Under Spanish Skies

Under Spanish Skies (2022)

Writer/director Nathan Buck’s Under Spanish Skies begins with a woman trying to hitch a ride on a dusty road. This is Alix (Nahéma Ricci), heading to the villa in Andalusia, Spain where her uncle Andrés (Amr Waked) lives and works as an eco engineer. Alix is young and with her whole life ahead of her, so that open road might seem a symbol of her freedom and mobility – but in fact she has recently been dumped by her girlfriend, rejected (for her sexuality) by her immediate, religious family, and, stone broke, has nowhere else to go. Her course seems narrow, her path one-way.

The villa belongs to Leah (Tara Lynn Orr), who, though expecting her friends Gregory (Philippe Brenninkmeyer) and Beth (Tullan Holmqvist) for dinner, welcomes Alix, who was a little girl when Leah last saw her, with open arms. It is something of a reunion for the adults too – for this is the first time that Beth, Gregory and Leah have been together since the death of Neil – husband and anchor to Leah, and a close friend, business associate and more to the other two. 

Like Alex in Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983), Neil is an absent presence here. For though glimpsed only in home videos and photographs, he has cast a long shadow over those he has left behind, and is the constant topic of conversation. “Neil perfected being in the here and now,” Andrès says of his old friend, “and, like a quantum particle, for him anyone, anything, any ideal, any place could be both real and imaginary, true and false at the same time. And he saw no contradictions.” Neil is of course no longer in the here and now, even if he still haunts the place, and his own contradictory nature will come into focus as the people who knew him best compare notes and discover hurtful secrets.

Indeed, the revelation of secrets is key to Under Spanish Skies. Leah has summoned Beth and Gregory to tell them of a private suicide pact made with Neil which, within a few days in a Marrakesh apartment that the couple once shared, she intends to fulfil – and her guests have revelations of their own to make. Leah is almost immediately upstaged in her announcement by Alix’s own attempted suicide, as the lovesick young actress identifies a little too closely not only with the part that she is currently rehearsing for a production of Romeo and Juliet, but also with the deathbound Leah herself. Later, looking at an elaborate cutout tableau that artist Leah has made, Alix will see in its central figure “a little girl lost in the dark forest”, to which Leah will comment, “Maybe she isn’t lost – just exploring.” Here the experiences of both Alix and Leah, two women from different generations, are being allegorised and ambiguated through art and image – and Alix, initially so hopeless and alienated, will see her fortunes reversed by the end, much as betrayals will be exposed, close friends will become enemies and the soon-to-be-divorced Gregory will cling desperately to fatherhood as much as Leah refused, and Beth was unable, to become a mother.  

Nathan Buck’s drama closes with the same image with which it began: an upset woman hitchhiking along the open road. Leah’s determined trajectory, laid out early on, may seem irrevocably terminal, yet what has happened between these two ring-compositional frames also reconfigures the horizon of possibilities. For the future just around the bend might all at once offer love or hate, division or reconciliation, life or death. These are contradictions that Neil would have appreciated.

strap: Sunny yet full of shadows, Nathan Buck’s drama confronts its cosmopolitan characters with different endings

© Anton Bitel