Anabel (Susi Sánchez) abandoned her daughter Chiara (Bárbara Lennie) when she was barely eight years old. Thirty-five years later, Chiara finally locates her mother and approaches her with a strange request: she asks if the two of them could spend ten days together. She doesn’t want any money, or to be a part of Anabel’s new family, she just wants the two of them to go off together for ten days. Anabel sees this trip as a chance to get her daughter back, but she has no idea that Chiara has a hidden purpose and that she’ll have to face the most important decision of her life.
Sunday’s Illness (La enfermedad del domingo), Spanish filmmaker Ramón Salazar’s stunningly beautiful and emotional drama, received accolades when it had its world premiere at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. You’ll be hard pressed to find two more extraordinary performances this year than those given by Sánchez and Lennie in this film. I spoke to writer/director Ramón Salazar (with the help of a translator) about this haunting film that is now available on Netflix.
Danny Miller: I thought this was one of the most original films I’ve seen in a long time. How did you even get the idea for this story?
Ramón Salazar: Initially, the motivation was that I wanted to work with Susi Sánchez again, I had worked with her on my previous film, 10.000 noches en ninguna parte, and think she’s just an amazing actress. This time I wanted to give her a main role, to have her be the main character, so we worked on this story together for more than two years. Susi had a very active role in developing the character and the story. As for the topic of the film, we read this book that portrayed the lives of women who were unapologetically sharing their stories about leaving their children, and we felt there was so much there to explore in a film.
For me, this is one of the most fascinating depictions of a troubled mother-daughter relationship since Ingmar Bergman’s Autum Sonata with Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann.
Wow, that’s high praise, thank you. Of course, while we thought of films like that, we also gave ourselves the exercise of separating ourselves from all the stories we could think of about mothers and daughters, both in terms of what we wanted to say in the story and our visual approach, so we could come up with something new. We decided that our approach would be to have the two characters meet after 35 years without every explaining exactly what had happened. Our rule was that the characters would never be explicit about how they feel or what they think. We wanted to make a dry drama rather a melodrama!
I love that you never over-explain anything. I don’t think this film could ever be made in the United States because American studios would freak out at the long silences in the film and the fact that we’re left to figure out a lot of the dynamic on our own. Both of the lead performances are simply extraordinary. I don’t know what equivalent you have for the Oscars in Spain, but Susi Sánchez needs one for her performance of Anabel. Can you say more about how you worked with her to develop that character?
Susi and I were meeting every week and she gave me great feedback throughout the process. She’s an actress that has an amazing experience both professionally and personally. So, during this process of writing the script, we were constantly talking about not only the characters but life in general. It all helped to feed the story.
While I love that you didn’t tell us exactly what went down with Anabel and Chiara, did you create backstories for them that you shared with the actresses?
Yes. Since we were trying to recreate the feeling that they didn’t know each other, I wrote a biography — practically a novel! — for Susi that was the story of Anabel from the moment she abandoned her daughter up until the moment she meets her again. I gave that book only to Susi, and did the same thing with Chiara. They knew their own stories and could contribute to them but did not know what happened with the other one, even as we were filming. That made them feel powerful and confident with their own character but at the same time very vulnerable because they didn’t know the other side of the story.
So interesting. Part of what made Anabel’s reactions so powerful to me was the way they were given in such a straightforward manner with very little emotion. Did you experiment with other ways for Susi to play that as you were making the film?
From the very first moment we were clear that the characters would never let themselves be ruled by emotions. How do you put 35 years of emotions into ten days? You really can’t, no one could handle those emotions, it all has to come out very gradually.
One scene that I can’t get out of my head is when Anabel starts dancing at Chiara’s house, thinking that no one sees her. There’s something about the way she moves, so awkwardly but intensely, like it’s a kind of liberation. Something in her very orderly exterior is starting to crack. Was that scene a process of discovery for you all?
Yes. We saw it as a very primitive moment, in a way. Anabel is breaking this shell of sophistication that she’s created in order to survive. We wanted the feeling that we are going back to this character’s very basic instincts.
I loved the little touch of Anabel telling her daughter that she named her after Chiara Mastroianni, the daughter of actors Marcello Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve. What was that about?
In Spain, at the time she was born, so many people were influenced by movie stars in terms of what they named their children. I think my generation is lucky that our names were inspired by those people. Today, parents are more likely to name children after soccer players or reality TV stars!
That moment stuck in my head because as much as I can’t see this film being made by an American studio, I think it would be an exquisite vehicle for Catherine Deneuve and Chiara Mastroianni to play mother and daughter in. Maybe you should make a French version!
(Laughs.) I can see that!
I don’t want to give away what happens at the end of the film, but I’ll say that I did not see it coming at all which was so refreshing. I saw two big mainstream films this week and knew the ending five minutes into the film! I wondered if the ending brought about a lot of debate in Spain or elsewhere.
It’s funny because when we were shooting it we thought, “Wow, this ending is going to be very controversial” and we braced ourselves for that, but when we started screening the movie at various festivals, we kept hearing how moved people were by it — they read it more as a relief than as a dark ending. And then after all of our screenings, many people would approach us to share very personal, very intimate experiences they’ve had with family members. That was very moving to me.