The Wood God in Valencia
Vicente Molina Foix is one of those cultured Spaniards who seems more French than Iberian. A distinguished novelist, he knows everything about everything though he’s jokey and not at all pedantic and has the exquisite manners of an old-fashioned French aristocrat (come to think of it during the late Middle Ages there were French Counts of Foix in an independent fiefdom in the Pyranees just north of Aragon). He has written poetry, translated Shakespeare, taught for three years at Oxford, worked as a film critic and published a score of novels; his best known work is El Abrecartas, an epistolary novel that covers the twentieth century in Spain and includes among its many characters the Nobel prizewinning poet Vicente Aleixandre (who late in life was a friend to Molina Foix). There are also letters back and forth from Aleixandre and Lorca.
Molina Foix, whom I met last June through Colm Toibin, invited me and a friend down to Valencia, where he is making his second film, The Wood God (El Dios de Madera), based on his own short story, “Satsuma,” named after the small mandarin fruit that one of the characters buys as a gift for another. (It will be released in Spain next year).
We took the four-hour train trip from Madrid through the nearly empty desert of La Mancha to the beautiful old coastal city of Valencia, the home of paella, La Lonja (one of Europe’s most important Gothic civic buildings), a lovely art nouveau train station and covered food market, a spectacular new opera house—and miles and miles of parks and cafes and chic new restaurants.
In the old Spain everything was named after saints but in the new Spain it’s all artists. Our address joined painting, poetry and music—we were staying in the Plaza Picasso on the calle Gongora off the Avenida Maestro Rodrigo (the composer from Valencia of the Concierto de Aranjuez for the guitar, one of the most popular compositions of the 20th century). I even saw a little street named after Jose Iturbi, the Valencia-born pianist in so many Hollywood movies of the 1940s.
We arrived on a Friday evening rather late—but it’s never too late for dinner in Spain, so at midnight we toddled out to Turangalila, a drag restaurant whose name in Sanscrit means something like “joy” and “love.” The place, which could have been in Vegas, had gilt life-size statues of hermaphrodites in the wall niches with all the equipment to prove it, and the “waitresses” were sober showgirls who would appear later lip-synching in spangles. At one-thirty we skipped out before the show since we had already consumed our share of foie gras mousse and ox en croute. Most of the guests were women at bridal showers or office parties. I think we were the only gay people.
The next morning we took a taxi to the Puente Del Real, a 16th century bridge spanning the Turia Gardens. Until the disastrous floods of 1957 this was the riverbed of the Turia River, which divided the historic center of the city from the modern addition, but now the Turia has been diverted and the riverbed is a series of gardens and athletic spaces—one of the most beautiful parts of the town. We arrived while the crew of some 25 members was setting up the next shot. The young black star of the film, Madi Diocou from Senegal, would be crossing the bridge some time after his character’s successful illegal immigration into Spain under the chassis of a truck. Molina Foix had discovered Madi selling bits of jewelry and other small items on the street in Madrid, but he’s a natural actor and seemed completely unfazed as a dozen technicians backed up while he walked toward them and a sun reflector was held over his head like a royal canopy and a microphone was aimed at his feet. The cameraman was harnessed into a Steadicam, the heavy camera that does not register small body movements but gives a smooth, flowing, continual look to the shot (Kubrick made the Steadicam famous in his 1980 The Shining with those long shots of the little boy on his tricycle in the endless hotel corridors).
The people of Valencia seem terribly sporty and everyone was jogging or cycling past as we settled into the next shot. Now we were down in the Turia Gardens amongst what looked like Roman ruins (broken columns and capitals without columns). We were introduced to the leading lady of the movie, Marisa Paredes, one of the icons of the Spanish cinema who appeared in Almodovar’s All About My Mother as the chain-smoking actress Huma Rojo. She’s been in more than 75 films over the years and draws a look and a smile from every passing jogger. In Molina Foix’s movie she plays a lonely woman who falls in love with the Senegalese illegal immigrant. Her son is played by an 18-year-old Catalan stage actor , Nao Albet, who was spotted in a Barcelona production of Alan Bennett’s History Boys. Just to make things really international the fourth leading actor is a Moroccan named Soufiane Ouaarab.
In the little shot we were looking at, Marisa invites her son out for an ice cream in the Roman ruins and pretends to meet Madi for the first time, though he is already her lover. She introduces the two young men to each other. The ice cream they are eating is the best in the world, made from a local drink called Horchata, derived from the tubers of the Chufa plant, sugar, cinnamon and water…
We were sitting quite far from the action looking into the combo, which relays the image from the camera. Little tracks had been laid down so that the camera could dolly in slowly through the ruins for the Horchata scene. Molina Foix was able to talk to the actors through an electronic speaker system. It all felt very big-time and exciting.
For more than a century novelists have wanted to direct their own films but they almost never get the chance, especially not in America where every movie is big-budget and risky and nothing is spontaneous. Molina Foix told me that off the top of his head he could think of a dozen Spanish writers who’ve directed commercial films; I’m sure a real American cinephile could come up with a few names of American writer-directors, but only a few came to this mind: Susan Sontag, Paul Auster, Stephen King.
October 16, 2009, 5:12 p.m.