The Reluctant Hometown Hero

The other day I watched Summer in Andalusia, an anime gem from 2003. It’s by studio Madhouse, but you would be forgiven for thinking it’s a Ghibli venture, since director Kitarou Kousaka worked on films like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. Nasu: Summer in Andalusia follows a Spanish cyclist, Pepe Benegeli, over one day in the Vuelta a España road race. The movie is less than 50 minutes, and it’s tempting to call it fizzy, a diversion, a cool drink to go with a vacation to an exotic place. But it’s more like the meal that grounds the story and connects the characters: pickled eggplant and red wine. That is to say: unfussy but rich and heavy with tradition. I imagine some people have watched Summer in Andalusia and found it pleasant but slim. I found it to be a beautiful and restrained window into legacy, family, roots, and talent.

It’s a sweltering day in the Spanish summer, but it’s the day where the Vuelta’s stage happens to run through Pepe Benegeli’s hometown. Pepe is a domestique for his Belgian beer-sponsored team (the logo for which is clearly a Delerium Tremens reference). This means that his job is to support the athletes who actually stand to win the entire race. The star he’s supporting, Gilmore, as well as his sponsors and most of his competitors, are not Spanish. This movie reminded me that I am part Spanish, specifically Andalusian, but I did not have an accurate picture of the landscape in my mind. The idyllic-to-my-ears title Summer in Andalusia and its cover image of three young people on a bike conjured up something a little more Call Me by Your Nameish, with tranquil pools and lazy days spent under fruit trees. Andalusia is more desert than lush paradise, though, and all the cyclists are suffering.

I’ll get to Pepe’s literal brother in a minute, but his relationship to his homeland also feels brotherly. Specifically in the way of “I can trash talk this, but you can’t.” The sweltering heat, cracked earth, and endless, shadeless stretches of road. They mean something more to Pepe than to the other cyclists, for who this is just a particularly miserable location to race through. My husband told me that it used to be not-uncommon in these long haul races for athletes to let a nonthreatening competitor win the day’s stage if it went through their hometown. This is not being afforded to Pepe. Not only has he been coached to help Gilmore win at any cost, but he accidentally hears a radio transmission from his sponsors that they are thinking of firing him after this race. Pepe is a taciturn and understated character, so even being overlooked and humiliated on his own turf doesn’t spark some great reaction or shonen rallying cry.

Instead, he just speeds up, and up, and stays there. The next populated area the Vuelta is set to run through is Pepe’s home village, but he doesn’t expect to be the star there, either. It’s his older brother’s wedding day. Funny that his brother, Angel, would be getting married on a day he knows his sibling is unavailable. HMM! Angel, who has Pepe’s quiet dignity but seems to be a more demonstrative man, is marrying the beautiful and spirited Carmen. Their wedding and ensuing party is closer to what I imagined I would see in this movie – tradition, fun, mutliple generations of locals letting loose. But Angel, Carmen, and the people of the village are thinking of Pepe even if he doens’t want them to. The local bartender has accounted both for the wedding and the race: he’s readied barrels of succulent pickeled eggplant and casks of wine, with a plan to watch Pepe ride by his restaurant. Pepe’s grand entrance is anti-climactic, though I imagine that’s how it feels to watch a race in person. For Pepe’s part, he doesn’t even lift his head to acknowledge his family and friends.

After clearing his village, Pepe still doesn’t slow down, to the bafflement of his sponsors and competitors. Even in the unlikely event that he can race to the end of the stage without his legs giving out, his chances of outpacing the group are miniscule. Miniscule is enough for the home party to drive into town to see the finish line, though, and we get the “lore” from the car ride with Pepe’s father and brother. Both brothers served time in military and both lost things because of it – or had something taken from them. Angel, it turns out, also had athletic talent and thought about becoming a pro cyclist himself. He returned to find Pepe had taken his place. During Pepe’s stint in the army, Angel stole his girlfriend – Carmen. It suddenly makes sense why Pepe is standoffish to the idea of his family, why he wouldn’t attend his own brother’s wedding, and why his entire attitude in the race is simmering with resentment and stubborn determination.

Relatively short story shorter: Pepe wins the stage by a few milimeters, if that, and the end of the race is a delightful and rousing sequence of animation that represents the phsyical exhaustion of the cyclists by devolving their forms into screaming blurs. It’s the culmination of one of the strengths of the production: clearly this was made by people who know and love, and thus know the suffering of, cycling. I’m a runner, which many people also think sounds awful, but I’ve always thought that cycling seems more painful and awful than running! Summer in Andalusia really captures the contrasts of the sport. On one hand, I think cycling has a very vactiony, European holiday appeal. Professionals cyclists always have a cosmopolitan vibe relative (also one of the hotter types of athletes IMHO). There’s a little of the flowing drinks and pretty girls of auto racing. Yet it’s absurd and taxing and the athletes don’t get to enjoy the beauty around them in a straightforward way.

But back to it. Even with his victory, Pepe doesn’t want to cede any emotional territory to his home and family, refusing to say anything to the cameras beyond deadpan shilling for his sponsor. Later that night, his brother and Carmen drive alongside him as he rides across the now-forgiving landscape. Their affection met with barbed replies – that may some some affection in them as well, very deep down, but there’s no great resolution scene.

Instead, Pepe rides alone to the mountains looking over his homeland. He remembers doing the same thing on a visit during his time as a solider. Is this memory the night before he discovered his brother had won the girl he loved, a brief visit on leave, or the end of his military career? We don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter. Pepe salutes a giant bull-shaped billboard that towers over the dry landscape. To visitors and the foreign cyclists, the bull probably seems quaint and a little silly. To locals, it might be all that plus a genuine emotional connection. This quiet scene is touching and give Pepe a road to his own resolution. When he finally settles in with his fellow atheletes for a victory meal, he is able to show pride in his origins to his peers. It was about proving something to himself, not his family, and maybe not even to his competitors.

I think what ultimately makes Summer in Andalusia so special is its incredible economy of storytelling. A lesser version of it would have given the Benegeli brothers a fight or a tearful reconciliation after grievances are spelled out clearly. Pepe’s quiet love for his homeland would have been given more overt screentime or shown in a conversation rather than a private moment of reflection. We can be moved by Pepe’s story with the information given to us. We understand how he feels and why. We don’t need to see flashbacks of his relationship with Carmen or his shared love of cycling with Angel. The movie captures the ambivlance of being hurt by a place and the people in it but still being inextricably tied to, and fond of, that place. It puts us in the perspective of a spectator to one of these long and epic bicycle races. Something complicated and fascinating is whirring past us, and what we can glimpse as it does is more than compelling enough to leave an impact.

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