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Spanish Film Festival 2018 | John McDonald

Spanish Film Festival 2018

April 20, 2018
Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem in 'Jamón, Jamón', a blast from the past in this year's festival
Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem in 'Jamón, Jamón', a blast from the past in this year's festival

A lot of agua has flowed under the bridge since 1992 when Bigas Luna made Jamón, Jamón, with the 22-year old Javier Bardem and 17-year old Penélope Cruz. The Movida Madrileña (The Madrid Scene) – a new wave of post-Franco art, film, music and literature – had been raging for more than a decade. Pedro Almodóvar had already made half a dozen movies that had been seen around the world.

Luna (1946-2013) would go on to be second only to Almodóvar as a Spanish cult director. Bardem and Cruz would be picked up by Hollywood.

The 21st Spanish Film Festival pays tribute to Luna with a retrospective screening of three of his best known movies, Jamón, Jamón; Golden Balls (1993) and The Tit and the Moon (1994), along with Bigas X Bigas (2016), a video diary kept by the the director. Bardem and Cruz are reunited in Loving Pablo, Fernando León de Aranoa’s bio pic of drug baron, Pablo Escobar.

Loving Pablo was not one of the movies I was able to preview so I’m unable to comment further. From what I’ve seen so far, Luna’s irreverent satires stand up extremely well against a new crop of comedies that are slick, mildly amusing, but ultimately forgettable. The two headliners, No Filter and It’s For Your Own Good, are superficial affairs that waste some talented actors. Both directors have a tendency to pull their punches instead of going for the jugular.

Santiago Segura’s No Filter stars Maribel Verdú as Paz, a middle-aged woman who has become accustomed to letting everyone walk all over her. Her live-in boyfriend is an appalling artist who thinks only of his muse. His son is a feral, social misfit. At the advertising agency where Paz works, the boss is a sleazebag who has turned the office into a fantasy harem of young, desirable women. Her best friend is an incurable narcissist who never puts down the mobile phone… and so on.

In a distant echo of Jim Carrey in Liar, Liar, Paz takes a herbal remedy and immediately begins telling us, and everyone else, what she really thinks. It’s fertile territory for comedy but a chill wind of sentimental self-actualisation takes the heat out of the story.

Something similar might be said of It’s for Your Own Good, in which three fathers seek to separate their beloved only daughters from highly inappropriate boyfriends. It’s another promising scenario for a screwball comedy but director Carlos Therón seems determined to make us realise that all the characters are really warm, good-hearted people. The humour disappears under a final coating of treacle.

Is it the legacy of Catholicism in Spain that makes directors want to allow every sin to be redeemed by the end of the movie? Or is it simply a cynical ploy to please a large, middle-of-the-road audience?

Both comedies have been massive box office hits in Spain, which only confirms the obvious point that the most financially successful films are not necessarily the best. Nevertheless the organisers of film festivals have a certain obligation to show audiences the movies that have been popular in the country of origin, along with those features which have been “critically acclaimed”.

One of the latter is Carla Simon’s Summer 1933, a story of childhood that has apparently charmed everyone. It’s another movie I’ve yet to see. The most highly credentialled film that has come my way is Fernando Franco’s Dying, which follows his celebrated first feature, Wounded (2013). One wonders what’s next? Muerto?

Although they are not fiestas, Franco’s films have collected accolades and prizes galore. His speciality is a brand of intense psychological realism, filled with painful silences in which we can virtually read the characters’ thoughts. The fun begins when Marta’s partner, Luis, tells her he has a brain tumour. For the rest of the movie we watch both of them suffer. It’s agonising but extremely well done. There’s no false melodrama, and all the tiny details ring true. This may be the last film many viewers would want to watch, but it has an honesty that can’t be denied.

Agustín Díaz Yañes’s Gold is a bloodcurdling historical drama about a group of soldiers fighting their way through a claustrophobic jungle in search of El Dorado. We know from the start the gold will probably not appear and the body count will be enormous, but one almost grows bored with the repetitive sound of sharpened steel piercing cloth and flesh, followed by a throaty gurgle. The only question is: “Who will survive?” But this was enough to hold me to the end.

Mist and the Maiden is a good, slow-burning mystery set on the Canary Islands. It doesn’t do anything fans of quality detective fiction haven’t encountered many times before, but it does them pretty well.

Possibly the most unusual festival offering is David Sousa’s Re-evolution, a thriller about a group of idealistic cyberterrorists, with a script that sounds like a series of manifestos leavened by occasional dialogue. There’s also a blueprint for a new political system called Atlas, but I doubt that any viewer could explain how it actually works.

The most astonishing aspect of this very professional-looking production is that it was made for the grand total of €5,977, which includes €4,338 spent on taxes and administrative expenses. This demonstrates, even more radically than Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky, that there are ways of making films without the multi-million dollar budgets we take for granted. Perhaps a country needs an epic recession to get filmmakers to realise how much money can be shaved off the bottom line.

21st Spanish Film Festival 2018
Sydney 17 Apr-6 May; Canberra 18 Apr-6 May; Melbourne 19 Apr-6 May; Adelaide 26 Apr–13 May; Brisbane 26 Apr-13 May; Perth 26 Apr -16 May; Hobart 3–9 May, 2018

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 21 April, 2018