' ' Cinema Romantico: The August Virgin

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The August Virgin

Midway through the Spanish language “The August Virgin”, Eva (Itsaso Arana) ascends a Madrid hill with dozens of others to watch a meteor shower known as the Tears of San Lorenzo, coinciding with a celebration of the Saint’s martyrdom. As Eva settles in, she remarks in voiceover that all anyone needs to do to see the shooting stars is look at the starry black sky for as long as it takes. She might as well be describing her own plight, or “The August Virgin” viewing experience itself, or, like, you know, life, a trinity of sorts. Director Jonás Trueba, who wrote the screenplay with Arana, does not push Eva toward self-realization with a series of escalating narrative events. No, if several characters in “The August Virgin” refer to having a bit of “a wander”, Trueba refashions this apparent leisurely stroll as akin to Eva’s gentle variation of a hero’s journey. That’s why the movie, as its opening titles outline, is set in the early days of August, when Madrid’s heat is excruciating most residents flee the city, leaving it empty aside from a few celebrations at the city centre. 

Eva is written as a deliberately vague character. Indeed, her job as an actress is less about backstory than evoking a previous life spent inhabiting other lives rather than her own. As “The August Virgin” opens, she does not even have her own home, renting the apartment of a friend who is cutting out for those warm August weeks. After returning from a scorching walk around the city, Eva sinks into the sofa and the way she is framed, the shimmering light peeking through the curtains, makes it seems as if she is floating under water, waiting to surface. Later, when she is taking a bus, seemingly lost in her music, she becomes fixated on a younger woman listening to music too. When the younger woman exits the bus, Eva impulsively does too, following this stranger into a museum, as if trying to assume the nameless young woman’s existence. This brings Eva into contact with a guy she knows and though they hang out for the rest of the day, when they watch a street performance several hours later, his arm around hers, Eva notices the young woman from the museum, suggesting she is not falling back into old rhythms, as we might have suspected, but still on the trail of new ones.

That is why we never see this fella again, just as later when Eva runs into what we can only assume based on their hesitant but affectionate small talk is an ex-boyfriend, we never see him again either. Instead each of these encounters yields a new friendship for Eva. The street performer (Isabelle Stoffel) she sees turns out to be a neighbor at the same apartment complex and they become fast friends; running into her assumed ex causes Eva to skip out on the movie she was planning to see, since he’s seeing it too, and going another day where she strikes up a friendship with the amateur Reiki practitioner (María Herrador) sitting directly behind her in the theater. These blossoming attachments and the subsequent outings they share are what pass for “The August Virgin’s” plot but also the gradual emergence of its point. When Eva sees that young girl from the bus watching the street performer, Arana lets Eva’s lips curl into a surprised but pleased grin, the kind that both can’t quite believe what he's seeing but loving that she is. There is some sort of mystical current tracking through this string of convenient encounters which becomes all the more potent because of Trueba’s quiet style.

There is plenty of conversation here, though Eva frequently is not taking part, just listening, as other characters debate the notions of, well, let’s just say it, Finding Yourself. Eva, we learn, has never left Madrid, and characters wonder whether you have to go somewhere else to ascertain who you truly are or whether staying where you are and simply paying closer attention to that place’s rhythms will do the trick. But between a new apartment and metaphorically entering another life, Eva finds a way to do both, stepping into a new life without leaving Madrid, giving herself over to its early August rhythms and to the rhythms of life in general. “The August Virgin” has more in common with the considerable oeuvre of Éric Rohmer then it does the Bible but that title is just conspicuously sitting there nonetheless, as a late movie development goes to show. This nominal twist might have been far too on the nose if the movie wasn’t openly treating it more as a metaphor than a literal plot development, aided by Arana’s just roll with it reaction. Like the Virgin Birth is something you accept or you don’t, the rhythm of an early August in Madrid is one you embrace or escape. 

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