CIFF 2019: A Thief’s Daughter, by Jonathan Leithold-Patt
An intimate work of social-realist portraiture in the vein of the Dardenne brothers, A Thief’s Daughter brings us into the life of Sara, a young single mother trying to stay afloat through circumstances that have spiraled beyond her control. As is the reality for so many, the obstacles she faces are rooted in interconnected socioeconomic and familial factors: absent fathers, limited access to living-wage employment, a broken safety net, and the need to raise children in the midst of all of it. It’s a gauntlet of adversities, but A Thief’s Daughter is not unrealistic or exaggerated in its drama. The film forgoes mawkishness and sensationalism for unfussy observation, letting its emotions build so organically that you never feel as if you’re being manipulated into hurting for someone who already garners our bountiful empathy.
Although the influence of the Dardennes on Belén Funes’ film is both thematically and aesthetically apparent from the start – she and her DP show a distinct preference for the Belgian duo’s signature handheld, rear follow-shot – A Thief’s Daughter is ultimately less urgent and ethically fraught than a film such as, say, L’enfant. Rather than pivot on some galvanizing moral crucible or mission that proceeds to drive the narrative, Funes takes a more relaxed approach, revealing Sara’s situation in ambling episodes that accrue force through their quiet moments of emotional strength and vulnerability. These are qualities Sara displays in abundance, often at the same time. A 22-year-old living in Barcelona’s public housing, she’s stringing together various part-time cleaning and food service jobs while raising her infant son and looking after her little brother, Martín, who’s in foster care. She’s separated but still on good terms with her boyfriend, while her father, Manuel, the titular thief, has been away while facing prison time for an undisclosed crime. Through it all, Sara does her best not to be impeded, maintaining a steadfastness that actress Greta Fernández conveys in her every determined, no-nonsense movement through spaces both domestic and vocational. But when Manuel is released from jail, disrupting Sara’s well-managed routines, old tensions reemerge that threaten to pull the family even further apart.
With the father back – barely – in his kids’ lives, the primary conflict of A Thief’s Daughter reveals itself as an anguished battle for custody over Martín. Manuel wants the boy back; Sara, who continues to do everything she can to care for him, including taking him to church services, is unyielding. It’s a testament to both Eduard Fernández’s sensitive performance and Funes’ script that the father doesn’t come off as a villain. He’s certainly shirked responsibility and left his children adrift, but there’s a fumbling attempt at contrition the actor displays that is disarming, particularly in a lovely moment where he and Martín put on each other’s earrings. And in his charged but pointedly ambivalent confrontations with Sara, we see a father and a daughter whose fractious relationship masks an aching affection, albeit one that’s long past its chance of being requited. “Why don’t you just forget him?” asks Sara’s boyfriend. “I can’t,” she responds. “I carry him in my face.” As Sara’s court date nears, her tenacity seems increasingly outmatched by systems slanted against her. Yet Funes’ camera sticks to her in unwavering solidarity, allied to the inherent value of a young woman simply trying to live her life with everything she has, and everything she doesn’t.