FESTIVALS: Made in Spain; Post-Almodovar? De la Iglesias and Gil Reign
by Andy Bailey
(indieWIRE/ 12.6.00) -- Spanish cinema in the Almodovar era coasts along effortlessly on the same formula that carried it through the post-Franco period of 'apertura' (openness) 'possibilitismo' (greater opportunity) and 'destape' (uncorked freedom -- think of the diarrhea scene in Labyrinth of Passion). Trashy melodramas and bucolic "Belle Epoque"-style period dramas still reign in Spain, and a cursory glimpse at the Film Society's ninth-annual Spanish Cinema Now series, running December 8 through 27 at the Walter Reade Theater, indicates that not a lot has changed since the post-1975 period that unleashed Almodovar and catapulted Spanish cinema from despotic to destape.
Despite apparent growth in Spain's film industry, you'd be hard pressed to detect any emerging trends other than the international vogue for Alex de la Iglesia's lowbrow dark comic parodies (his latest, "Common Wealth," opens the series) and Alejandro Amenabar's creepily cryptic crowd-pleasers, which captivated Cameron Crowe and The Cruises enough to lure Amenabar to America. His writing partner, Mateo Gil, delivers his directorial debut in the series and the good news is that "Nobody Knows Anybody" is an even more garish guilty pleasure than "Open Your Eyes."
Sidebar programs of recent efforts by women directors, plus a career retrospective of "Jamon, jamon" heartthrob Javier Bardem, rounds out Spanish Cinema Now, which in sum seems more exile-laden than exhilarating, as if to remind us that we should all cherish the Spanish-language work of Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz and others while we still can. A Bunuel documentary (Jose Luis Lopez-Linares and Javier Rioyo's "Regarding Bunuel") reminds us that Spanish cinema is one of exile and transition: while Amenabar wraps up "The Others" with Nicole Kidman for Paramount -- in England, no less -- and de la Iglesia prepares to embark on his Fu Manchu parody in America, starring golden boy exile Antonio Banderas. Almodovar, at least for the moment, has opted to stay home for his follow-up to "All About My Mother." Spanish cinema is safe, for now at least.
While it's almost shocking to see Almodovar absent from something called Spanish Cinema Now, his spirit, not to mention one of his greatest actresses, courses through Alex de la Iglesia's "La Comunidad" ("Common Wealth"), a pitch-perfect black comedy that emerges as an early highlight of the series. The inimitable Carmen Maura stars as Julia, a scheming real estate agent who stumbles upon a dead man's fortune before the greedy residents of a Madrid tenement can claim it as their own. "Common Wealth" plays out like "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" turned inward (the director also cites Polanski's "The Tenant" as a key influence) and the film's daffy ensemble cast provides enough exuberant comic high jinks to lend the film its vigorous, vulgarity-laden pace. Maura's catty, over-the-top performance, which won a top prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival, seems to be channeling Anjelica Huston's conniving turn in "The Grifters."
Indeed, de la Iglesia's stock in trade seems to be lampooning established hits. His previous effort, "Day of the Beast," poked cheesy fun at satanic-themed fare like "The Omen" and "The Exorcist," while his straight-to-video U.S. debut, "Perdita Durango," kitsch-ified the Barry Gifford-penned characters from David Lynch's "Wild at Heart." Nothing is immune from the director's wicked comic arsenal -- he even apes "The Matrix" in the hilarious climax of "Common Wealth," which is a vast improvement over the borderline junk that constitutes his earlier work. Crowned the latest bad boy of Spanish Cinema, while Almodovar settles into a quieter, more refined midlife, de le Iglesia mines a cinematic terrain in "Common Wealth" that's best described as kitschcock -- he's made a voyeuristic horror film about neighbors that's like "Rear Window" shoved up someone's rear end.
Amenabar's presence haunts Mateo Gil's directorial debut "Nadie Concoce a Nadie" ("Nobody Knows Anybody"), a paranoia-laced pop thriller with international appeal that ups the suspense stakes of "Thesis" and "Open Your Eyes," Amenabar's previous films, both co-written by Gil. A garish permutation of the duo's now-standard neo-Hitchcockian conspiracy formula, "Nobody Knows Anybody" stars Eduardo Noriega as a crossword puzzle writer whisked into a maddening conundrum involving slain priests and a zealous cabal of role-playing game aficionados during Seville's Holy Week. Nothing was what it seemed in the art-house hit "Open Your Eyes "(currently being re-purposed by Cameron Crowe as "Vanilla Sky," starring Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz) and things prove even murkier in "Nobody Knows Anybody,:" something Gil relishes with obvious glee, unleashing plot holes and other dramatic inconsistencies that actually work to the film's advantage. Fascinated, like Hitchcock was, by the narrow margin between appearance and reality, Amenabar and Gil are concocting some of the most deliriously clever and confounding suspense thrillers in the world right now. There's a reason why Hollywood beckons, so enjoy this gifted duo in its geeky essence while you still can.
