Blink and you’re in danger of missing La cabina. If you do manage to track down a copy though (or, like me, are content to watch it on YouTube), its impact will resonate far beyond its lean 35 minutes. The simple plot oozes with allegory, astonishing both for the deftness of its presentation and the courage Antonio Mercero and Jose Luis Garci had in tackling head on the horrors of Franco’s Spain.
And the plot is simple, Incredibly so. Omitting the spoiler ending, it centres entirely on a man trapped in a telephone box. Given that simplicity, there’s not a great deal I can say about the nuts and bolts beyond observing that they’re perfectly calibrated to serve the purpose of the film. La cabina has the wonderful grittiness that’s so often a feature of Spanish film, from the look and sound through to the willingness to conceive of and present average characters to convey added realism (those who’ve seen Timecrimes will know what I mean). By average, I of course don’t wish to disparage the efforts of Jose Vazquez. He takes possession of every second of the role of ‘Man in the phone box, and the virtues of the gritty, simplistic approach can be observed in contrasting this with something like Phone Booth.
What La cabina manages to capture perfectly is the collective psychological blindness that emerges in totalitarian societies which allows most people to live a ‘normal’ life. While the crowd surrounding the phone box are initially sympathetic and concerned, once it becomes clear that they are powerless to help they quickly turn their backs in an attempt to ignore – or mock – the obvious elephant in the room, or ‘Man in the phone box’. In drawing out his reaction and that of the various characters who stumble across him, Mercero dances between light drama, comedy and Twilight Zone-esqu eeriness with such effortlessness that the impact of the ending is doubly horrific.
This reaches its apotheosis when the box is eventually removed; no-one seeks to question the circumstances of this or batters an eye-lid that someone can be randomly plucked from the street by seemingly faceless authority. Not that La cabina is a simple tirade against authority, for on some levels the state is presented as hapless and incompetent rather than chilling. The police who turn out to assist are more reminiscent of the German officers in ‘Allo, ‘Allo than they are the ruthless agents of the Franco regime. It’s nevertheless astonishing that La cabina secured a release during the Caudillo’s lifetime. Its message is nuanced but clear; in some societies, people can and do disappear in circumstances as brazen as from a public square in broad daylight surrounded by large crowds. You’ll be hard pressed to find a film that conveys the true horror of that fact better.