The Night of the Sunflowers (2006)

First published by Film4

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Synopsis: Jorge Sánchez-Cabezudo’s feature debut is a noirish drama set in the sleepy Spanish backwoods.

Review: Sunflowers, as their name suggests, tilt and turn their flowers over the course of the day to maximise their exposure to the life-giving light of the sun as it passes across the sky. Yet most of the events in The Night Of The Sunflowers (La noche de los girasoles) unfold during either twilight, dusk or deepest night – in a Spanish hinterland where the lights in the biggest town’s square have stopped working. For this is a film whose characters’ lives are all on hold, as they struggle through the darkness that is engulfing them, in a morally ambiguous world of hidden secrets, half truths and hallucinatory madness.

Like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993) and Ray Lawrence’s Jindabyne (2006), The Night Of The Sunflowers is an ensemble piece with overlapping narratives sparked by a young woman’s unseen rape and murder, in this case in a sunflower field at night.

The likely identity of the perpetrator is revealed about 10 minutes into the film when a man attempts a similar assault on another woman – but this is not before a range of male characters has been paraded before the viewer, none beyond suspicion. “You know how things are nowadays,” as one puts it. “People see you arguing with a girl and they start thinking.” There may only be one actual rapist depicted in the film, but what seems far more important is the capacity for wrongdoing that is shared by all these men – and it is a capacity upon which, by the end, many of the least expected people will have acted, spurred on by the extremity of their unfortunate circumstances.

After a brief prologue, The Night Of The Sunflowers is told in six chapters that focus upon different characters, but together reveal a complex chain of violence, error and cover-up. While out hiking in the mountains, local repairman Beni (Fernando Sánchez-Cabezudo) discovers a concealed cave which the whole community hopes will put their dying area back on the map.

A traveling salesman (Manuel Morón) in dark shades has his eye on more than just business. A female visitor (Judith Diakhate), struggling with loneliness and alienation, finds unexpected company of a most unwelcome kind. An academic speleologist (Carmelo Gómez) and his assistant (Mariano Alameda) learn that the underground system they are prospecting is good for more than just darkness, quiet and solitude.

Two elderly neighbours (Walter Vidarte and Cesáreo Estébanez), at least one of whom is deranged, conduct a bitter feud in their otherwise abandoned village. An unsettled and ambitious young policeman (Vicente Romero) stumbles upon an opportunity in the darkness. And his father-in-law (Celso Bugallo), a deputy police chief near retirement, is obsessed equally with solving a mysterious disappearance and with keeping his own family together.

Writer-director Jorge Sánchez-Cabezudo’s feature debut combines the gentle pacing and nuanced characterisation of a drama with the suspense and surprise of a thriller. It is a subtly scripted and exquisitely performed mosaic of community breakdown, male violence and smalltown justice in a place where, with “no-one to account to” once the lights have gone down, everyone is left groping about for whatever dreams, memories, desires and fantasies they can embrace in the dark. The result is a pitch black, morally bleak tale of ordinary people facing terrible dilemmas.

In a Nutshell: Sánchez-Cabezudo’s elegantly bleak fable of human aggression, alienation and anomie shows one long dark night of moral chaos.

Anton Bitel