The Golden Shell winner at the San Sebastián––the Basque film festival’s top prize––went to home-grown filmmaker Jaione Camborda for this absorbing and sensual Galician-language abortion drama The Rye Horn, an urgent film about women in a totalitarian environment that has potent echoes today. 

It’s 1971 and the late stages of the Franco regime on an island off the northwest coast of Spain, the same Galicia region that provided the untamed landscapes of The Beasts and Olivier Laxe’s Fire Will Come. Maria (dancer Janet Novás, in her debut), perhaps in her late 30s or early 40s, makes a living in this rustic part of the world picking shellfish, in touch with nature and the tactile world of her surroundings. But in this tight-knit community, she’s also an unofficial midwife, perhaps a symbol of how the centralized, male-led Spain of the regime has neglected this far-flung end of the country––only women protect women here. The opening scene is an extended, highly sensual birthing filmed almost like a carnal dance (à la Pina Bausch) by cinematographer Rui Poças. There’s something wild and untamed in the action here. 

There appears few paths to escape rudimentary life on the island, but one teenager Luisa (Carla Rivas) sees a route out as a promising athlete, with the chance of national trials on the mainland. The problem: she’s playing with fire, according to her father who’s indignant about the hickey left by her local boyfriend. But secretly, she’s pregnant too, and she’s noticing her body is changing uncontrollably, so she goes to Maria asking if she can help her out.

In cinema, abortions have tended to be depicted clinically––think Cristian Mungiu’s Palme-winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, set (like this film) as the sun was setting on a dictatorial era. But Camborda, directing her second feature, films this differently, with more sensuality and even mysticism, and there’s almost a shamanic quality in Maria’s mysterious character. Perhaps the director wants to avoid the sense of any heightened exploitation of the characters involved. The titular rye horn is one ingredient of the concoction Maria asks Luisa to drink to help ease the procedure, and Camborda studiously avoids passing judgment on what ensues.

Tragedy occurs, and Maria must flee authorities who have tapped her as the prime suspect. She reaches the mainland, but is forced to join a dangerous smugglers’ route crossing the border to neighboring Portugal to start life afresh––a difficult task as a single, unaccompanied woman. 

Camborda, who also writes, has delivered a gripping tale of escape and female survival that highlights a cruel, demeaning regime. It’s also wonderfully acted, with first-timer Novás excellent at hinting at something that compels Maria without giving much away. The film also has a tangible sense of time and place, and is surely among the stronger recent Spanish movies set in the Franco period. 

There’s a particularly strong supporting performance, too, from Portuguese actor Siobhan Fernandes as a Black sex worker who crosses the border each night to make more money on the Spanish side, struggling to bring up her own child born presumably from activity with one of her clients. Camborda adeptly touches on many themes of women’s historical disadvantage––not just of the reproductive rights, but of racism, of financial inequality, and (perhaps most of all) how patriarchy is enmeshed structurally in the building blocks of fascism. 

Strangely, however, there are few men or representatives of the fascist regime in the film at all, and perhaps their lack of representation only heightens the impact of how we interpret Maria’s fears. That absence might reflect today’s political discourse––all too often it is absent men who make decisions over women’s bodies. It is women, however, who must pick up the pieces.

The Rye Horn premiered at the San Sebastian Film Festival.

Grade: B

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