Continuing in my endeavour to devote February to my blog readers, a film that was not just recommended to me by a reader, but actually gifted. Bawa, who was one of the first people to encourage me to watch and review international cinema on this blog, gave me an English-subtitled DVD of this classic Spanish film a couple of years ago. I’ve been meaning to see it ever since, and finally got around to watching it this week.
La Tía Tula (‘Aunt Tula’) is one of those films where not very much actually happens in the way of story. Or, rather, the story rests not so much on a series of events, but on a slow, subtle progression (which, by contrast, makes the handful of important events in the plot even more dramatic than they would otherwise have been).
The eponymous Tula (Aurora Bautista) is introduced in the very first scene of the film, which takes place at the funeral of Tula’s sister, Rosa. Rosa, a faceless form whom we merely catch a glimpse of in her coffin, is surrounded by mourners – family and friends who have come to the house.
In her interactions with them, Tula is revealed as a practical, dignified woman; a woman who grieves for her dead sister, but whose grief is never melodramatic.
And she is caring. It shows briefly in the way she reaches up to pull together the lapels of her brother-in-law Ramiro (Argentinian actor Carlos Estrada) when the pall-bearers lift the coffin.
When a friend informs Tula that Rosa’s little son Ramirín (Carlos Sánchez Jiménez) is sitting all by himself in a room, Tula goes to him, to comfort him and get him to eat something. When Ramirín’s little sister Tulita (Mari Loli Cobos) cries for her mother, it is Tula who consoles her, gathering the little girl into her arms, cooing words of comfort and kissing her.
It is apparent, too, that both children – Ramirín and Tulita – are very attached to their aunt.
The mutual affection between Rosa’s now-motherless children and their aunt leads to an unsurprising development: she decides that she will look after them. Tula is unmarried, after all, and has her own home; she is well able to bring them up. Except that Rosa hasn’t just left behind two grieving children; she’s also left behind a husband.
Never mind; Tula, ever-efficient, very capable and generous, makes all three of them move into her home.
What ensues is, at least at first, the very picture of domestic harmony. Ramiro works in a bank; the children go to school. Tula manages everything at home: cleaning, ironing, cooking, making sure Ramirín has completed his homework and Tulita is bathed, entertained, and comforted whenever she’s missing her mother.
In between, there are glimpses, too, of a Tula who is not just a good homemaker, but also generally very efficient. When her tenants come to pay rent, she is polite yet firm in reminding defaulters that they must pay up soon; at the same time, she is generous enough to give Rosa’s and the children’s old clothes to the poorer tenants. This is a woman, we realise, who seems to be the very embodiment of composure and self-confidence.
That, perhaps, is what makes her treat Ramiro with the same firm dignity that she adopts with the children. Seeing him at home in the morning, wearing his trousers and a vest, she makes no bones about telling him that he can’t wander around in this state of undress. When he tries to sit at a dining table which is already crowded – with the children’s books and toys, plus Tula’s ironing – she is quick to tell him to sit elsewhere.
When Ramiro falls ill with a sore throat, Tula takes care of him, getting him to do his inhalation while she makes his bed, then wipes his face with eau de cologne, even combs his hair for him. It is almost as if, for Tula, Ramiro is just another child. An older version of Ramirín, perhaps. She is not openly affectionate towards the man, but in her firm control over how he behaves (including with his children), it does seem as if Tula regards Ramiro not so much as a grown man, but as one of the children her sister has left behind.
Tula, however, has an admirer, Emilio (?). Emilio has been in love with Tula for a while now, and even though she’s told him to get lost, he persists in trying to follow her back from her outings with her friends. Tula always manages to get her friends to stay close so that Emilio keeps his distance, but Emilio is nearing the end of his patience.
One day, Emilio decides to take Ramiro into his confidence, and asks Ramiro to put in a word with Tula on his behalf.
But Tula, when Ramiro passes on the message, is adamant: she does not want to get married. What will happen to the children if she marries? Who will take care of them?
While Tula is going about being the busy mother, Ramiro is slowly beginning to see her in a different light. She is his sister-in-law, true; but she’s a very pretty woman (as he tells her once, to her surprise). And Ramiro, watching her as she oh-so-efficiently handles home and children, sees also the affection she showers on the children, and the care she gives him when he’s ill.
We get another insight into what’s happening to an increasingly restive Ramiro when he stops one day near a roadside tavern for a beer. A couple of men come by on scooters, each with a young woman riding pillion. While the men are inside the tavern, Ramiro unblinkingly stares at the women – he is so blasé about it that they notice, and giggle to themselves, whispering about him – and he still doesn’t look away. There is more than a hint of a man who is being forced into celibacy, and does not like it…
Just a short while later, Ramiro runs into Emilio. Emilio, chatting with him, tells Ramiro that it’s only a matter of time before he (Ramiro, not Emilio) marries Tula, isn’t it? After all, they’re living in the same house. She is looking after his children. She isn’t getting married. Not to Emilio, not to anyone else. Everybody around, says Emilio (and he seems resigned to this) believes that Ramiro and Tula will get married sooner rather than later.
