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Piggy (Cerdita)

Director – Carlota Pereda – 2022 – Spain – Cert. 18 – 99m

*****

Director – Carlota Pereda – 2018 – Spain – 13m

*****

Fat-shaming, bullying, overbearing mothers, growing up as the local butcher’s daughter, and more – feature based on short is out in UK cinemas on Friday, January 6th

Sara (Laura Galán) is attempting to navigate the difficult waters of adolescence. It isn’t much fun if you’re different and cliques of your contemporaries gang up on you. In Sara’s case, she isn’t just fat, she’s also introverted and shuns people, which compounds the amount she gets teased. She often works in her father’s butchers shop, so bullies can easily put together insults based on fat and flesh and pork and meat. A clique of three, thinner girls – Roci (Camille Aguilar) and Maca (Claudia Salas) and their unwilling hanger-on Claudia aka Clau (Irene Ferreiro) – call her Piggy.

It’s Summer, and everyone is going down to the Madrigal (Waterfall) festivities at the pool on the river, where a mysterious out-of-towner is lounging about, but Sara sneaks down there later for a swim when she hopes nobody is around. She’s just getting into the water when the stranger (Richard Holmes) surfaces innocently, startling her. On the riverside, the two bullies and the hanger-on taunt her and her “boyfriend”, so she swims away underwater, failing to notice a corpse, only to surface and find herself almost drowning as the bullies catch her head in a pool-cleaning net then steal her bag containing her clothes and mobile phone, forcing her to make the long walk home in her bikini without a towel.

While making this trip along a road through the woods, unbeknownst to her, a life and death struggle occurs between an unidentified assailant and a bloody Clau. Sara is approaching a van when she sees Clau, trapped inside, bang on the window, begging to be saved. Sara doesn’t do anything – or maybe she doesn’t want to. The mysterious stranger is driving the van.

Back in town, the corpses of a local man and a waitress turn up in the pool and the police, who are already on the lookout for an escaped young fighter bull, are now hunting a killer too. Worse, the three girls have disappeared…

This, however, is anything but a straightforward crime thriller or slasher movie. Firstly, it’s an essay on fat-shaming, with Sara as the butt of underserved jokes, pranks and general cruelty derived from her physical appearance. She takes refuge in comfort food, surreptitiously consuming chocolate and small cakes, which only make things worse and deciding her brutish mother (Carmen Machi) on putting her on a salad diet. Her mother dominates her easygoing father (Julián Valcárcel) and makes her daughter’s life difficult. Her mother makes the lives of the parents of the disappeared Clau equally difficult when the bullying stories surface. Fat is just the shaming excuse; Sara is any kid who’s ever been bullied for reasons that are no fault of their own, simply picked on for being different.

Clau, though clearly a secondary character, is also compelling – the girl who goes along with bullies to stay friends with them even if she doesn’t really agree with the bullying, complicit in it by her own inaction.

Sara is also a typical teenage girl who wants to find out about boys, and comes out of herself a little in the presence of Pedro (José Pastor), a friend of the three missing girls who is worried about them. More troublingly, she also finds herself attracted to the mysterious stranger from the pool, who is abducting girls but seems, in some perverse way, to be on her side in wanting to cause bad things to happen to her tormentors. Ideas of justice, punishment and even God are not far away. Possibly they are related to the fact that her father is largely ineffectual as a parent while her mother is overbearing. Psychologists will have a field day with all this.

With its meaty, butcher’s shop milieu, a small town with an underlying sense of nationalism and hostility – a banner adorning a building reads ‘Everything for the Motherland’ and a barking dog terrorises Sara as she walks in the street – the apparently pleasant little country town in which all this takes place doesn’t quite feel so pleasant. Sara is an outsider but we’re made to wonder just how far she is like the stranger perpetrating the murders, a tension which underscores everything that happens and gives the whole thing a dramatic edge.

The feature is an expansion of the short with the ideas worked on a bit more, as you would hope (the bullies are much more morally complex in the newer version, the locations are redeployed, and everyone but the lead actress is recast). The short is basically the swimming pool sequence and the walk to the van in the woods, which are at the core of the feature, and yet its expansion definitely adds something, almost as if writer-director Pereta had written short and feature at the same time, the first skilfully designed as a standalone piece to sell the feature. Consequently, the feature works as well as a feature as the short does as a short. A shining example to anyone who wants to write and direct their own films.

Often, films released at the start of the year are dross, thrown away as it were by distributors when no-one’s looking, yet this little gem bucks that trend. It really gets under the skin of bullying and being bullied, and its complex morality is a long way from straightforward black and white. If you’re the sort of person who argues “I don’t normally like horror films”, this is one of those movies for which you might want to make an exception. Extroverts may squirm, but introverts – especially those who’ve endured bullying at some point in their lives – will find themselves completely caught up in the central character’s dilemmas. Something of a treat.

Piggy is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, January 6th.

Trailer:

The original short. This will in no way spoil your enjoyment of the feature: if anything, it will enhance it. You might think you’ve seen the feature having seen this. And yet, you really haven’t…

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