanged in secret, help received in hushed tones, it all gives Sobre todo de noche a peculiar feel, like a subdued and less calculated Wes Anderson film with actual warmth and human beings. There are clear overtones of Manoel de Oliveira in Iriarte’s mise-en-scene, in that sort of melancholic beauty of the Portuguese master, and if you squint you can perhaps see Almodóvar’s mother-and-son relationships. But the proverbial sum is superior to its already wonderful parts, leading to a masterpiece that definitely runs in its own lane. Iriarte carefully threads the needle between the artsiness of his visuals and the emotion of the three-way relationship those visuals convey, creating in Sobre todo de noche a brilliant piece of arthouse cinema that will please both the aesthetes and those who love storytelling alike, and one of the very best films of the festival, perhaps the year.