Glasgow Film Festival 2020, The August Virgin review Fionnuala Boyle
The August Virgin, or La Virgen de Agosto, is the latest film from Spanish director Jonás Trueba. The film follows 30-something Eva as she tries to find her way out of the fog which has descended on her life and her city amidst the searing heat of an airless Madrid August.
We are introduced to Eva as she meets with the owner of the apartment she will rent out for the month of August. The conversation between them is oddly profound; the landlord explains how he is now an orphan due to the recent death of his mother. He will return to his family home to sort out the remaining assets and tie up loose ends, leaving the place to Eva. It is lost soul meets lost soul, and Eva evidently sympathises with the man’s situation, smiling agreeably as he shows her around the house. There is never any mention of Eva’s family as the film progresses, suggesting that her empathy comes from a place of acute understanding, perhaps having experienced similar grief.
When the landlord leaves, there is nothing but silence for several minutes of the film as we observe Eva simply staring into space. The film is set during las fiestas de San Cayetano, San Lorenzo y la Virgen de la Paloma in Madrid, but Eva seems to have no immediate plans to take part in the festivities. Apart from noise made by festival-goers in the street below, Eva seems to exist in the apartment as if far away and totally detached from the merriments. The apartment becomes representative of Eva’s life; barren, guileless, unaffected.
We learn about Eva through the people she comes into contact with over the summer rather than through Eva herself. She does not divulge her inner-thoughts or perceptions on life at any point in the film. Instead, the audience relies on the narrative of others to build an image of Eva, although it is Eva’s personal journey of self-discovery that the film tracks. This is indicative of Eva’s reluctance to be the protagonist of her own life as she constantly evades any opportunity for self-growth.
After meeting her new neighbour, Olka, the pair go out partying together where they forge a friendship with happy-go-lucky British expats, Joe and Simon. The boys have been living in Madrid for ten years, but seem no further forward in their own quest for self-discovery. When the four of them take off to a nearby lake for a day of swimming and sunbathing, the conversation opens up to feelings of aimlessness. Although the group’s worries speak to Eva’s own discontentment, she is unable to take solace in their words. They are foreigners who have travelled, lived abroad and started life elsewhere, whereas Eva has never left Madrid.
It is Olka, however, who challenges the notion of the comfort zone. She gives her view that although there’s a lot of admiration and bravery to be found in constantly starting over, perhaps the biggest bravery of all is creating a life for yourself in your own environment. Olka points out to Eva that it’s easier to reinvent yourself in another country – you don’t know anyone and so can be anyone you want. In your own environment, everyone knows you, and you know yourself, so the challenge to become the person you want to be is greater. Eva ponders ‘la persona de verdad’, or the true self, as the group grapple with the question: are you the person you are because you left home, or because of that home that you left? It is a question that many youngsters and expats have grappled with, myself included.
The adventures Eva goes on with Olka and the Brits over the next few days give her a taste of the expat life. She dances on the hot pavements of La Latina, observes off-the-wall, avant-garde street performers, is whisked off to a side-street speak-easy where she speaks a bit of English and watches Olka share a passionate kiss with a woman at an open-air music concert. More and more, Eva’s eyes are opened up to the possibilities before her as she realises that the magic of life is not just reserved for an August in Madrid, but can be found anywhere and anytime, so long as you make the effort to look for and create the magic yourself. Even the fact that the festival celebrates La Virgen de la Paloma – ‘paloma’ meaning dove or bird – suggests that Eva is preparing to spread her wings and venture beyond all that she has known until now; dead-end routine, unhappiness and misplaced ambition.
Indeed when Eva meets a kindred spirit in Agos, an uninspired bartender who shares in Eva’s desolation, she is entranced by him, presumably identifying with the sadness in his eyes. Until now, the film has flirted with the past and the present. It now confronts the future as Eva and Agos spend the night together and Eva falls pregnant. The audience are left speculating whether the pregnancy took place before or after Eva’s encounter with Agos. The themes of maternity, pregnancy, ovulation and ritual have been at play throughout, teasing the audience and leaving them feeling somewhat disorientated when Eva’s figure starts to change so soon.
In any case, Eva’s pregnancy is perhaps the only thing which proposes to remedy her dissatisfaction with life, giving her purpose and grounding her to a city to which she has felt little affinity with. The family that she may be grieving is one she can find her way back to again in Agos and her unborn child.
The August Virgin is a charming film. For me, it was laden with nostalgia, having lived in the neighbourhood of La Latina during my year abroad four years ago. My memories of a Madrid August consist of cold showers, dodgy fans blowing hot air and near-fainting spells after a night of heavy drinking in las discotecas. My memories of The August Virgin will be much more positive. I would highly recommend.
Fionnuala Boyle, March 2020.
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