FESTIVALS: San Sebastian's Paella of Eclecticism: Part II, Made in Spain
by Ryan Mottesheard
And what of the Iberian product, you may ask? In recent years, the Spanish film industry has enjoyed an increased interest (both at home and abroad) with international stars (Antonio Banderas, Penelope Cruz) and popular directors (Pedro Almodovar, Alejandro Amenabar) going Hollywood and domestic box office receipts continuing to grow. Almodovar is set to lens his first English-language film, "The Paperboy" for Jan de Bont's production company, while Amenabar ("Open Your Eyes") has $20 million of Miramax's money and Nicole Kidman behind him for "The Others."
In this year's fest, Spain showcased the feminist drama "Cuando Vuelvas a Mi Lado" (awarded Honorable Mention and the Best Photography award), and the talky Catalan "Un Banco en el Parque." Almodovar's "All About My Mother" received the FIPRESCI critics' prize as best European film of the year. (Australian Christina Andreef took home a FIPRESCI critic's prize for "Soft Fruit," as well as U.S. distribution from Fox Searchlight.) As for Almodovar, his praises have been sung by too many for me to chime in, but the final frame where Almodovar dedicates the film to "All mothers, all women who dream of acting and his mother" struck a bittersweet chord at this particular screening as Pedro's mother had passed away the week prior. Even more of a valentine than this dedication were her numerous appearances in her son's films, most notably as the hilarious, grandmotherly TV interviewer in "Kika."
Two highly anticipated Spanish shorts were shown out of competition and given nice time slots in front of American films. The first, Juanma Bajo Ulloa's loud, stylish, senseless "Ordinary Americans" wants to poke fun at the very American movies its director wants to emulate, while "The Raven" provided the first welcome surprise, nay jolt, of the festival, courtesy of a young man who looks more like a Marilyn Manson groupie than a film director. After watching his film however, no one would mistake Tienablas Gonzalez for anything but a cinema man. More of a visual accompaniment than an adaptation of the Poe story, Gonzalez' film recites the poem while the viewer is enraptured by its striking visual style. At best, we could be witnessing the first steps of a Tim Burton, at worst, a Spanish Mario Bava. Expect Gonzalez to be heard from decisively in the future.
San Sebastian's Made In Spanish 1999 section is sort of a greatest hits of last year's Spanish language films. Here one could happen upon popular Spanish films, South American films ("El Enthusiasmo") or unearth lesser-known gems ("A los que Aman"). The latter was Catalan director Isabel Coixet return to Spanish cinema after a journey through IndieWood with Lili Taylor in "Things I Never Told You."
Other highlights include the box office hit, "Muertos de Risa" ("Dying of Laughter") from Basque stylist Alex de la Iglesias ("Day of the Beast"). The film is a sort of "A Star is Born" for the "Dumb and Dumber" set with Santiago Segura as the fat half of a popular comic duo who invoke laughter on stage but want to kill each other off. Meanwhile, the Hitchcockian thriller "Entre las Piernas" ("Between Your Legs") proves that the Spanish still make silly sex-filled thrillers as well as anyone. Director Manuel Gomez-Pereira ("Boca Boca") begins with a smart, striking homage to two of Hitch's most famous collaborators -- a Saul Bass-ish title sequence and a score evocative of Bernard Hermann -- before aping the master himself.
Best of the lot was Fernando Trueba's charming, WWII-era comedy, "La Niña de tus Ojos" ("The Girl of Your Dreams"). It stars Penelope Cruz at her loveliest as a movie star who, with a Spanish film crew, goes to Germany's UFA studios to make a musical. Escaping one war, the Spanish Civil War, and arriving at the onset of another, Ms. Cruz finds herself the object of the unwanted affections of Joseph Goebbels. When Trueba won his Oscar for "Belle Epoque" he thanked Billy Wilder, but his style has always been much more Ernst Lubitsch. Wilder, whose mother was gassed at Auschwitz, would have been much less likely to caricature Goebbels as a limping dolt who spent more time chasing skirts than worrying about politics, than Lubitsch ("To Be or Not to Be"). In any event, Trueba is consistently one of Spain's most interesting directors and this film is among his best work.
(Unfortunately, most of these films won't receive even a minor US release, but with the advent of DVD, most can be picked up (usually with English subtitles) by anyone passing through the country). [Ed's Note: Be Warned- DVD Players are set to play discs from their home region -- The U.S. and Canada are Region 1. For example, playing DVD's from different regions four times will, in most cases, permanently reset your player to the region that was last played.]
Despite any controversy garnered by the final day (perhaps everyone's mood had worsened with the weather), San Sebastian is less about glamour and movie stars, less about its lovely coastal setting and new, modernist headquarters, less about critics' babblings and more about filling the theaters. And in this it succeeds marvelously. Unlike Cannes' auteur watch or Sundance's indie sale sensations, San Sebastian brings the cinema to the people and the people respond by doling out their hard earned pesetas for not only the hot tickets, but also the smaller, challenging work.
[Ryan Mottesheard is a filmmaker and writer currently living in Spain.]