Films thrive on parallel universes, and writer/director Achero Mañas' El Bola takes full advantage of contrasting two fathers and their family lives through the eyes of their sons. Although the Spanish film won four Goya Awards in 2000 for Best Emerging Director, Best Emerging Actor, Best Screenplay, and Best Film, it was ignored by American theaters until now. New distribution company Film Movement uniquely issues DVDs to home viewer members simultaneously with theater debuts in various cities and has selected Mañas' film as its first release. Although largely a heavy-handed indictment of parental failings and the indifference of Spanish social workers and legal system towards child abuse, the film retains ambiguities that make it well worth watching.
Opening with point-of-view shots from a speeding train that switch to a group of twelve-year old boys engaging in a dangerous foot racing game of chicken on the tracks, the camera soon thrusts us into the world of Pablo, more commonly known as "El Bola" (pellet), sensitively played by Juan José Ballesta. The DVD cover communicates the actual violence of Pellet's world, but this is revealed gradually in the film itself—the first scene with the boy's father Mariano (Manuel Morón) in the hardware store indicates only that there is little communication between the two and that he's a stern and demanding man, nothing beyond any "normal" dysfunctional family.
Ballesta is a terrific young actor with a previous background in television, and he hints at inner conflicts in a mature, understated fashion. A relative loner who doesn't always go with his peer group, he has earned his nickname through the steel ball bearing that he continually carries—whether it's a symbolic representation of his ball and chain home existence or has sentimental value remains open for interpretation. But he clearly differentiates himself from his classmates when a new boy named Alfredo (Pablo Galán) enrolls in their class. Pellet goes out of his way to make friends with Alfredo, and the two become fast friends.
Alfredo's family atmosphere is completely foreign to Pellet—a much more relaxed, loving, and accepting bohemian lifestyle that appeals greatly to the boy. Exactly what the relationships are between the adults in Alfredo's family remain unstated—a gay subtext may or may not exist, as the family certainly are friends with many homosexuals who have died from AIDS. Alfredo's father, José (Alberto Jiménez), makes a living as a tattoo artist and anchors the extended family. The filmmaker leaves his sexuality ambiguous, which is irrelevant to the two boys—he's a levelheaded, caring father who has their best interests at heart.
José also plays a pivotal role in El Bola when he convinces Pellet's father to allow the boy to accompany the family on an outing to the mountains, leading to some of the most brutal child beating scenes ever captured on film. Mariano goes beyond De Niro's Raging Bull tirades to the uncomfortable extent that you'll be tempted to turn off the player or reach through the screen and strangle him. We never learn the specifics on how Pellet's older brother died, so it's conceivable that a similar out of control happenstance ended his life, and that the young boy's continued silence will only lead to eventual doom—just as sure as continual "chicken games" with the train would lead to inevitable disaster.
Some of the choices offered in the film seem ludicrous—like what kind of system would advocate returning a battered child to his abusive parent after hospital treatment? Despite the ABC After School Special overtones and fairly standard cinematic storytelling techniques, the first-rate acting and layers of ambiguity in Mañas' screenplay make El Bola worth examining. It beats the hell out of most of the films unleashed on an unsuspecting public that thinks Hollywood is the center of the film universe.