The first time I was ever assigned to watch a film for class in college, it was Blowup. My class crush and I had made plans to watch it together, causing my sweet, relatively unsullied freshman heart to brim with anticipation over the possibility of a romantic encounter. As the credits were rolling, he turned to me and shrugged, saying “It wasn’t really about anything. Nothing happened.” We didn’t hook up. Not after that comment.
His statement wasn’t necessarily wrong, but he missed the point. A film can be about nothing and still be about so, so much. I love movies about nothing because they’re true to life. Celebrating the small, happenchance moments that make up the greater monotony of our lives may be one of the most optimistic and pure choices a filmmaker can champion. During a year where maximalism dominated both our screens and the geopolitical landscape in quite dystopic fashions, I yearned to uncover a tiny pensive gem among the loud winds of twisty-turny plots
and aesthetic over-saturation. Ironically enough, that gem fell into my lap at a film festival. When I saw La Virgen de Agosto (The August Virgin) at Chicago International Film Festival, I saw a movie so reflective of how people actually speak and behave that I felt like I had absorbed its lessons not from media hegemony, but from a friend.
When Spanish director Jonas Trueba introduced his film La Virgen de Agosto at CIFF, he described it as a “small, simple movie” that he thought of “like a diary film.” The contemplative, lyrically-paced film doesn’t concern itself all that much with plot, but rather following its protagonist Eva, an adrift 33-year-old woman, during the first two weeks of August in sweltering Madrid. Mirroring a diary, Trueba uses title cards to signal each new day and presents late summer the way it incarnates itself for us all—some days a fleeting moment and others constituting their own miniature saga.
Maybe I’m drawn toward these “slice of life” films because I’m a Virgo. I understand how annoying that sounds, but my fussy, critical mode of viewership often causes me to get too distracted by the cheesiness or forced quality of heavily plot-driven movies. With La Virgen de Agosto and other films like it, things don’t seem so tidy. I’m not quickly submerged into a character’s backstory right off the bat so that I can feel like I know them enough to follow along with their choices throughout the rest of their thrilling journey. Since the journey isn’t all that thrilling, slice of life films shows us the characters as they are. Maybe this isn’t how they’ve always been–I’ll learn that if they tell me, if I even need to know. Slice of life filmmaking allows me to give up control and simply yield myself to the world of the story, dissolving into it. We don’t always indulge in escapism at the cinema via fanciful plots and sensory surplus. Sometimes escaping into someone else’s convincing reality makes you learn, laugh, and cry in a way you just can’t when you’re inside your own mind.
I initially found myself quite surprised that a man directed La Virgen de Agosto, as it portrays the experience of moving through a city as a woman with a stunningly accurate intimacy. It then made a lot of sense to me when I discovered that the film was co-written by Trueba and its lead actress, Itsaso Arana. The pair chose most of their filming locations based off spaces they visit themselves in Madrid, a city they both call home. These details regarding the filmmaking process reveal what may be the picture’s most resounding quality: its unadulterated honesty. Eva, the main character, travels to these places mirroring the way Arana, the actress, already does. In the words of Trueba, “the film is her breath.”
Apparently, most locals leave Madrid in the summer for somewhere less oppressively hot and tourist-ridden. For those who stay, they have free reign to spend their days as they wish and their nights at the city’s abundant offerings of summer festivals and celebrations. Through immersion into both the tedium and excitement of Eva’s life, the film implores us to embrace earnest discomfort and confront the courage of being oneself during periods of listlessness. The summer heat may soften our brains, but that often gives way to a more reflective, exploratory way of going about our day-to-day. Arana’s rhythmical and seemingly effortless performance allows us to assume her mindfulness.
La Virgen de Agosto depicts a collection of Eva’s encounters with kind, interesting strangers and old friends who offer her their unique perspectives and thought-provoking musings on human existence. Through these interactions, Eva transforms her existential uncertainty into a candid open-mindedness, creating a welcome mood of hopefulness that permeates the picture. The avoidance of cynicism quickly becomes a consistent theme, a worthy and under-celebrated outlook.
In a film where the main character mostly meanders from one leisurely activity to the next, it seems odd to claim that the film inspires bravery, but I found a great deal of courage in Eva. She lacks a stable apartment, partner, job, or social group as a 33-year-old, which is a situation that would cause many to submit to pessimistic self-pity or hopelessness. Eva accepts that she’ll find stability when she’s ready and that her receptive mind and heart will guide her there. Eva acts as our cool centre in a hot city, and her relaxed emotional state coincides with the summer setting to give way the sense of calm that leads to me slip away into her effortlessly.
An embodiment of summer, Eva moves through her days intuitively, taking things as they come and going where she feels drawn. When this instinct takes her and her freshly ragtag bunch of friends on a day trip to the river, a conversation arises in which Eva realises she’s the only one in the group who is from Madrid, the only one who never left home. Wise words flow from Olka (Isabelle Stoffel), Eva’s downstairs neighbour in the city centre flat she’s been renting for this formative season. She explains the certain bravery that comes along with actualising oneself in their home and the admirable boldness of resisting escape. La Virgen de Agosto owns no definitive agenda, but it surely offers poignant messages to be understood. Easygoing but not passive, Eva absorbs these lessons, but also imparts her own to her friends and acquaintances as the minutes go on.
Toward the film’s end, Eva approaches a band whose concert she just enjoyed after noticing they’re drinking in the same bar as her. Before heading over, she tells her newfound romantic interest that the group will probably appreciate her words, since they’re just people putting themselves out there like the rest of us. On August 1, I’m not sure if Eva would have acted so soundly confident in herself. Subtle character growth like this echoes the small behavioural changes we make after examining our actions and taking wisdom from others. This scene also shows us the tenderness and intimacy we can be so fortunate to take part in once we realise that life is comprised mostly of uncertain human interactions with multiplicities of outcomes.
Since her truthful writing and performance allowed me to vanish so deeply into her character, I took Eva’s words to heart genuinely, applying them to the way I interacted with other people. After seeing La Virgen de Agosto, I messaged Arana on Instagram, pulling my own digital band- in-the-bar interaction by writing a praise-filled paragraph in my subpar Spanish. She responded gratefully, heart emojis and all. Filmmakers do their job well when we still think about their movie a week after seeing it, but they do their job exceptionally when they change the way we act.
The film industry might have you believe that coming of age occurs in a neat, adolescent window. Unfaithful to reality, that notion also negates the truth that life is an ongoing coming of age in which we should all be constantly evolving and remaining curious. With beguilingly direct filmmaking, Trueba and Arana communicate that truth by immersing us into a slice of Eva’s journey. Through a collection of subtle serendipities and glances into the ongoing evolution of womanhood, Eva’s two weeks in August let us know that we have entire lives to live. If the film is her breath, I think it’s air we should be grateful to breathe.
by Katie Adams
Katie Mary Adams is a Detroit-bred, Chicago-based writer finishing up her journalism degree at DePaul University. Her love for film began when her dad showed her Best in Show when she was in the third grade. When she is not reading, writing, or obsessively consuming media, she can be found riding her bike, thrifting patterned pants, or tweeting @kt_adams_
Categories: Anything and Everything