WASHINGTON, DC — The Black Box film series at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden isn’t where you’d expect to find a gaggle of teenage boys. But when I stopped in to watch Sergio Caballero’s 25-minute flm “Ancha es Castilla” or “N’importe quoi” (2014), the Spanish artist’s debut at a US museum, I was greeted by 10 high school freshmen who assured me that I would “really like it, it’s seriously weird.” They weren’t wrong.
Unlike other offerings at the Black Box, the Hirshhorn’s rotating series of film exhibitions, “Ancha es Castilla” or “N’importe quoi” has an easy-to-follow and linear plot. A young girl named Alegria is possessed, and her mother and father commune with spirits and eventually travel to Africa in an attempt to save her from the devil. The story is acted out by figures made from hair, food, and other found household objects, as well as life-size recreations of the dolls. All the dialogue is in English, with English subtitles for those who can’t quite make out the characters’ cartoonish accents. And yet, even with all the pieces put together relatively cleanly, “Ancha es Castilla” or “N’importe quoi” is bewilderingly grotesque, surprisingly comic, and otherworldly in its simultaneous complexity and slapdash nature.
The figures Caballero voices are only reminiscent of humans. Mother’s face is dominated by what looks like a dried up stalk, while Father appears to be a vaguely formed amalgamation of melting goo and lichen. Alegria, marked as a young girl by her pink skirt and pigtails, begins the film as a white piece of something that looks like drywall, but becomes more and more disfigured as her possession endures. Caballero blends the DIY messiness of his characters with an eye for detail that keeps the very thin veil of fiction up, his characters moving through their cardboard sets without interruption. The life-size costume versions of each of them, used when Caballero wants to give a character more dexterity, are so pitch-perfect that the transitions are nearly seamless.
The visuals of the film, including the dark forest in which the possessed Alegria is found, draw from Francisco Goya’s Black Paintings, but the B-movie inspiration of the plot shades the entire film. The often light and humorous feeling created by the dialogue — Father exclaims that Alegria has been “possessed by Beelzebub” only to declare that he’s “going to the bar” — shifts into darkness quickly in the small family’s makeshift world. The bizarre goes just a little too far for a little too long to be written off as humor, be it the opening scene in which the life-size version of Mother spills a green pseudo-coffee all over the floor or, later, when she feeds the dog before the family’s trip to Africa by throwing what looks like old meat across the room. These scenes are carefully timed, just long enough to pull the viewer out of the comfortable oddity that defines much of the film, but not so long that the story itself is interrupted.
“Ancha es Castilla” or “N’importe quoi” may not inspire profound thought or challenge conceptions of art in the way past Black Box exhibitions have, but it does leave the viewer feeling as if they’ve been thrown slightly off center. The film’s strangeness, the grotesque sets and characters, the moments of levity — it all adds up to something that feels at once like art and like lowbrow homemade cinema. The lack of pretension and preciousness is refreshing, though, and the story arc is enjoyable. But the finer details aside, I left the Black Box with one primary thought: it was seriously weird, and I did really like it.
Black Box: Sergio Caballero continues at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Independence Avenue and 7th Street, Washington, DC) through January 3, 2016.