Laia Artigas as Frida
Bruna Cusí as Marga
Paula Robles as Anna
A deeply personal child’s-eye view of loss, Summer 1993 is an utterly beguiling debut feature from Spanish writer-director Carla Simón. And the fact that this collection of delicately observed fragments from a summer of upheaval is based on her own life gives an added potency to this finely crafted film.
Following the death of her mother from Aids, six-year-old Frida (Laia Artigas) is an orphan. Shell-shocked and unresponsive, she loiters on the edge of the adult world as her extended family pack up the contents of her home in Barcelona. Simón’s use of locked shots here is eloquent – evocative of snapshots in a family album, it also means that the adults and their voices are frequently out of the frame, adding to the sense of Frida’s isolation.
Frida’s new home will be with her mother’s brother Esteve (David Verdaguer) and his wife Marga (Bruna Cusí) in rural Catalonia. For a city kid, the joyful mess of country life takes some getting used to, as does the fact that she now has a younger sister, Anna (Paula Robles). Almost as soon as she starts to come out of her shell, Frida begins to build walls: “I have a lot of dolls because everyone loves me,” she says, reassuring herself as much as anyone else. “And you mustn’t touch them,” she adds to Anna.
Rather than a linear story, Simón structures the film as a collection of memories. Small incidents – the way the benevolent smiles of the local mothers disappear when Frida cuts her knee (she is being tested for HIV); ham-fisted sympathy from strangers – are magnified through Frida’s eyes. Simón’s work with all the actors is meticulous, but the children in particular are directed with an exemplary lightness of touch. Artigas’s unaffected naturalism reminded me a little of Ana Torrent in Víctor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive. One scene in particular stands out: it’s a moment of giddy silliness, a pillow fight. Frida is giggling helplessly. And then suddenly, she’s not. Huge, wrenching sobs convulse her. It’s such a sad, wise insight into the way children process grief, the way happiness and mourning can coexist. It destroyed me.
Review by Wendy Ide, The Observer