In the past week, the temperature has begun to creep downward. We have had a number of gray, rainy days recently, and today we have a generous dusting of snow coming down. This kind of weather always puts me in the mood for a nice, steamy, richly flavored hot drink to wrap my hands around and sip while I enjoy a good book or film. I like tea and cocoa, but there is nothing better than a delicious café con leche on a gloomy gray day.
You know what makes a great accompaniment to that café con leche? Patricia Font’s 2014 live-action cortometraje “Café para llevar”. I saw this corto for the first time just a couple of months ago, and it has quickly become a favorite of mine. I am clearly not the only one who holds it in high esteem: “Café para llevar” won the Goya award (Spain’s answer to the Oscars) for Best Fictional Short Film in 2015, in addition to receiving a nomination for Best Short at the 2015 Gaudí Awards. Everything about this short is so well thought out and executed, from the performances to the art direction, the lighting, the soundtrack, all of it. “Café para llevar” is an absolute jewel of a short film, and it reveals new depths and insights upon every viewing.
The primary reason why I love this cortometraje so much is because of the interplay between the dialogue and the subtext, the unspoken communication that takes place between the actors through their pauses, glances, body language and the other nonverbal and paralinguistic elements of communication. The actors (Alexandra Jiménez and Daniel Grao) and director (Patricia Font) really let the scene breathe. As Jiménez noted in an interview on the ESCAC blog when asked about the highlights of working on this project, “[d]estacaría la cantidad de matices, capas y cosas no dichas que cargan esta historia aparentemente tan sencilla.” In the corto, we see Alicia (Jiménez) stumble into a chance encounter with her ex Javi (Grao) when she pauses in the midst of some errands to grab a cup of café con leche to go. Javi invites her to join him for a few minutes while she drinks her coffee. After exchanging pleasantries and briefly catching up on what the other has been doing since they split, the conversation begins to reveal what went wrong between them, as much through what is left unsaid as through their dialogue.
From a language acquisition standpoint, the power of a well-crafted short to draw viewers in and motivate them to engage in repeat viewings can yield cognitive benefits to language development. Spectators who are captivated by “Café para llevar” and watch it over and over to discover new depths and nuances will benefit from the repeated exposure to the language as they are rewarded with appreciation for the corto’s richness. Another cognitive side benefit of “Café para llevar”’s pacing and ample pauses amid the dialogue is that learners are afforded an extra split-second of processing time. There is some SLA research literature on pausing’s effect on learner comprehension (see, for example, Jacobs 1988, Leeser 2004, Blau 1990). The kind of pausing we see in this corto is not exactly the same as what an instructor might do in front of a class, but nonetheless, “Café para llevar” gives learners an example of very natural, realistic interaction between native speakers that serendipitously contains a number of extended pauses in the discourse, affording some additional processing time.
For language learners viewing “Café para llevar” on their own:
I hope that independent viewers out there will be as fascinated by this corto as I am, and that they will find repeat viewings as rewarding as I do. One detail that I appreciate about it (although it may make things a bit challenging for language learners) is that often when one of the actors is speaking, the camera focuses on the other one’s reaction. This may make it harder to understand the dialogue at that moment because we miss some visual information from the speaker’s face, but we get a lot of insight into the dynamic between Alicia and Javi by seeing the listener’s response and the rapid sequence of emotions that flash across his or her face.
I also really appreciate the art direction of this corto. This aspect of it is a little tangential to language acquisition, but, again, if it hooks you in and gets you to rewatch it while you peel back the layers and notice new details, then you are gaining the side benefit of repeated exposure to comprehensible input. The corto creates a cool, cloudy atmosphere suffused with soft light and muted colors, from the cityscapes of the opening credits to the interior of the coffee shop where most of the action takes place. Within this setting, Alicia appears as the incarnation of carefully controlled neutrality: her entire wardrobe is black, white and gray, including the white and gray shopping bag she carries and the taupe nail polish on her fingers. We even overhear her side of a phone conversation, insisting on all white tablecloths, nothing with color, for the wedding she is in the midst of planning. When Javi asks her if she is happy, her non-response speaks volumes. And when Alma’s colorful figure walks into the café with her indigo hat, green sweater, reddish scarf, and the multicolored flowers blooming over her pregnant belly, Alicia’s neutrals begin to seem like a coping mechanism, a way of suppressing the fact that the professional success and the upcoming wedding aren’t what she really wants, but she hasn’t yet admitted that to herself. It’s a beautiful example of how costuming can be used to tell a story about character and emotion. The clothes these characters wear are not arbitrary; they are chosen in order to convey a message about who they are and what they want.
