Agustí Villaronga (Mallorca, 1953) never ceases to amaze us, always pleasantly. 35 years after his feature film debut with ‘In a Glass Cage’, the filmmaker and his crew scooped up six awards at this year’s Malaga Film Festival with ‘The Belly of the Sea’, which opens in theaters on November 12. An adaptation of a chapter from the Alessandro Baricco novel, the film combines a tale of survival with a legal battle, a past drowned by the sea and a present that looks back in anger. Shot during the pandemic, the film is best described as an austere, minimalist work, made on a modest budget, but with all the creativity and personality of the inspired author of ‘Black Bread’, ‘El mar’, ‘The King of Havana’ and ‘Uncertain Glory’. As he undergoes treatment for cancer diagnosed last summer, the director recalls filming in an atmosphere of complete freedom and tranquility, that of a shipwreck movie which confronts the present day.
How did you come to make such an unusual and unique project as ‘The Belly of the Sea’? I understand that it was during confinement, in other words, because of the pandemic.
Yeah, yeah, that’s when it happened. I was in Mallorca and had already finished the adaptation of a chapter of the work ‘Ocean Sea’, by Alessandro Baricco. In such adverse circumstances, I could only consider making a small film with people from Mallorca. So, we got to work with the producer, Javier Pérez Santana. ‘The Belly of the Sea’ is an act of rebellion: faced with the constraints of having to stop everything, we had to continue. Any way we could and taking great care. On the other hand, I had been very impressed by a painting by Romantic movement artist Théodore Géricault, ‘The Raft of the Medusa’, which speaks of the same event as Baricco’s book: in 1816, the French Navy frigate Alliance was shipwrecked off the coast of Senegal, leaving 150 people being abandoned for 13 days on a makeshift raft. The survivors suffered from extreme thirst, hunger, madness and even resorted to cannibalism. In the end, only 15 survived. The film features the testimonies of Medical Lieutenant Savigny and Helmsman Thomas, played by Roger Casamajor and Òscar Kapoya and it wouldn’t be a far stretch to draw parallels form that 19th century shipwreck, similar to the shipwrecks from right now … and not far from where we are here.
Was it difficult to get funding for the film?
No, because the initial cost of the film was made on a shoestring. We received significant help from the Consell Insular de Mallorca (Island Council of Mallorca), and, in any case, I knew I couldn’t spend money like a drunken sailor, as they say. A very small crew and three weeks of shooting, so the filming was a modest affair because we were on such a tight budget.
In every interview you’ve given you highlight the freedom that accompanied you during filming.
That’s true. I’ll never forget it and it happened as a consequence of not having to previously go through production companies, TVs or platforms to make it. Making ‘The Belly of the Sea’ was like going back to my beginnings as a filmmaker, but with the experience that I now have. Experience and enthusiasm. It was like writing with a pen.
I also see it as an adventure film, small, different, iconoclastic, but adventurous. Would you agree with the definition?
I don’t know, for me, a movie or an adventure story is like ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’. This reminds me more of the 1993 film ‘Alive’ directed by Frank Marshall about the Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes in 1972, and they had to survive as best they could. Not all of them made it out alive, but those who did had to resort to some pretty extreme ends. Well, both ‘The Belly of the Sea’ and ‘Alive’ deal with how one individual’s life depends on the death of another. In Marshall’s film it was in the snow, and here in the sea. In both cases it’s a war between human beings for their survival.
So, it’s a visual experience strongly influenced by the novel and theatrical structures.
Yeah, it has a strong literary base, with the voice-over, and combining color with black and white. It’s very interesting cinematographically speaking, featuring some truly special visual effects.
You trust in audiences’ sensitivity. In cinemagoers who aren’t put off by such unique artistic proposals, but quite the opposite: they celebrate the fact and are grateful for it.
The biggest challenge was to tell a story that would be understandable given that it’s narrated from different locations, combining past and present. As such, the narrative is anything but conventional, but, when we screened it at the Malaga Festival, I immediately saw that the public could connect with the story and follow it.
You’re an unconstrained filmmaker, none too fond of certain standards … Does this mean you adopt a critical position with platforms?
No, not at all. I understand that, above all, they want to make money, cash. What they have achieved is to condition the way we enjoy cinema. In the past this was in theaters, and now in the last remaining theaters and, above all, at home. Some people even watch movies on their mobiles!
This is your fifth time working with Roger Casamajor, whom you discovered in ‘El mar’ (2000). He won the best performance award a few months ago at Malaga for his work in ‘The Belly of the Sea’. Is Roger a guarantee of complicity and quality?
Both. I’ve seen Roger grow as an actor and it’s like watching your child and saying: “Damn, how he’s grown”. He had a difficult role, and again it’s been a pleasure to work with him. First of all, Roger always brings a lot to his characters. He built his role very well. In addition, his professional relationship with the other protagonist, Òscar Kapoya, was very beautiful. They got on very well. Poor guys, they spent the whole day either soaking wet or wielding knives! There was a great atmosphere during filming.
You really triumphed in style in Malaga, and soon they’ll be announcing the nominations for the Goya and the Gaudí. Any thoughts?
On the one hand, I am somewhat saddened there are only four films in Catalan, including ours, at the Gaudí’s this year. At the very least, we will be nominated, sure, but the Goya’s are more complicated. I remember the year of ‘Uncertain Glory’, we had many nominations and awards at the Gaudí, while at the Goya we only one nomination, for Best Adapted Screenplay, which we didn’t win. Also, thinking about ‘The Barcelona Vampiress’ (2020), by Lluís Danés. It cleaned up at the Gaudí but was practically non-existent when it came to the Goyas.
Does ‘Black Bread’ (2010) mark a before and after in your career?
Obviously, yes. It was thanks to producer Isona Passola, who approached me to direct the adaptation of Emili Teixidor’s novel, and a writer I immediately fell in love with. ‘Black Bread’ allowed me to make a film for the general public. I went from being a marginal director to forming part of the industry and making bigger budget movies. On top of that, we got the blessing of the Goyas.
What do you recall about your directorial debut feature, ‘In a Glass Cage’ (1986)?
It was a pretty bumpy ride. And as was the case back then on a shoestring budget. They even seized the negative. Now that really was an adventure, makes Journey to the center of the Earth pale in comparison. The film was produced by Teresa Enrich, in association with Paco Poch, who’s now in charge of the international projection of ‘The Belly of the Sea’, and thanks to Paco we went to the Moscow Film Festival. I have to say I’ve been very lucky with my producers: Isona Passola, Teresa Enrich, Paco Poch, Antonio Cardenal, Andrés Vicente Gómez, Julián Mateos …
And how would you define yourself as a filmmaker? Or is describing yourself something you prefer not to do?
More than modesty, I wouldn’t know where to start. If I go by what others say, I am a particularly poetic filmmaker, heavily influenced by the sea and by cruelty. As a director I’m curious, always looking for something different in every film.
You’re currently undergoing cancer treatment and you’re really looking after yourself. The best of luck with everything! Do you have any short or long-term projects on the boil?
To start with, a movie created with Mario Torrecillas. A neighborhood story, with children and a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s. The script is along the lines of ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ (Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, 2006), humor and humanity. That said, we’re juggling two different titles for the movie, either ‘3,000 obstacles’ or ‘Thunderstorm Loli’.