Review: Even the Caresses Hurt Me—Anna Bofarull’s “Sonata for Cello”

“If you don’t live it like the last thing you had on earth, if these notes don’t tear off a piece of yourself, the best piece of you, then you better forget it and do something else. You’ll spare yourself the sorrow, and spare the rest from your mediocrity.”

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Old age, mediocrity, motherhood, paralysis – these are the fears that haunt perfectionist cellist Júlia Fortuny throughout Spanish filmmaker Anna M. Bofarull’s enthralling exploration of artistic expression, “Sonata Per a Violoncel (Sonata for a Cello)”.

Written and directed by Bofarull, “Sonata for Cello” intricately dissects the concept of bleeding for one’s art. Júlia, who suffers from fibromyalgia – a painful chronic condition with no known cure – bleeds for her art, figuratively and literally. Bofarull’s incredibly sensitive, and at times excruciatingly realistic depiction of the agony felt by fibromyalgia sufferers is quietly explained by the parting dedication of the film to Bofarull’s mother, also afflicted with the condition.

The attractive, talented Júlia (Montse Germán) is utterly devoted to her music. Any energy devoted to something outside of her cello is considered a waste. Even her own daughter, Carla, comes second to the music. Júlia keeps Carla at arm’s length, screening calls and leaving voicemails in avoidance of any real conversation, and snubs everyone else that cares for her; her father, her ex-husband, her manager, her student-lover, Abel, who adores her. Júlia’s stark modern apartment reflects her approach to life outside of music, showing no signs of comfort, of being lived in, or of personal history. The only element of significance is a large aquarium filled with tropical fish, which makes perfect sense. They are beautiful, self-regulating, and remain detached in a bubble that separates them from the world – just like her.

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One day, after years of intermittent pain in various parts of her body, Júlia is given the devastating diagnosis: she has fibromyalgia. When Júlia finds herself submerged in crushing powerlessness, fighting desperately against the limits of her own body, she realizes that she can no longer continue to compartmentalize the different parts of her life.

As Júlia’s pain develops, it becomes physically evident. She stares naked and vulnerable into a mirror, touching the parts of her body that give her pain: her wrists, shoulders, elbows; parts of her body vital for playing music. It is a tribute to Germán’s phenomenal acting that the viewer shivers in near-unbearable discomfort when Júlia tries to play her cello. Her face contorts in desperate pain as she fingers the strings and draws her bow, and we recognize that her pain is not only physical. Later, in a harrowing long take, Júlia wakes up with aches in her body so agonizing that she is physically paralyzed, unable to move. For six uninterrupted, unforgiving minutes, tears leak out from her eyes as she wails, laughs, and cries in incredulous anguish.

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Nature and water bring Júlia solace from her agony. When her ex-husband Max says that he finds “the sound of wind more expressive” than music, Júlia, eyes closed in rapture, tells him “they are the same.” Water too renews and recalibrates Júlia. For a long time, Júlia remains in denial about her condition. But as she takes regular swims in the local pool, she is able to work through the issues that plague her mind, as well as get physical relief from the pain in her body. Significantly, when Júlia finally opens up to Carla, they are sitting by the ocean.

On the whole, Bofarull’s vision of the creative process is elegant, complex, and powerful. Her empathetic, riveting portrayal of the suffering artist is most illuminating for those unfamiliar with such pervasive medical conditions as fibromyalgia. We are irrevocably swallowed into Júlia’s world of music, independence, limits, and devastating affliction – and eventually experience liberation through her cathartic reinvention. Júlia learns that in order to endure, she must save the “best pieces” of herself not only for music, but those whom she loves.

Melissa Legarda Alcantara

Melissa Legarda Alcantara

Melissa is the editor of SineScreen. She enjoys dark chocolate, film festivals, and finding Freudian undertones where they don't exist. Catch her on Twitter at @melissalegarda.

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