For abused children, violence is never unexpected, nor is the possibility of an untimely death. With the exception of Richard Donner's Radio Flyer, no film in recent memory illustrates, through the eyes of a child, the sort of life children lead when they continually contemplate their own demise. It is why Achero Ma˜as' El Bola, shot from the point of view of a disconsolate schoolboy, is such an exceptional film.
Although El Bola won four Goya awards (Spain's Oscar)--one for Best Film--it was not well-received by American critics, who saw it as programmatic. In comparison to the U.S., Spain's laws regarding child abuse are byzantine, and this no doubt affected writer-director Ma˜as' approach to the subject and his mise-en-sc'ne. Ma˜as' story is deceptively simple. El Bola (Juan Jos Ballesta), nicknamed for the ball bearing that is his good-luck charm--bola is Spanish for "ball"--lives with an abusive father (Manuel Moržn), a helpless mother and an ailing grandmother. It is a home in which no one exercises restraint; the father's anger goes unchecked by a wife who feels powerless to stop him, and grandma, who is incontinent, pees uncontrollably during dinner. In the absence of chaos, there's utter silence, but that silence, for El Bola, vibrates like a steel rail before the arrival of a speeding train.
El Bola plays at the railroad tracks with a few other boys who snatch objects off the track in front of an oncoming train. It is the only sort of companionship he can fabricate until he befriends Alberto (Pablo Galán), who offers a relationship based on affection. Alberto's self-confidence, the outgrowth of a loving family, makes him especially sensitive to El Bola's vulnerabilities. Their friendship provides El Bola with the courage he needs to confront his father. When he does, he challenges the adults around him, especially Alberto's father, Jos (Alberto Jimnez), who risks a kidnapping charge to save him. El Bola is finally removed from his unhappy home, but in the closing scenes he recounts, with growing rage, the acts his father committed against him. He returns to the tracks and places his ball bearing in the path of the train's wheel, symbolically destroying the last link to his family, and to the abusive cycle which that bearing, his "charm," precariously supported. In severing those ties, he confronts an equally uncertain future.
It is in the disparity between Alberto's Bohemian family--Jos is a tattoo artist--and his own conventional one that El Bola sees the possibility of a better life. This simple dramatic structure, in which a despondent boy meets another boy who can save him, isn't as artless as it first appears. Ma˜as' perspicacity surfaces in the subtle ambiguities that shade his storytelling. El Bola suffers, in part, from not knowing why his father beats him. He knows that before he was born, his brother died. Did the father kill that son or is his abusive behavior the result of depression and anger over the loss of a child? Even if El Bola knew the answers to these questions, how could they help him? Equally inexplicable is the tenderness he experiences from Alberto and Jos, which may or may not have homosexual overtones--Jos's circle of friends includes a man dying of AIDS, Alberto's godfather. Because El Bola is desperate and lonely, and lives in fear that his father will one day kill him, he pushes such speculations aside. He simply survives. Therein lies, for Ma˜as, the ultimate horror of El Bola's life.
The ragged edges of Ma˜as' narrative--El Bola's unresolved fate, the erratic emotions of adult protagonists, and the undefined sexual relationships between the characters--place you squarely in a 12-year-old's weltanschauung. That uncommon and unfamiliar perspective, combined with the filmmaker's skill in eliciting flawless performances from every member of his cast, makes El Bola a riveting, disturbing and recondite debut feature.