The tale of warring sisters is well-trodden cinematic ground by this point. These sisters are often opposite in nature – one is sensible, the other rebellious, one has a family, the other does not, one is emotional, the other logical. ‘Can’t Say Goodbye’ follows this pattern at first glance but adds a nuance that many similar dramas disregard; the relationship between the sisters in question remains loosely supportive despite their oppositional personalities. The intensity of these characters and the commitment of each actor transforms what could have been a bland melodrama into a touching commentary on the life of a fractured family.
Carla – strong, unruly, sniffs mysterious white substances in bathrooms – is living alone in Barcelona when she gets a call from her sister Blanca. Their father has been taken ill, and Carla must return to her childhood home in order to play the doting daughter. The relationship between Carla and Blanca is nuanced from the moment they reunite: they throw barbs at each other one moment, then compliment each other the next. (“You look great, bitch.”) Blanca informs Carla of her wishes to become an actress, and Carla half-heartedly confirms her approval. Their words are never emotional, but the link is there: they’re family, and they don’t need to be affectionate to show their bond. The pair form a strikingly real representation of two very different people who have grown together despite a clashing of personalities. When you’ve known somebody for that long, after all, they become part of the furniture.
Shortly after Carla leaves Barcelona, their father Jose is diagnosed with terminal cancer, and the family begins to fracture under the pressure of incoming loss. Carla and Blanca, linked only by a familial thread, immediately wish for different things for their dad: Carla refuses to accept his diagnosis, whilst Blanca wishes for him to be able to die with dignity. The two personify these two choices – Carla the rebel, wishing to continue at all costs, and Blanca the homemaker, valuing comfort and safety. Jose does not seem to care much either way – his investment in his daughters is nil, and he avoids emotional confrontation with either of them.
This lack of a stable relationship makes a difficult time even more thorny, as the sisters struggle to communicate with their father in his final weeks. One dinner scene stands out as a concentrated example, as Carla and Blanca begin to reminisce about a series of lights that they saw in their childhood. This is an understated memory, fuzzy and unimportant on the surface, but for Carla and Blanca this shared knowledge is part of the history that binds them together. They smile slightly at each other, conveying small glimmers of compassion. Jose, however, shuts this down, snapping at them for being nonsensical. The tone immediately shifts, and the moment is tragically lost.
Though the script and direction are commendable – with the use of limited light to create mood being of note – this is an actors’ piece at heart. Actresses Nathalie Pozas and Lola Duenas are so refined in their performances that even the quiver of a lip can say so much. As the camera gazes over their faces, studying every intimate reaction to this hellish situation, the subtle emotions of the pair cement the dramatic realism of the film.
In the end, Carla and Blanca are not allowed the closure they wish to gain from the death of their father. We watch helplessly as they struggle to put the fragments together, occasionally making progress with small, knowing looks, before the façade shatters once more. Bleak and painful, ‘Can’t Say Goodbye’ refuses to sugarcoat the realities of grief and familial hardship. There are no heartfelt confessions. There are no beautiful words to be exchanged over deathbeds. There are no picture-perfect scenes of love and comfort. Instead, we witness two women grasp at what simply cannot be. Bleak, brave and emotionally gutting, ‘Can’t Say Goodbye’ is a perfect illustration of grief’s refusal to be defined.