Your Next Life (La vida que te espera)

Spain (2004) Dir. Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón

The countryside is a curiosity to us urban folk due to the long held traditions that are arcane to us, and their own set of rules and mores which wouldn’t fly in the city. It is a culture clash that will continue as long as both worlds exist yet will still prove to be a fascinating subject for filmmakers.

In the remote rural district of Valle de Pas in northern Spain, the denizens observe their 200 year-old lifestyle and keep to themselves, showing no signs of moving towards modernity. Rival farmers, Gildo (Juan Diego) and Severo (Celso Bugallo), are embroiled in a feud over the calf of a prize milk cow Vanessa, with Severo demanding he has the calf if Gildo won’t pay him for Vanessa.

Gildo’s eldest daughter Val (Marta Etura) delivers the calf to Severo but he refuses to accept it is Vanessa’s calf and holds Val hostage until Gildo pays him. A fight ensues and Severo is killed, with Gildo and Val covering up the evidence. When Severo’s son Rai (Luis Tosar) returns from the city for the funeral, Gildo has Val sound him out to see if he suspects anything and they fall in love, which the controlling Gildo objects to.

Your Next Life covers a lot of ground genre wise, starting as a dark murder mystery, then turns into an angsty romantic drama, and finally a taut, twisting morality play all inside 105 minutes. Directed by veteran Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón, who was born in Valle de Pas, our first observation is that the Pasiegos might have detached themselves from the outside world but their hidebound attitudes are neither old or new.

Valle de Pas is another of those rustic provinces we’ve seen in many films that time has apparently forgotten to set up a generational clash between the young and the old, or more specifically, parent and offspring. This isn’t always the case as we know but it’s a trope that provides great capital for storytellers as we see again here to great effect, forming a compelling part of the narrative.

Gutierrez Aragon establishes this early on but not through Gildo and his daughters but with Severo and Rai, the latter working as a hairdresser in Madrid, much to the chagrin of Severo who feels Rai has betrayed him for a bunch of “whores” (his clients). Severo is not the most reasonable of men, making Gildo look like a saint in comparison, so when he holds Val hostage it is difficult to sympathise with his paranoia that everyone is out to con him.

During his funeral, the mourners all express their dislike and feelings of good riddance towards Severo under muttered breaths to avoid upsetting Rai, who didn’t get along with his father either. But now it is Gildo and Val who are paranoid, feeling the pressure in maintaining a sense of normalcy and not revealing their guilt, whilst Val’s younger sister Genia (Clara Lago) is only afforded the barest details of the incident to protect her from any trouble.

But if anything is going to crack, it is the relationship between father and daughters. Val works like a slave for her father as well as assuming the role of homemaker vacated by her late mother, whilst Genia is still at school and practicing belly dancing in secret. If either daughter harbours any ambition other than farming, Gildo won’t allow it and with no modern technology like telephones or computers, there is no way for them to explore a surreptitious route of escape.

When Gildo instructs Val to get pally with Rai – dressing her in one of his late wife’s dresses – he unwittingly gives Val a path to free herself from his tyranny. Some might balk at how make-up and nice clothes brings about a change in Val but before they consult their Bechdel Test check list, it is less about attracting Rai rather instilling an overall confidence in her to stand up to her father and direct her own future.

Amidst this battle of wills and illicit relationships we are treated to some levity via the art of cow milking, which provides two climaxes – one at the annual milking festival which is very amusing, the other a little more dramatic. There is a late second act twist which is admittedly inevitable but still well done, but it the shift in audience perception towards the characters it provokes which is the masterstroke it brings.

Perspective is always dictated by the facts presented to us and Gutierrez Aragon exploits this to perfection, and once new evidence is shared, everything falls into place. It doesn’t necessarily excuse or justify any prior behaviour but puts within a frame that is easier to understand why they are this way. And it is not just the audience forced to re-evaluate their opinions either, with many personal relationships taking a different turn.

There is no question this film works well as an entertaining rural drama but one area that is underplayed for international audiences is the perceived discrimination between the Pasiegos and the city police who hold them in contempt, even blocking their milk from being taken into town. Even if international distribution wasn’t intended, domestic audiences might also have wanted further exploration of this issue.

Luis Tosar might be the most recognisable face in the cast, and it is interesting to see him play someone “normal” for once, but he is in the company of other fine actors who deliver strong readings of their complex characters. Both Marta Etura and Clara Lago are standouts, though it is a little hard seeing the latter at just 14 doing a sexy belly dancing routine.   

Gutierrez Aragon clearly wanted to say a lot about his birthplace via Your Next Life and maybe doesn’t say it all, but as a tense and emotionally driven drama it does its job in keeping the audience gripped whilst being quite educational about milking cows too.