(Side note: If you find this interesting, and if you want a free master class in costume analysis, and if you don’t mind going down an internet rabbit hole that will provide fodder for hours and hours of delightful, fascinating and educational procrastination, I encourage you to check out Tom + Lorenzo’s Mad Style archives. After you’ve finished those, you can check out some of their other costume analysis posts on shows and movies such as Outlander, Big Little Lies, Sharp Objects, Black Panther, Wonder Woman, The Crown, etc. This is all in English, so it won’t do much for you as far as comprehensible input and language acquisition, but T + Lo do a wonderful job of explaining the semiotics of costuming in film and television with beautiful, well-chosen and well-illustrated examples.)
Getting back to language: When Javi and Alicia talk about their past, pay close attention to the way they use preterite and imperfect verbs. What inferences can you make about their relationship, based on these choices? Remember that the preterite focuses on one or both endpoints of an action (i.e. something changed, something reached its completion, etc.) while the imperfect focuses on an action while it was in progress, without regard to endpoints. Right around the 6:00 mark there is a very interesting (and tension-infused) exchange with some good examples to think about: Why does Alicia say “él no tuvo la culpa” (rather than “tenía”)? Why does she point out to Javi, “sabías lo que yo quería” (as opposed to “supo” or “quise”)?
Another interesting detail: notice the way the characters repeatedly use ser feliz (rather than estar) when they talk about being happy. Textbook-based approaches to Spanish usually teach a “rule” that estar is used with emotions and avoid addressing the fact that in the right context, ser feliz can be appropriate and grammatical. Textbook-based approaches also (whether explicitly or implicitly) often promote the inaccurate idea that ser is used for “permanent” characteristics while estar goes with “temporary” characteristics. “Café para llevar” provides some helpful counterexamples to these notions. (See also: the portion of my Coco post in which I discuss how ser denotes intrinsic or inherent qualities and estar describes circumstantial qualities, and how this is merely correlation and not causation with “permanent” and “temporary”.)
For language educators:
With its depiction of the emotional weight of an unexpected encounter with an ex, the content of “Café para llevar” is very relatable for many young adults. It is excellent for university classes and possibly also for high school (although there is one “joder”; instructors will need to use their judgement as to whether that disqualifies it for classroom use in their local context). This corto may be difficult for elementary and middle school learners to relate to, although again, you should rely on your knowledge of your local context to make that call.
At 13 minutes total running time, “Café para llevar” can easily be shown in its entirety during a class period, with time to review targeted segments and discuss them in greater depth. “Café para llevar” is full of details worthy of analysis, both linguistic and artistic. As a pre-viewing activity, I like to introduce the discussion topics of choices and regrets: What choices have people made in their lives that they later regretted? Has anyone made choices they were unhappy about at the time, but have later come to appreciate? Is it possible to remain friends with an ex following a breakup? Under what circumstances?
I also like to pause the film a few times during the opening credits sequence to highlight cultural details: in a couple of the wide shots, you can pick out La Sagrada Familia, surrounded by scaffolding. This situates us in Barcelona. As the camera moves in gradually closer, we begin to be able to discern the wide boulevards and chamfered corners of the city blocks (i.e. trimming the corners of a square to create a shape more akin to an octagon) characteristic of the Eixample neighborhood. The coffee shop where the action takes place, “El Sortidor”, is a real Barcelona location, one of the city’s oldest restaurants, located in a neighborhood known for its Modernist architecture. Plenty of information about El Sortidor is available online in both Spanish and English; the restaurant’s own website is in Catalán, which gives instructors an opportunity to point out the linguistic diversity found within Spain. Additionally, near the end of the film when Javi introduces Alma to Alicia, we hear an example of voseo, opening up another example of linguistic diversity within the Spanish-speaking world.
