Thursday 27th October, 21:00 Odeon West End
Chema De La Pena and Gabriel Velazquez are filmmakers from Salamanca, who together co-wrote and co-directed Sud Express. Stepping out in front of a packed audience at the Odeon West End, they spoke very sweetly and ingenuously before and after the screening of how they had worked with tiny budgets, a predominantly amateur cast and improvised scripts to create a film centred on the emotions at the heart of dramatic situations. They also explained how rich a source of ideas the Sud Express, a train service running between Paris and Lisbon, had been for them in devising a project of this nature. Coming from the heart of Spain, they had heard stories for years of the train’s cosmopolitan cargo: Portuguese prostitutes, drunken grape-harvesters, and those headed from the country to the cities in search of a new life.
The film is made up of six stories, interlinked either directly or indirectly by the train line. Xenophobic taxi driver Samuel regularly meets passengers off the Sud Express at Austerlitz station in Paris, finding fuel in all of them for his diatribes against any form of immigrant. Unaware that her husband receives the services of a prostitute who rides in his cab, Samuel’s Portuguese wife Lucia guiltily boards the train for a brief reunion with the lover she left 28 years before. This old flame, Tino, lives a sad little life by the train tracks in rural Portugal, comically sharing a house with his brother, to whom he hasn’t spoken for five years. Mili is an Angolan living in Lisbon, trying to eke a living out of selling watches. When the police arrive at his door, he makes a run for the station, and for a new life he believes he can find in France. Aboard the train he meets Rachid, a Moroccan Muslim who leaves his warehouse job in Northern Spain to visit the French girl he fell in love with over the summer. On a farm estate near Salamanca, farm manager Julian is ordered to shoot his most faithful guard dog, whilst his son, the wheelchair-bound Rober, is working on a petition with his beautiful friend Isa, as he cannot safely cross the train tracks that pass through the middle of their remote town.
The project was initially intended as a documentary, but fortunately this plan was changed (sparing us a final result that might well have been something like a film-length helping of Airport, with Mediterranean sunshine). The filmmakers decided instead to use the great characters they were meeting as actors (the DVD will feature the screen tests of those they met and wanted to use, which is something I would love to see). Over 60 hours of footage were shot, cut down to just over 100 minutes. The film is very deliberately cut in places, with edgy jumps in shot which prove rather distracting but contribute to the rough and ready feel of the work. At the very end the camera wobbles and hits the floor before the screen turns black.
In the main the concept of the film hangs together well, and the train itself works effectively as a metaphor for what both connects and divides these European countries and their inhabitants. Admittedly I could have lived without some of the repeated shots of the Sud Express swooshing through dramatically empty landscapes, or clattering through the towns it serves. But at the same time there is something extremely pleasing about the lingering shots of those tiny places that seem to house little more than the station itself; the kind of spot you pass on continental train and think ‘I wonder what people DO out here.’ Some threads of the narrative are weaker than others, and either peter out or never really get started. Rachid, for instance, seems destined to have his blind faith in his holiday romance dashed. Similarly the relationship between Rober and Isa never makes much sense, and Julian’s scenes with his boss out on the farm consist of little more than silent brooding.
However, other parts of the film, and the actors who star in them, are outstanding. The most exceptional part of the jigsaw – and sadly I have discovered via IMDB that the actor is a professional, not a rough diamond amateur as I had romantically hoped – is Gerald Morales as taxi driver Samuel. His racism and glib misanthropy is terrifyingly convincing; all the more frightening for its engaging humour, which his colleagues find it hard to stand up to. He initially seems someone who simply likes the sound of his own voice, but as the film progresses he becomes ever more repulsive, and quite believably so, underneath his workaday exterior. More cutely portrayed are the feuding brothers in Portugal, but their fraught relations, and ultimate attempt at something of a reconciliation, provide a much-needed lift to the otherwise quite gloomy proceedings. Amateur German A Joao is great as the enterprising Mili, and the scenes of his life with other hopeful immigrants in a crumbling flat in Lisbon are enlightening.
Sud Express is played out in a mixture of languages: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Basque and Arabic. The film wonderfully proves the diversity that exists within the countries served by one train line. But characters such as Mili and Rachid show that Lisbon and Paris are no longer the ends of the line: Europe spreads much wider now. The Samuels of this world will have to accept it.