At the beginning of The Permanent Picture a teenage girl gives birth, gives up her baby, and disappears. Then, 50 years later, a casting director discovers her on the street selling homemade perfume. That, more or less, is the gist of Laures Ferrés’ shapeshifting debut, an exploration of diasporic anxieties in which shades of the director’s politics and personal history gradually emerge with a wink and a smile. The two women, as anyone watching will immediately realize, are more connected than they know, yet this is not a film that pivots on any big reveals. Ferrés is too curious for that, more concerned with the peculiarities of human faces or how anyone might begin to decipher such a connection.

Ferrés was born in 1989 in El Prat de Llobregat, a town on the outskirts of Barcelona where much of this film is set. Her debut short, The Disenherited (a much-heralded prize winner at Cannes Critics’ Week in 2016), followed her father’s attempts to keep the family’s bus company afloat. With Picture, Ferrés switches to her maternal history, taking her own past as a casting director as a device to delve into the lore of family members who emigrated north from Andalusia after the Spanish civil war. What emerges is a little ode to those affected by that urban-rural switch as well as a little satire on how politicians––whether through ineptitude or naivety––fail to understand it.

Ferres’ formal approach is strictly polyamorous: a painterly, pastoral introduction (period-set in a rural corner of Southern Spain) gives way to a coarser blend of wry comedy and documentary aesthetics in the vignettes that follow. No one mood takes precedence, and there are moments of beauty even after those warm early colors fade. Ferres also devotes equal-parts time to her film’s weightier concerns and its humor. After giving birth, the teenage girl Antonia (played by Saraida Llamas and later by Claudia Fimia) prays to a glow-in-the-dark saint on a pamphlet from a pharmaceutical company. Later on, the casting director Carmen (María Luengo) visits a surgeon who performs amputations. It’s played at first like a magic show, then for a laugh, before settling into something moving: did this person, you begin to wonder, need reminding of the pain of knowing that something that should be there is not?

This idea––that an absent parent can feel like a phantom limb––is all over Ferres’ film and undercuts its satirical edge with a sharp sting of emotion. “It’s the reason why I like to search for people,” the introverted Carmen explains of her career. Ferres introduces this character in the middle of casting one of those health-warning pictures for cigarette packets, but her main gig involves finding “normal-looking” people for a left-leaning political party’s campaign video, and it’s through this that the two women meet and cautiously form a bond. She compares the advert’s vague sloganeering to “non-practicing leftism,” a sentiment that Ferres seems to echo, in one of the film’s many repetitions, when Antonia calls herself an “atheist catholic.”

The Permanent Picture throws a lot at the wall (the director’s statement in the press material ran just under 1,000 words) but doesn’t get too bogged down with worrying about what sticks. The result is a sometimes messy and amorphous film, but a satisfyingly personal one: a series of ideas held together by Ferrés’ energy, emotion, and directorial wit.

The Permanent Picture premiered at the 2023 Locarno Film Festival.

Grade: B+

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