Fireworks light up the night sky and children play red light/green light in a Barcelona street in the first scene of Spanish director Carla Simón’s oblique, acutely observed, but at times dramatically inert “Summer 1993.” According to the rules of the game, players caught moving are “dead.” A boy confronts 6-year-old Frida (Laia Artigas), who’s frozen in position, and tries to get her to flinch. “Why aren’t you crying?” he whispers in her ear. She moves, is declared dead, and loses the game.
Frida has reason to cry, though the facts about her circumstances emerge slowly, filtered through her point of view, which is expertly sustained by Simón. Frida’s mother has died. She has been taken in by her mother’s brother, Esteve (David Verdaguer), and his wife, Marga (Bruna Cusí), to live with them in the Catalonian countryside.
But what happened to Frida’s mother is unclear. Some hints, silently acknowledged by the eavesdropping Frida, drift in from people overheard talking off screen. Their comments are suggestive and incomplete. “I didn’t think people died of pneumonia these days,” says a shopkeeper.
Frida’s father, it turns out, is dead, too, and Frida’s kindly, strait-laced, and intrusive grandparents darkly mutter about his bad influence and wild lifestyle.
Adding to the suspicions about the cause of her parents’ deaths, Frida suffers from an undisclosed ailment that requires visits to the local clinic. In one alarming scene, she cuts her knee, and a child approaches to help her. Horrified that she might touch Frida’s blood, the girl’s mother drags her daughter away.
And still, Frida doesn’t cry.
She is not an adorable child. She shares the morbid, tender pathos and wounded innocence of the characters played by Brigitte Fossey in René Clément’s “Forbidden Games” (1952) and Ana Torrent in Víctor Erice’s “The Spirit of the Beehive” (1973) but at times comes close to exhibiting the sinister sociopathy of Fantine Harduin’s Ève in Michael Haneke’s “Happy End” (2017). Let’s just say you leave her alone with Esteve and Marga’s 4-year-old daughter Anna (Paula Robles), who is adorable, at your own risk.
In this semi-autobiographical period piece, Simón achieves the rare feat of faithfully recreating the mysterious consciousness of a child. Though her techniques can get repetitive and stall the narrative, more often than not her elliptical editing recreates an innocent’s perception of the slow drift of time. Her camera illuminates everyday details of country life — a battered shrine to the Blessed Virgin, the slaughter of a sheep — with the glow of a child’s troubled imagination.
That imagination comes fully alive when Frida sees something genuinely strange, like a parade at a carnival in which children march wearing giant, lacquered, papier maché heads that look like Lewis Carroll characters. For the first time, she expresses unrestrained delight. It’s a surreal spectacle, monstrous yet magical, combining two qualities of childhood that are too often obscured by sentimentality.
Written and directed by Carla Simón. Starring Laia Artigas, Bruna Cusí, David Verdaguer, Paula Robles. At the Kendall Square. 97 minutes. Unrated (harsh facts of life as experienced by a little girl). In Spanish, with subtitles.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.