The multi-awarded Spanish doc feature “The Visit and a Secret Garden,” one of 15 features in competition at this year’s ARCA, caps off an ongoing feud.
A film in two parts, the first captures the once-famous Spanish painter Isabel Santalo for a full half-hour in a crummy apartment somewhere in the nondescript outer radius of Madrid, in a decrepit old age.
Irene M. Directed by Borrego, the artist’s niece, and an alumnus of the London Film School and award-winning short film director, the film opens almost 50 years after Santalo dropped off the radar of Madrid’s art scene, having trained at the School of Fine Arts in Madrid, the Louvre in Paris, and MoMA in New York. Participated in exhibitions in Milan, Stockholm and Miami and was recognized as one of Spain’s leading painting and art restorers in the 1950s-70s.
Half a century later, Santalo is first seen in his bedroom, filmed from outside the door, a trouser leg extended as he laboriously dresses. For much of the first half of the film, he remains a fragmented figure, shuffling down the corridors of his apartment hunched over a trolley that he pushes in front of him, or sitting in his grand armchair, his hands, right shaking, covering his face.
Meanwhile, a voiceover interview plays between the director and Antonio López, arguably Spain’s most revered living painter and the subject of Victor Aris’ 1992 Cannes Jury Prize winner “Dream of Light,” who is one of the only people in Spain who thinks. White is good.
As a painter, Santalo was “very well known” in his day, Lopez said, with a shot of Santalo’s bedroom door. “His tones were dry and bright, with simple shapes but not geometric,” he says. “A little tough, very honest, very pure and very secretive, like him,” Lopez continues, as the film frames Santalo through his bedroom door, sitting on his bed. “It made me think of a secret garden. I think if you go in there, you’ll find very interesting, beautiful things even though it seems like he didn’t want to show them.”
But at some point he disappeared. “No one has talked about him for years now,” Lopez said. “The present erases everything.”
Yet, over the course of half an hour, “The Visit and a Secret Garden” opens as Santalo, Borrego warily questions what happened to his paintings and his sense of his importance as an artist, begins to speak his mind and finds his own—surprisingly. Full throat – voice.
“I hate our family,” she admits. “The way they treated me was like I worked in a brothel.” “A true artist expresses himself only without being sure of what he is doing.”
What does it take to make art? Borrego asks. “There are no rules.” You yourself, “an orphan.”
Why did he never marry? “Because I did not like the life of a servant. Do you understand, servant?”
“Isabel commanded respect,” recalls Lopez. Even 50 years later, despite his advanced frailty, that behavior remains. and a film that is a portrait of the forgotten artist Isabel Santalo that rescues her from that oblivion in portraying her fate.
For Borrego’s Madrid-based label (“This film is about me,” “El mar nos mira de lejos”) and Lisbon’s Cedro Plátano, “La visita y un jardín secreto,” Borrego’s feature debut, won B Silver in the documentary category at the 2022 Málaga Festival. For Best Direction and Audience Award. It also walked away with the HBO Max Award for Best Portuguese Competition Film of its year in Doclisboa.
Begin film distribution in Spain. Les Films de la Resistance handles international rights. diversity Spoke with Borrego on the eve of ARCA.
An important decision for the film, which gives it a great originality, is to show Isabelle’s flat, how she lived, but not her paintings. Can you walk us through that decision briefly?
The decision was linked to Isabelle’s approach to showing and focusing on the present, to launch questions and reflections on the creative process, art and life. I did not want to create a biopic or invite Isabelle to be judged as an artist by showing her paintings. In fact the main body of his work had mysteriously disappeared and was not in his flat. The evocative nature of the blank walls, Antonio’s voice, and the hard truths that Isabel shares seemed to me to be a more interesting approach to opening the film.
When you shoot Isabel in the first stretch of the film, she’s half hidden by a door or by her own hand, or often seen from behind. This now appears to be a formal representation of his status as a little-known artist. Again, can you comment?
Certainly the cinematography plays with the concept of visibility and invisibility. I think this formal approach also reflects the idea of framing Isabel from a certain cinematic distance, in this case one between the director and his subject due to fear. Officially, this gap gradually narrows as the film progresses. The aim is to invite the audience on a journey where truths, discoveries and thoughts are gradually revealed.
When Isabelle speaks she comes across as forcefully empathetic and passionate about her art. Were you surprised by his intellectual prowess?
I had a chance to appreciate how strong, sharp and lively Isabel was during the research phase, but I fully realized and embraced it during the editing. The strength of his mind stands in contrast to the frailty and frailty of his body and condition. The choice to only reveal her vitality later in the film was very conscious and aimed to shock the audience as well as give Isabel the floor and space to make her presence known.
You say in a voiceover to Isabelle in the film that “I was looking at you through my parents’ eyes.” When did your attitude toward Isabel begin to change? And you still fear ending up like him?
I often say that making this film is the hardest work I have ever done in my life. I believe fear is why and how I started this project, and appreciation and gratitude is how I finished the picture. It was after the shoot, and mainly during the long editing process that I changed my posture not only towards Isabel, but towards myself and my shadow. And today I can say that I actually try to be as consistent and courageous as Isabel.
Do you think the film will spark renewed interest in exhibiting Isabel Santalo’s paintings?
We are already seeing some ripple effects, especially after the presentation of “The Visit and a Secret Garden” at the Reina Sofia Museum with Antonio López. Various media are showing interest in Isabel Santalo. On the other hand, several art institutions want more information, are looking for his paintings and hope to reopen his case. More recently, a page dedicated to Isabel has been published on Wikipedia, and I am actively contacting various critics and historians to provide all the research material I have collected during the preparation of the film.