WORLD CINEMA REPORT: Beyond Almododvar; Spanish Cinema Confronts Itself
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE: 12.11.02) -- Spanish cinema is in crisis. Talk to Almodovar and you might have a different picture of contemporary Spanish film; his latest movie just swept the European Film Awards, won best foreign film of the year from the National Board of Review, and drew substantial box office receipts in its mere three weeks of release. But at a recent press conference in New York for the 11th annual Spanish Cinema Now series at Lincoln Center (running through Dec. 26), the Hispanic delegation had mostly glum faces. "It's a very dark time and I hope things change soon," commented actress Maria Barranco, an Almodovar veteran ("Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown") and star of Imanol Uribe's "Carol's Journey," one of a handful of historical melodramas in this year's slate.
Lamenting a massive decline in Spanish productions in 2002, drooping international sales, the stranglehold of Hollywood products worldwide, and an American Latino audience that shows tepid interest for Castillian works, the panelists -- who included master Carlos Saura (premiering his latest dance-film "Salome"), Spanish Cinema Now tributee Alex De La Iglesias (unveiling his new lark "800 Bullets"), and up-and-comer Juan-Carlos Fresnadillo (whose thriller "Intacto" opens in U.S. theaters Friday) -- spoke with little of the spirit of a film fiesta. "Can you imagine if great Latino writers' books didn't get access to shelves in major bookstores?" Spain's leading film composer Jose Nieto posed to the crowd in Spanish (translated by the Film Society's Richard Pena). "There is trouble finding cinemas, because they are controlled by the few multinational corporations, and they control production, distribution, and exhibition. It's a closed system."
Despite such valid gripes, there is a brighter side. As Lions Gate Releasing President Tom Ortenberg recently told me, "It's been a phenomenal year for Spanish cinema: 'The Other Side of the Bed,' 'Sex and Lucia,' 'Intacto,' 'Mondays in the Sun,' 'Talk to Her' -- all within the last 12 months, that's extraordinary." Ortenberg is particularly enthused because Lions Gate is behind the release of "Intacto," "Mondays in the Sun" (Spain's submission for Oscar consideration), and also owns the international rights to "Other Side of the Bed," Emilio Martinez Lazaro's musical comedy -- and one of Spain's biggest box office sensations of 2002.
The healthy numbers for "The Other Side of the Bed" represent a possibly optimistic trend for Spanish cinema: despite fewer films being made in 2002, the market share of homemade fare is actually increasing (while still, at best, only around 12 percent. Compare that to France's best months at well over 60 percent). Still, Nieto noted at the press conference, "We should focus on the fact that these films are being accepted by the public."
Pilar Torre, a representative from the Spanish Film Institute (ICAA), acknowledged the challenges to Spanish films at home and abroad, but claimed newly created financing entries such as Ibermedia, together with a rising tide of international co-productions, could help foster the production and distribution of Spanish-made movies. The ICAA also recently announced a plan to keep U.S. made-for-TV and video product off Spanish screens, thereby freeing up space for homegrown films.
Also on Spanish cinema's side is a faithful new generation of moviegoers, which the Film Society suggests is perhaps the most loyal in the country. "In the last 10-15 years," echoed Fresnadillo (through translation), "a young public is demanding to see something new, and new directors are offering new types of films." From Fresnadillo to Spain's new cinematic savior Alejandro Amenabar ("Open Your Eyes") to screenwriter-turned-director Luis Marais (represented in this year's program with the police thriller "X") to the wacky, wily De La Iglesias, a new crop of directors are trafficking in splashy visuals, taut plots, and hipster themes to displace Spain's celebrated (yet sometimes staid) melodramas and cultivate the growing youth audience. The ICAA's Torre noted that in the current production drought, government public funding still exists specifically to encourage first and second time directors, helping "create a future for the Spanish film industry."
Spanish cinema now also has its share of up-and-coming thespians. Though rising starlet Leonor Watling spends the majority of Almodovar's "Talk to Her" in a coma, she displays a "luminous screen presence" (Variety) in "Beyond Desire," Gerardo Vera's political romance, while another "Talk to Her" vet, Paz Vega (who performs in the silent portion "Shrinking Lover"), along with the stunning Sergi Lopez ("Harry, He is Here to Help"), battle it out in Javier Balaguer's impressive debut "Solo Mia" (called by Variety "an intense, gripping and timely exploration of domestic violence").
There is the concern that such young talents will abandon the homeland for Hollywood, Penelope Cruz-style: Amenabar already made "The Others" for Miramax, though many have noted his preservation of Spanish locations and a Spanish-lingo crew; Fresnadillo won't confirm his next project will be in English, but he's been taking English-language classes in New York for the last month. He also told the press that what makes him a Spanish -- or European -- director is not the verbal language of his movies, but their cinematic language: "It's the images that are Spanish," he said. Ironically, one of the top box office Spanish-made attractions in the country right now is newcomer Jaume Balaguero's English-language haunted house thriller "Darkness," a Miramax-backed production starring Lena Olin and Anna Paquin.
So for Fresnadillo, the statement is more practical than aesthetic. In preparing for his Stateside release, the 35-year-old filmmaker said that the Latino audience in the U.S. seemed less interested in his film than the English-language art-house public. (One resolute member of the press noted that the Spanish Cinema Now series is more for the general public than a mass Spanish-speaking audience.) While recent attempts to target that market, such as IFC Films' release of "Y Tu Mama Tambien" and Newmarket's "Real Women Have Curves" have showed potential for Mexican films, Venevision Internattional's test U.S. distribution run of Spanish director Alvaro Fernandez Morero's horror-pic "The Art of Dying" lasted only four weeks in theaters, with few tickets sales to show for it.
If new Spanish film is to remain vital, it may need to find more balance between these young genre filmmakers looking for a wider audience and a more internationally recognized, edgy art cinema. Who can name the next Almodovar? The Film Society suggests he or she may work in documentary filmmaking. One of the festival's finds is "Back of the World" director Javier Corcuera's latest "Memories of Guerilla Warfare," a look at the rebels who fought against Franco during the Spanish Civil War. And in an article in the Film Society's magazine Film Comment, writer-director Alvaro del Amo highlights Jose Luis Guerin's critically-lauded crowd-pleaser "Work in Progress (En construccion)," about the construction of a building: "The inherent cinematic value of Guerin's film," he writes, "and the interest with which it and documentaries like it have been received by audiences, are symptoms of a newfound maturity."