Spanish Film Festival 2016

April 14, 2016
'Nothing in Return' (2015)
'Nothing in Return' (2015)

In the days of the infamous Motion Picture Production Code, which stretched from 1930 until the 1960s, Hollywood’s movie makers were constrained from producing any film that might lower the moral standards of its audience. This meant crime could never pay, while law-breakers always suffered for their sins. Innocence and goodness were invariably rewarded.

For directors who wanted to make morally complex movies this was a recipe for insipidity. The quick fix was the so-called “Hollywood ending”, which offered an improbably happy outcome to the most dire scenarios. During the Depression and the Second World War the Code pressured studios to make films that raised people’s spirits.

Given the breadth of the financial crisis Spain suffered from 2008-15, one wonders if Spanish filmmakers have felt a similar pressure. Four out of five movies I’ve previewed for this year’s Spanish Film Festival have produced improbably happy endings. The fifth, The Clan, is an Argentinian production, and a very different proposition.

Isla Bonita is the 20th feature by veteran filmmaker, Fernando Colomo, who also plays a character described in the program as “Woody Allen-esque”. This is a label to set alarm bells ringing, given Woody Allen’s propensity for cinematic narcissism, whereby the leading man always seems to be a version of himself.

Colomo’s character, “Fer”, is a peculiarly unlikeable figure. An aging, recently divorced filmmaker who has spent much of his time shooting commercials, he is in Menorca visting his old friend, Miguel Angel (Miguel Angel Furones), and has plans for a documentary about the island. Yet he mainly seems to be looking for a venue for a late-life crisis.

During his stay Fer forms an unrequited crush on sculptor, Nuria (Nuria Roman), and spends a lot of time with her daughter, Olivia (Olivia Delcán), a force-of-nature preoccupied with her own love triangle. As you may have guessed, given the fact that actors and characters share the same names, there is a slice of reality in this fable.

Colomo recently found himself facing a crisis in his own life and set off to Menorca for a break. There he conceived the idea of a film using his friends, with largely improvised dialogue. The result has been praised as a brave experiment, but what some will see as spontaneity others will read as mere aimlessness. To avoid this trap it would have required a more charismatic performance from Colomo himself, who impresses, not as a man of deep feeling, but as a self-pitying pest.

There is also a feeling of aimlessness in Álvaro Fernández Armero’s Sidetracked (AKA. Las ovejas no pierden el tren), a comedy of manners with a cast of popular actors, incuding Raúl Árévalo, Inma Cuesta, Alberto San Juan and Candela Peña. The literal translation of the title is: Sheep do not miss the train, which was never going to thrill distributors in the English-speaking world.

Alberto and Luisa have moved from the city to the country, and are having a hard time adjusting. Alberto’s brother, Juan, has separated from his wife and is engaged in an affair with a much younger woman, but the age gap is causing problems. Meanwhile, Luisa’s sister, Sara, has a tendency to scare men away by coming on too strong, until she meets radio journalist, Paco, with whom she sees a new future. From these three interrelated strands the movie proceeds via a series of secrets, evasions and misunderstandings, all played out against the backdrop of the economic crisis.

The film has its humorous moments, and some sharp dialogue, but it lacks any sense of forward movement. One episode follows another, which may be a legacy of Armero’s background as a director of TV series. The appeal lies in an all-star cast, which compensates for the deficiencies of the plot.

There was always a happy ending on the horizon in Sidetracked, but Gonzalo Bendala’s Innocent Killers and Daniel Guzmán’s debut feature, Nothing in Return, show characters spiralling into one crisis after another, until their predicament seems hopeless. It requires a wave of the magic wand to turn the juggernaut around.

Nevertheless, in terms of sheer entertainment, Bendala and Guzmán have made movies that move along at a brisk pace while managing to say something incisive about a society in which petty criminals and gangsters consider their activities to be legitimate “work”. This may be a standard feature of criminal psychology, but it’s also a sign of a nation in economic and moral decline, as shown by Great Britain which reached this state decades ago.

The protagonist of Innocent Killers is a student named Garraldo (Maxi Iglesias), who begs his professor for a second chance after flunking his exams. The professor (Miguel Ángel Solá) agrees, but in return he wants Garraldo to kill him so that his crippled wife will receive an enormous insurance pay-out and be able to have an operation in America.

There are numerous Hitchcockian improbabilities in this story, which pits moral dilemmas against the opportunism that arises when money is on the table. As Garraldo is also facing eviction from his apartment and being harassed by gangsters to whom he owes money, there is much at stake in accepting or rejecting his professor’s terms. When his friends get involved, the game becomes even more complicated.

Nothing in Return tells the story of 16-year-old Darío (Miguel Herrán), whose parents are undergoing an acrimonious divorce. As his home life deteriorates, so do Darío’s grades at school. He drifts ever deeper into a life of delinquency and crime, dragging along his hefty friend Luismi (Antonio Bachiller), who out of loyalty allows himself to be led down the wrong path.

Despite his continuing descent to the lower depths, Darío remains a likeable, good-hearted character. His misdeeds may be attributed to immaturity and unworldliness, making him an easy prey for an old villain, Justo (Felipe García Vélez), who gives a romantic spin to the criminal lifestyle.

In different hands Nothing in Return and Innocent Killers might have been very dark films, but the directors have avoided the negatives. If the spectre of the Hollywood ending hovers nearby it is not enforced by an inflexible Code, but by a nation-wide feeling of relief that after seven years of privations, Spaniards have reasons for optimism.

The Clan by director, Pedro Trapero, was far-and-away the best film I was able to sample. It tells the true story of the Puccio family, who conducted a lucrative business kidnapping their wealthy neighbours in Buenos Aires in the early 1980s.

Guillermo Francella plays Arquímedes Puccio, the patriarch of the clan, with the cold-eyed steeliness of a psychopath. Yet Arquímedes is also a dedicated family man who wants to do the very best for his children, and hopes that his sons will join him in the “business”. The son most affected is Alejandro – or “Alex” (Peter Lanzani), who plays on the wing for the national rugby team, and leads the life of a gilded youth.

Arquímedes is a product of the Argentinian military dictatorship, who honed his skills working for intelligence services that used kidnapping as a way of spreading terror. After the fall of the junta he was tacitly allowed to continue as a private agent, with his military buddies turning a blind eye.

We see much of the story through Alex’s eyes, as he is repelled and attracted by his father’s activities, which usually end with the ransom being paid and the victim executed. Alex is horrified by the murders, and by his father’s cold-blooded attitude, but he is drawn by the money and by simple filial loyalty.

Trapero creates a chilling narrative as Arquímedes goes through his paces to the accompaniment of ironically chosen pop songs, such as the Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon, and Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall by the Ink Spots. The effect is not to lessen the tension, but to ratchet it up, in harmony with Francella’s impressive achievement in the lead role.

The Clan has broken box office records in Argentina, where it lays bare an aspect of the recent past that remains vivid in people’s memories. Although Spanish cinema continues to work its way through the Franco era, for countries such as Argentina the traumas of the dictatorships are still conducive to nightmares. It’s almost a relief nowadays to be dealing only with the wounds inflicted on a national economy.

Spanish Film Festival 2016
Sydney 12 April-1 May; Melbourne 13 April – 1 May;
Canberra 19 April – 8 May; Brisbane 19 April-8 May; Perth 21 April-11 May; Adelaide 4-22 May; Hobart 19-25 May

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 16th April, 2016.