Ballus: The Odd Job Men (2021) | featured image
Valero Escolar, Mohamed Mellali, and Pep Sarrà in The Odd-Job Men (2021) | Photo by Stephan Lan courtesy of Sympatico publicity.

TIFF 2021: Immigration Film ‘The Odd-Job Men’ Asks for Empathy

Director Neus Ballús’ The Odd-Job Men (Sis dies corrents), playing at TIFF 2021, encourages our better angels amidst fear of change.

The Odd-Job Men
Neus Ballús
Distinto Films, El Kinògraf
9 September 2021 (Toronto International Film Festival)

Neus Ballús’ Catalonian and Spanish comedy, The Odd-Job Men (Sis dies corrents), is a gentle meditation on the themes of insecurity, societal acceptance, prejudice, and resistance to change. Set in a small plumbing and electrical repair company, Valero (Valero Escolar) is unhappy about his partner Pep’s (Pep Sarrà) retirement. He’s even less pleased with the choice of Mohamed (Mohamed Mellali), nicknamed Moha, a Moroccan immigrant as his replacement. 

Valero’s intense scrutiny of Moha is unnecessary, but what’s grating is his loudmouth personality. From his introduction, Ballús and her co-writer Margarita Melgar want us to, if not dislike him, at least feel irritated by him.

The film begins with a defined antagonist to thwart the employment hopes of the immigrant during his one-week trial. Taking language classes at night, Moha is working to assimilate into Catalan culture. The set-up deliberately positions Moha as the sympathetic protagonist, and Pep sympathises. We can understand Valero’s reluctance to embrace change, but what we cannot accept is his underlying prejudice. He says to Pep, “The people that we work for Pep, they don’t like foreigners. They’re Catalans, born and bred…” 

These are the words of someone lacking conviction, and they insinuate Barcelona’s societal prejudice towards immigrants or outsiders. This is not the impression Balluś offers us, however, because we see other characters treat Moha with warmth – a female photographer persuades him to model for her, while an elderly man gives him dietary advice. 

Before our irritation can turn to dislike for the cantankerously vocal Valero, seeing him with his wife and daughter exposes an underlying vulnerability and insecurity. The purpose of this simple drama is found in how viewers relate to Valero. Part of us wants to dislike him, but once his harsh exterior is penetrated, do we judge him or try to understand him? This storytelling method reveals an act of misdirection, one that might only be recognised in hindsight, because the set-up and much of the story direct our attention towards the Moroccan’s trial by fire.

The intent behind the words and actions of the characters are gently and effortlessly expressed. It’s necessary for the audience to engage with the characters, and try to understand Valero and Moha’s relationship. Lacking the aggressive impulse to rip open its themes and ideas, Ballús and Melgar are more than content to take the subtle approach. This will alienate those that want a film to talk at them, instead of a film that makes viewers an active part of the conversation. 

Suggesting The Odd-Job Men is about prejudice oversimplifies the thoughtfulness of the drama. Valero’s insecurity is, in part, body image orientated. He’s trying to lose weight to fit into a wedding suit. He and Pep share a friendship, and he’s grieving the end of their partnership. Struggling with feelings of insecurity, Pep’s impending departure is a source of anxiety.

Valero’s abrasive and bossy behaviour is a sign of low self-esteem that’s projected onto others. His jovial and playful humorous attitude is his attempt to be liked. Valero is prejudiced, but to contextualise the story as exclusively about this theme ignores that the film is really about our apprehension towards change. What provokes our confrontational natures and compels us to treat someone as a foe instead of a friend?

Ballús and Melgar offer a nuanced portrait that does not seek to simplify. Valero reflects societal tendencies to see differences instead of similarities in people from other cultures. Moha wants to have what Valero has – a career and to be a husband and a father. Any resolution is not so naïve as to believe that a complete transformation occurs. Valero is a character prone to feelings of insecurity, but he can let his angels guide him instead of his personal demons.

The Odd-Job Men doesn’t subscribe to the black and white version of the societal narrative that multiculturalism or movement of people defines a society as being tolerant. The storytellers understand that what it explores comes from a deeper personal place, a place that impulsively fears change. Embracing other cultures has a transformative effect that can antagonise this instinctive fear.

Ballús and Melgar’s vision of Catalonia and Spain is of a country that welcomes foreign cultures, but there’s a minority population that grapples with the fear of ‘the other’. It’s an issue prevalent across much of the world, as citizens of many countries debate amongst themselves and struggle with migration. The Odd-Job Men is a pleasant and humorous film that has its finger on the pulse of these shared cultural anxieties.

RATING 7 / 10