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The 2004 terrorist attacks against Madrid's public transport system cost the lives of nearly 200 people and strongly affected the sense of security in the country. Spanish director Jaime Rosales' second feature film Solitary Fragments examines the effects of a similar kind of attack on several ordinary people living in Madrid. Adela (Sonia Almarcha), a single mother of a baby boy, finds a home as the flatmate of Inés (Miriam Correa), the daughter of Antonia (Petra Martínez), a widowed mother of three adult daughters. The unexpected terrorist strike drastically changes Adela's life and has an indirect effect on the other characters as well, namely Antonia's other two daughters Nieves and Helena (Nuria Mencía and María Bazán).
The story in general is very much dependent on the mood as opposed to plot, which is borderline non-existent. The characters' personalities are revealed indirectly in conversations and long takes of mundane housework, such as ironing or cooking. The focus is on a completely personal level; the turning point of the story is passed very undramatically and the political and societal aspects of the attack are coldly ignored. However, slowly Adele, Antonia and the three sisters start feeling more real and by the quietly hopeful ending they have evolved as human beings.
Rosales is said to have been influenced by the cinema Robert Bresson and Yasujiro Ozu, which becomes immediately evident at the beginning of the film. Long static shots combined with a split screen where the other half may well stay empty of action for quite a while make it seem like Rosales considers any kind of camera movement or cutting between different angles a distraction. He also favours wide panoramic shots over tight close-ups and doesn't guide the audience's emotions with any kind of music. The economical, sparsely edited style is also utilized in the numerous conversation scenes where the two halves of the screen can focus on two characters simultaneously, even by having them talk straight to the camera, if not to the audience. For the most part the passive, immobile and distant camera work creates a rather voyeuristic mood, as if the camera doesn't want to interfere in the action by getting too close to the characters. Nevertheless, looking past the surface, the manner of observing things from far is never out of place and allows room for thought in a different way than more ordinary direction would.
Even though Rosales' unconventional way of stripping his shots of all distractions is in danger of becoming a distraction itself, his stern vision never allows the style rise over substance. The mise en scène of the split screens and the more traditional compositions are beautiful to watch per se, and the frequent breaking of the 180 degree rule when characters walk from one screen to another fractures the strict realism of traditionally continuous movements. This type of special little touches and the general idea of skipping the expected high points of drama altogether, instead focusing on usually ignored mundane chores, make Solitary Fragments a very interesting experience. Rosales avoids any kind of manipulation and demands a lot of patience from his audience, but those willing to allow images to talk for themselves are in for a treat. The easily bored may want to choose another movie to watch though. Not that there's anything wrong about that Solitary Fragments was obviously not made to please everyone.
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