Nothing much happens in Summer 1993, the film Spain submitted for consideration in the best foreign film category of the most recent Academy Awards. Nothing much, unless you count the fits and starts of a little girl's inchoate grief over the death of her mother.
That's huge, and filmmaker Carla Simon is in delicately assured command of her material, not least because her mother was one of thousands of Spaniards who died of AIDS in the early 1990 — just before anti-retroviral medications became available — leaving Simon an orphan at six years old.
But though the movie is set during the crisis it's neither an AIDS movie nor a facile pity-party for Frida (Laia Artegas), a Barcelona urchin with wary eyes in a head full of wild black curls. Frida has never heard of AIDS — all she knows is that her mother is gone and she is dispatched to the Catalan countryside to live with her mother's brother (David Verdaguer), his wife (Bruna Cusi) and her younger cousin Anna (Paula Robles), Frida doesn't understand why a doctor periodically sticks needles into her arm. She's not sure why everyone is tiptoeing around her and being so nice. She's not aware of how she feels about sharing the limelight with another child, especially one as manifestly safe and happy as little Anna appears to be. She certainly doesn't get why she needs a new mom, or why there's no answer when she leaves night gifts for her own mother with a statue of the Virgin Mary.
There will be other angles, but mostly this is a kid's eye view of the collapse of her world as she knows it, an enormously difficult thing for a director to pull off when your two leads, who appear in almost every frame of the movie, are six and four years old respectively. When people talk about how great small children are in a film, what's really meant is how well they're cast, or how well they follow instructions, or how skilled the director is at getting them to be themselves in ways that meet the requirements of plot or character. All of the above pertain here: As Frida, Laia Artigas is a mini Anna Magnani with the tough, assessing watchfulness of a city street kid, while chubby, blue-eyed Paula Robles is all open innocence as country girl Anna, who's as delighted to welcome a potential playmate as the guest is first bewildered and then inclined to pull senior rank.
Frida doesn't talk much in this intimately visual film, which takes the measure of her inner turmoil in the Catalan villagers' frightening (to her) ceremonies, in the terror of venturing out alone at night with nothing but ambient noise to guide her wanderings, in the cautious but happy discovery of where eggs really come from. Frida is quiet and co-operative to start with. Her uncle and aunt are lovingly attentive; her grandparents visit every week. But a small bomb ticks away inside Frida that neither she nor her hosts know what to do with, and soon she starts acting out in ways that range from annoying to dangerous.
None of this is played to tug directly at our heartstrings. Like many children (and adults) in trouble they can't grasp let alone escape, Frida becomes a pill. Simon never overplays her hand: Summer 1993 carries us from moment to unpredictable moment, placing us inside Frida's confusion, her efforts to gain control of her feelings and her environment, and the fleeting bursts of happiness that come and go without warning. The result is a kind of grief procedural, its focus sharpened by the lush greens of the Catalan landscape.
There's an ending but no climax in Summer 1993. In place of closure, so rarely as elusive in art as it is in life, Simon unobtrusively opens up the perspective to the suppressed frustration and anger of those who, even as they welcome Frida with open arms, must grope their way through the radical reshaping of family that attends her sudden arrival. Frida's grief has no schedules, just a gradual, fitful abatement of her pain, which Simon has made so palpable that when a happier girl finally feels confident enough to ask about her "previous Mum," it's at once an occasion for a massive exhale, and a dagger to the heart.