Living is Easy with Eyes Closed

October 25, 2014
Javier Cámara in 'Living is Easy With Eyes Closed' (2013)
Javier Cámara in 'Living is Easy With Eyes Closed' (2013)

Since the end of the Franco era Spanish filmmakers have made many attempts to engage with that time of backwardness and isolation. The Movida that began in the late 1970s, best exemplified by the anarchic sex comedies of Pedro Almodóvar, was an explosive reaction to the greyness of the preceding decades. When the shock waves died down directors began to explore those years in a more subtle and sympathetic manner.

If success can be measured solely by the quantity of awards a film has won, David Trueba’s Living is Easy with Eyes Closed represents a new high-point in the cinematic portrayal of the Franco period. At the 2014 Goya Awards – the Spanish equivalent of the Oscars – it took out Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Javier Cámara), Best New Actress (Natalia de Molina), Best Screenplay and Best Original Score.

Such a bulging trophy cabinet made me suspect I was about to be disappointed, but the news is all good. Living is Easy’ is one of those rare, gentle films that charms and seduces, but never allows us to forget there is a bitter core beneath the sugar coating.

The story is set in 1966, the twilight of the dictatorship, when Spaniards are feeling their distance from a world of student protests, flower power, music and fashion. The radio plays the Catholic mass, the cinema shows films about handsome priests. Antonio (Javier Cámara) is a schoolteacher, obsessed with the Beatles, who uses the band’s songs to help his students learn English. When he reads that his idol, John Lennon, is coming to Spain to star in a movie, he gets in his battered Fiat and heads south. He wants to ask John about some of the lyrics on the new album (Revolver).

On the way he picks up two hitchhikers – Belén (Natalia de Molina), 20 years old and pregnant, who has run away from a home for unmarried mothers; and Juanjo (Francesc Colomer), 16 years-old, who is rebelling against a father who will not allow his son to have long hair.

Antonio talks enthusiastically about the Beatles and invites Belén and Juanjo along on his adventure. In the barren landscape of Almeria they put up at a cheap hotel where the boy gets part-time work and the girl considers her future. Antonio thinks only of his meeting with “John”, but it will require ingenuity to get past the heavy security that surrounds the set.

At this time the real John Lennon was taking stock of his life and pondering the future of the Beatles. In Almeria he would write the lyrics to Strawberry Fields Forever, a cryptic but deeply personal song about making accommodations. Or is it about getting stoned and forgetting about one’s problems?

Living is easy with eyes closed
Misunderstanding all you see
It’s getting hard to be someone, but it all works out
It doesn’t matter much to me

Living is Easy doesn’t dwell on Lennon’s personal dilemmas. It is the three travellers who experience the thrill of self-discovery, as they must in any good road movie, with Antonio acting as a mentor for Belén and Juanjo. In turn they give him the support he needs to keep pursuing his dream. Antonio, who often seems the most childish of the three, has a naïve confidence that he’ll soon be chatting with John Lennon. His young companions are more sceptical. Although they are already disenchanted with life they can’t help being impressed by Antonio’s optimism.

He may be a lonely, middle-aged bachelor in a dead end job, but Antonio is also the modern incarnation of Don Quixote, with his very own sacred quest. He sees the Beatles songs as more than pop music. They are calls to rebellion that he has being using to indoctrinate his students. The lyrics take on the importance of a manifesto, a weapon for the little man in the fight against a hypocritical system. “Too many people live in fear in Spain,” he tells his companions.

If you’ve seen any recent Spanish films you’re probably familiar with the bald-headed Javier Cámara, one of the country’s leading character actors. He is superb in the lead role, and ably supported by the younger cast members. Trueba’s pacing is perfect, while the soundtrack is atmospheric but never intrusive. There is no Beatles music until the very end, when we listen to an acoustic version of Strawberry Fields’. The rest of an amazingly subtle score comes courtesy of jazz men, Pat Metheny and Charlie Hayden.

Antonio’s character is based on the real-life figure of Juan Carrión Ganán, a schoolteacher who hastened to Almeria when he heard John Lennon was there for the filming of Richard Lester’s comedy, How I Won the War. Trueba has transformed this story into an allegory of a nation savouring a first taste of freedom, as three travellers escape their everyday lives and go in search of a mythical celebrity. They move through a land imbued with bitterness, despair and casual brutality, but by the end of the movie we realise those days will soon be over.

Living is Easy with Eyes Closed
Written & directed by David Trueba
Starring Javier Cámara, Natalia de Molina, Francesc Colomer, Ramon Fontserè
Spain, rated M, 108 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 25th October, 2014.