And so, Ramiro, finding Tula home alone, proposes to her. He asks her to marry her, giving his reasons – for the sake of the children, because he loves her – and Tula turns him down. Turns him down very vehemently indeed, telling him that he doesn’t love her; he never even loved her sister Rosa. (This knowledge stems from a long-ago letter that Tula has discovered among Rosa’s things; it was from Ramiro to Rosa, before they were married, and alludes to Ramiro having seduced Rosa, with the result that he now must marry her).
Ramiro doesn’t take this rejection well. He tries to plead with Tula, who again refuses – and eventually Ramiro clams up. Life goes on as before, with Tula treating him with her usual calm friendliness. But Ramiro is brooding and bitter; it shows in the way he looks at Tula, the way he responds to much of what she says.
And one night, Ramiro loses control, and tries to molest Tula. She escapes by locking herself inside the bathroom. She sits on the floor, crying and shaking, a far cry from the composed and dignified Tula we’ve seen throughout the film till now.
Can Tula recover from this sudden, disturbing jolt? Till now, she has gone through this faux domesticity, being foster mother to Ramiro’s children, and a sort-of stand-in for his wife, oblivious to the fact that Ramiro is, increasingly, beginning to regard her as not just his sister-in-law. Can (and will) Tula adjust? Will she do what everybody (as Emilio suggested to Ramiro) expects her to do?
I will admit to being a bit immature when it comes to a lot of films. I like ends tied up neatly. I like questions answered. I like characters I’ve been rooting for to be happy (or at least for there to be a glimmer of hope for them). By those standards, La Tía Tula shouldn’t have been a film that appealed to me, because it’s a tragic story, and leaves some important things unsaid.
Instead, this film mesmerised me. I kept thinking about it hours after I’d finished watching it. I found myself rewinding the DVD and seeing certain scenes again – just to catch an expression here, a small gesture there. I asked myself questions. I answered them for myself, and then wondered if my answers were probably just a reflection of how I’d wanted the film to play out. I wondered what happened after the last scene.
And isn’t that a sign of a great film?
What I liked about this film:
The quiet subtlety of it all. The first truly dramatic event that happens – more than halfway through the film – is Ramiro’s attempt to force himself on Tula. Prior to that, the changing chemistry between Ramiro and Tula is so subtle, so discreet, that one almost ends up wondering if that was what the director (Miguel Picazo) meant by that particular expression or gesture.
For instance, there’s a short scene towards the beginning of the film, when Ramiro and his children have moved in with Tula, and Tula is getting little Tulita ready for school. Tulita has been mentioning that some of her other little friends will be going to their first communion this time; when will she go? Tula consoles her and says that since the family is still in mourning, Tulita won’t go for her first communion now.
And the first scene after Ramiro’s proposed is Tulita’s first communion.
Tula looks placid, collected, dignified: the perfect mother, proud of her little girl. What is the underlying thought here? That Ramiro’s proposal has signalled an end to the mourning? Has Tula, despite her rejection of Ramiro, formally installed herself as the de facto mother? Or is this simply a way of telling the world that she can be a mother to Tulita without marrying Ramiro?
There are the small gestures, too, that indicate so much that is otherwise left unsaid. For example, a scene (after Ramiro proposes to Tula) in which Ramiro is pacing about the room, talking to Tula. What they’re discussing is beside the point; the important thing here is the way Tula reaches up to Ramiro’s shoulder and tugs away a loose white thread that is clinging to the dark cloth of his jacket. She pauses briefly to smooth the cloth down, before drawing away.
There’s something very indicative of a domestic intimacy here – it’s the sort of thing one would typically expect a wife to do to a husband: neaten him up, without stopping to think that she was touching him, even if the touch was completely non-sexual. It makes one wonder: has Tula forgiven Ramiro for his unwelcome proposal? Or has it actually brought her, in some indefinable way, closer to Ramiro? Is this gesture an expression of possessiveness?
I could go on and on.
As good as the direction and the very nuanced, subtle screenplay is the acting. Aurora Bautista is especially brilliant as Tula: the dignified, unruffled Tula, as well as the Tula who is left emotionally shattered by all that happens to her.
Lastly, the name of the film. Aunt Tula. A woman defined not by her own self (which, considering Tula’s personality, is quite substantial), but by her relationship with two children. Is that what Tula is all about? The aunt of Ramirín and Tulita? Till the very last, painful moment of the film, Tula does go on insisting that they’re her children, that she cannot bear to be separated from them – but it is Ramiro, too, whom she is looking at, Ramiro whom her arms stretch out to.
What I didn’t like:
Nothing. Truly. This film is a masterpiece.