"Asphalto," written and directed by NYU film school grad Daniel Calparsoro, is a hip, handsome urban crime thriller set in Madrid that manages to sustain its lackadaisical momentum despite a trio of distractingly sexy actors who are supposed to be young, desperate working-class drug dealers caught in a downward spiral of jealousy and intrigue, only they look too much like fashion models in a Dolce and Gabbana spread. Calparsoro astutely captures the edgy dynamics of a menage a trios; the film plays out like a "Jules et Jim" of the Madrid underbelly -- but it's nearly impossible to accept trans-gendered starlet Antonia San Juan (Agrado in Almodovar's "All About My Mother") as an actual mother, never mind the three leads (Najwa Nimri, Juan Diego Botto and Gustavo Salmerun, say it three times fast) as no-hope criminals on the lam. They could have simply walked into the nearest modeling agency and all their problems would be nought. Asphalto isn't rambunctious and reference-y enough to be likened to Tarantino, but you could call it a Roger Avery film with killer shirts.
Cesc Gay's "Krampack" (which translates as handjob; Almodovar's influence over Spanish film never ceases!) has been sedately retitled "Nico and Dani" for the U.S. market, though it should have no trouble finding an audience upon its New York release next February. A sweet, amiable coming-of-age drama about two childhood friends on the brink of sexual awakening -- one's gay, the other isn't -- "Krampack" verges on "Dawson's Creek" with lubricant, but redeems itself through the natural performances of its two young actors (Fernando Ramallo and Jordi Vilches) and its unaffected, Rohmer-like depiction of carefree adolescents on holiday. It's familiar terrain, sure, but compared to recent gay coming-of-age dreck, "Nico and Dani" more than earned its Prix de Jeunesse prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival.
Any large-scale national cinema survey like Spanish Cinema Now functions as a market of sorts and while there are a few stand-outs that should have no trouble finding distribution channels in America, many of the films in this year's series probably won't ever screen again in the U.S., an undisguised blessing to be sure.
Films to avoid include Spanish new wave veteran Jose Luis Borau's "Leo," a staggeringly benign amour fou set in a bleak industrial zone involving a lovestruck security guard and the bag-lady object of his affection who's fleeing an incestuous past. It's got a retarded wrestler, too, though the spirit of Almodovar sadly does not haunt "Leo." Laura Mana's sickly sweet "Compassionate Sex" serves up a portly prostie with a heart of gold in a dour Andalusian backwater but its attempts at technicolor-steeped magical realism can't salvage a juvenile script.
Even worse is Manuel Palacio's Mafia/flamenco abortion "Gitano," the second howlingly awful adaptation of an Arturo Perez-Reverte mystery to hit American screens this year, after Polanski's "The Ninth Gate." "Gitano" also happens to be the second Andalusian dog to outright neuter flamenco's vibrant machismo, following Tony Gatlif's Venice fiasco "Vengo," which at least had good musical interludes. Greasy tressed former Naomi Campbell paramour Joaquin Cortes (who should think about starting a death metal band in lieu of acting) stars as a fallen flamenco idol who takes revenge on the music industry scumbag who wrecked his career and stole his slutty wife. "Gitano" aspires to international credibility via the unfortunate casting of Corsican swimsuit model Laetitia Casta as a double-crossing minx. While the Maxim-reading massive will undoubtedly delight in Casta's big-titted screen debut, not to mention her bloody, scantily clad comeuppance scene involving a huge bag of cocaine, "Gitano" remains trashy melodrama of the very worst kind and it makes you pine for Riverdance, believe it or not. Didn't Papa Almodovar teach young Spanish filmmakers anything?
The sidebar program featuring recent efforts from women directors runs the gamut from -- guess what? -- trashy melodramas (Gracia Querejeta's incest potboiler "Come Back to My Side;" lugubrious, loquatious and lousy) to bucolic, "Belle Epoque"-style period dramas (Isabel Coixet's "To Those Who Love;" torpid, turgid, toxic ), suggesting that Spanish cinema hasn't come a long way, baby, in breaking its predictable post-Franco Jello-mold of sanitized safe bets. Women will want to flock to the Javier Bardem programs anyway, and what better place to start with the strapping Schnabel stunner, and probable Academy Award nominee for "Before Night Falls," than Bigas Luna's 1991 trashy melodramatic classic "Jamon, jamon," in which Bardem, in his debut performance as an underwear model-cum-ham deliveryman, inserts a suppository into a pig's asshole in order to get Penelope Cruz's attention, then later strips naked for a midnight bullfight that earned the actor instant stardom in Spain. Even when he's an uglified junkie-turned-terrorist with skanky teeth who mainlines heroin into his neck in Imanol Uribe's 1994 Basque thriller "Dias Contados" ("Numbered Days)", you can't take your eyes off Javier. His days aren't numbered.
[Andy Bailey is a regular contributor to indieWIRE and ifcRANT.]