With Slaughterhouse 5 Kurt Vonnegut revealed that humour can be exploited in two ways: to make people roll over the floor laughing and to underscore the graveness of earnest problems. While Antonio Mercero’s Spanish dramatic comedy Planta 4ª (The 4th Floor) doesn’t tackle WWII but “only” possibly terminally ill children, its use of humour is similar. While it would be harsh to nickname the film Slaughterhouse 4 (the young patients of the cancer ward on the titular fourth floor all have at least one amputated limb), it shares with Vonnegut its exploitation of laughter in the face of the incomprehensible, or indeed the only sane way to confront the inexplicable madness of disease and death. Relying greatly on the acting chops of rising Spanish star Juan José Ballesta (who, though born in 1987, could teach Javier Bardem a thing or two) Planta 4ª is one of the best serious comedies ever made – and that is saying something.
The film focuses on Miguel Angel (Ballesta, from El bola), the cheerful ring leader of a small group of adolescents who are permanent patients at a cancer ward. They pass the time playing basketball in their wheelchairs, going on forbidden nightly expeditions throughout the building and even venturing to the top floor for some contact with the “chicas” or girls. The hospital personnel are quite lenient in the face of their exploits; at a staff meeting one of them sighs “We are always being too permissive”. But what a serious film this would have been if they had not allowed these youngsters their fun, including a wacky wheelchair race through the corridors and the most hilarious masturbation seen since, well, ever.
Inspired by true events and based on a play by Albert Espinosa (who co-wrote the screenplay with Ignacio del Moral and Mercero), Planta 4ª does not forget its more serious side without becoming melodramatic, which in a hospital setting is quite a feat to pull off. In the film’s emotionally most resonant scene, Miguel Angel remains alone on a day when all parents are allowed a collective visit to their offspring. A younger sibling of one of the other patients sees him and asks him where his other leg has gone. “Have you been eaten by a shark?” he wonders, before saying: “You should eat more spinach.” Ballesta, who has very few words in this scene, perfectly captures his character’s quick shifts from melancholy to regret, hope, bemusement and desperation in his expressive eyes. Miguel Angel is a rascal with a big heart and a louder voice that tries to hide the overriding human need for comfort, warmth and love. The biggest surprise is that — apart from it’s overly clichéd ending — the film itself is able to give us all of this and more (including some of the year’s best comedy), without betraying its darker undercurrents.
review by Boyd van Hoeij
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