In her most recent role as the lead in They Are All Dead (Todos están muertos), which had its U.S. premiere at Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival, Spanish actress Elena Anaya plays an agoraphobic mother of a teenage boy (Christian Bernal) who lives with her mother (Angélica Aragón). Lupe, a former pop-rock star from the golden age of Spanish rock (la movida), becomes a shut-in after the death of her brother and former bandmate Diego (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). Lupe has been in her house for years and the mere thought of facing the world fills her with anxiety. Anaya, who’s probably most widely recognized for her appearance in films by Pedro Almodóvar, gives a powerful performance, one that earned her the Best Actress award at the Malaga Film Festival.
In a recent conversation with Anaya, during a stop at MIFF with the film, she says of her character, “[Lupe] is a sort of princess that is locked up in her tower, fearful to all the outside ghosts that are nothing but ghosts from the past.”
The moving performance shows a woman who struggles for each word, a perfect fit for a former musician who has been through terrible loss and has since abandoned her craft. Without an outlet, Lupe feels constrained by her own body. “At the beginning of the movie, Lupe’s body is tight and contracted. She cannot relax into her own. It was a feeling that cannot be transmitted with words. I used gestures,” explains Anaya.
While Lupe is in the midst of her own sorrow, her 14-year-old son is being raised by another strong female presence, Lupe’s mother Paquita, a Mexican woman who is as strong as she is filled with folkloric beliefs. Chief among them is her conviction that for Lupe to move on, she has to settle unfinished business with her dead brother. Día de los Muertos provides the perfect excuse for Paquita to try to get her daughter out of the house.
Paquita also feels the pressure of her own mortality, as her grandson will be needing his mother soon. “One of the main themes behind the script is being able to say goodbye to someone that left without saying goodbye,” says Anaya. For director Beatriz Sanchís the theme is a very personal one, as Anaya reveals. “When Sanchís was very young a close friend of hers died suddenly in an accident, and she had fantasized with what would happen if she could run into him and say goodbye.” Indeed, the film has a personal feel to it, filled with nostalgia. It also intimately examines the lives of these characters. However, it is Lupe who has to carry the story.
It was a challenging role for Anaya, which the actress took to heart. “This film is being told from a woman’s point of view.” And it is in this role that finds Anaya a complex, multidimensional individual feeling the weight of loss, the pressures of motherhood and the need to connect before being able to find her own way. “It’s a story about family, life, about death, about music, about forgiveness, so many different things,” she says in a sweet tone.
She credits Sanchís in helping her prepare, so she could inhabit this character long before shooting began. “I was very lucky to have Beatriz’s help months before official rehearsals began,” she says. “I was able to get to know this character well, being able to live her fears and feel them in every pore of my body.”
Anaya certainly throws her whole body into this performance, and her transformation through Lupe jumps off the screen, in particular when she is behind the keyboard in footage shot on video of happier times on stage. Anaya found her inspiration for the rock star portion of the role in Ana Curra, a Spanish keyboardist best known for her role in Alaska Y Los Pegamoides. Her personal story is actually similar to the one depicted in They Are All Dead. “It was pure coincidence,” notes Anaya but explains that her look and photos of her melancholic gaze helped Anaya envision what it would have been like to be part of the booming rock scene in Spain in the 1980s.
“It’s a new film for me that was new from all perspectives,” adds the actress. While the role is a new endeavor for the actress, it was also very personal. “I recently lost my parents,” she mentions, but adds, “Death is part of life, and it is something that we all have to accept. That is why the film was so good for me.” With a combination of the rock scene in Spain in the 1980s — a golden age for that movement — imaginative moments through a narrative of Day of the Dead and some very sweet exchanges among family members, both living and dead, the film takes risks and delivers a touching story that shines through Anaya’s performance.
They Are All Dead does not have U.S. distribution, but hopefully someone will consider this movie, so others can see it. It premiered in the U.S. at the Miami Dade College Miami International Film Festival this week. The festival concludes on Sunday.