Upon viewing the corto, students will invariably ask, “¿Cómo se dice awkward?” On a very superficial level, this opens up an opportunity to explore the challenges of translation. The first entry in most dictionaries will be torpe or desmañado, neither of which captures what is meant in describing an interaction or a situation as “awkward”. This is an excellent opportunity to focus on meaning and help students come up with an alternative (such as incómodo) that better describes what they wish to convey.
A logical next step, when level-appropriate, is to get into why the encounter between Alicia and Javi is awkward. This ties back to my earlier point about how “Café para llevar” is particularly rich in subtext. After seeing the corto in its entirety, you can re-watch specific segments (such as the exchange that begins around the 6:00 mark) and invite students to use the target language to unpack the subtext. There is a Griselda Gambaro play (La malasangre, 1982) in which the characters comment on silences that speak (or scream). The silences in “Café para llevar” are some of the most eloquent ones I have ever seen on film. This is also a good opportunity, if appropriate, to clarify the difference between subtext, which is directly tied to the dialogue, and the characters’ interior monologues, which can be independent. not necessarily linked to the lines themselves. They are related and can be very similar, but they are not always the same. For example, at 3:25, when Javi touches Alicia’s hand and she withdraws it about eight seconds later, she does not have any dialogue except for a “sí, gracias” at the end. So, through most of that long eight seconds, she doesn’t have any subtext; however, she certainly has something going on in her interior monologue, and she is definitely communicating nonverbally. These distinctions may be more fine-grained than is useful in many language classes, but one can always pose the question: what are they thinking that they are expressing with their body language but not saying out loud?
This corto also sets up a beautiful opportunity to make predictions and discuss hypotheticals. Based on what we are able to infer from the subtext, what is next for Alicia and Javi? What will happen between each of them and their current partners? Will Alicia go forward with the wedding? Will Javi and Alma stay together long-term once their child is born? Will Alicia and Javi manage to be friendly to one another in the future or will they avoid each other? Will they ever get back together down the road? There are many opportunities to speculate about their choices, their options and their future possibilities.
As alluded to previously, on a grammatical level this corto offers lots of opportunities to focus on verbs in the preterite or the imperfect and dissect their implications for what happened between Javi and Alicia, how they felt and currently feel about what transpired and about each other. There are also some beautiful opportunities to discuss the contrast between ser feliz and estar feliz, and analyze why the characters use ser in this conversation. I was SO delighted when we were discussing how Alicia wishes happiness to Javi and Alma before she walks outside by saying “Que seáis muy felices” and a student asked me “so, could she have used estar to, like, shade?” I thought that was a very perceptive observation: yes, in fact, she could have said “Que estéis muy felices”, and it would have completely changed the tenor of the interaction. Depending on the line reading, Alicia could indeed have turned it into a subtle dig at Javi – but, of course, that would also completely change the tone for the end of the corto, and we would lose the poignancy of their final hug and Alicia’s subsequent phone conversation. That closing line, by the way, is a master stroke: “Es que no entiendo por qué no puedo tener dalias el día de mi boda. No me importa que no sea la época.” The one bright, blooming, vividly-colored thing that she does want is unavailable because the timing isn’t right.
NB: I first came across “Café para llevar” when I was browsing through textbook possibilities. A number of publishers have designed textbooks around film resources, either feature films or cortos, and “Café para llevar” is featured in Sueña (4th edition), a publication of Vista Higher Learning.
Have you engaged with “Café para llevar“? Share your ideas, experiences and suggestions in the comments!
Title: Café para llevar
Director: Patricia Font
Genre: Short; Drama; Drama romántico
Duration: 13 min
Publication Date: 2014
Company: Escola Superior de Cinema i Audiovisuals de Catalunya (ESCAC)