Tag Archives: spanish cinema

Extasis (1996)

“Love and Need, I get them confused sometimes, don’t you?”

I always enjoy watching Javier Bardem on screen. Whether he’s a robotic psycho No Country For Old Men or the beleaguered telephone sex operator in Mouth to Mouth, he’s always interesting. Perhaps it’s because he looks brutish but really isn’t or perhaps it’s because he was an Almodovar star. No matter.

When I saw Extasis (aka Ecstasy)–an early Bardem film from director Mariano Barroso on netflix, well I knew I had to watch it. The fact that it also stars veteran Argentinean star Frederico Luppi made Extasis an even more attractive proposition. extasis

The film concerns three young friends: Ona (Leire Berrocal), Max (Daniel Guzman) and Rober (Javier Bardem). The three have a wildly impractical idea of opening a bar on the beach, and of course, the only thing inhibiting their plans for the Good Life is the lack of money. The three friends decide to solve this little problem by stealing from their families. Ona helps hold up her family’s shop, and Rober plans to rob an uncle, but Max is estranged from his wealthy play-director father, Daniel (Frederico Luppi).

A chain of events–which I am not going to detail–leads Rober to impersonate Max and then approach Daniel as his long-lost father.

Now the thing is that Daniel is phenomenally wealthy. I don’t mean just well-off, he’s rolling in dough. His home is loaded with antiques and valuables, but it goes beyond that. Daniel is also a celebrity, bedding a much younger actress, Lola (Silvia Bunt), and the star guest at swanky parties. Rober, posing as Max, discovers that being the son of a famous man opens doors to a life he never thought possible. There’s one scene when Daniel takes Rober to the jewelers and tells him to pick out anything he wants. Rober’s face lights up, and he stares at the window before selecting a watch. Rober looks like a kid at Xmas, and that means Daniel must be Santa. Once Rober is ensconced in the sumptuous home of his ‘father’ Daniel, he takes to the good life with gusto, and meanwhile Daniel, enjoying his son’s more unpleasant characteristics,  thinks his hunky new son is a chip off the old block. Which direction will Rober’s loyalties ultimately take? Such wealth and such a glittering life would be a seductive proposition for anyone. The question is: will Rober be seduced?

Extasis starts as a crime caper film but then very quickly morphs into a much more interesting film. While Ona and Max are prepared to rob their families to get the bankroll for their fantasy bar, Rober’s parents are noticeably absent. All we see is an uncle. Robbing the families has a practical goal (getting money), but it goes deeper than that. By robbing their families, Ona, and Max are declaring their loyalties to each other while they sever their blood ties. But what of Rober? He apparently doesn’t have parents to betray. Does this lack of immediate family make him more vulnerable to a generous new daddy?

Extasis for about 90% of the film is excellent drama, but the plot takes a dive once Max appears back on the scene. The ending could have taken so many directions, and unfortunately the script takes the worst direction, the one I had the hardest time believing. I had already had to ask myself if Daniel, who isn’t a particularly nice person, would have accepted an adult son (the real one or the pretend one) so easily. Would Daniel take on a son he’s ignored into his life? Well I accepted that Daniel does invite Rober into his life, but then the film strains credibility with the silly direction the plot takes towards the end of the film. Daniel is not an idiot, and there are times when he seems to be playing a double game, but the film unfortunately doesn’t explore this thread and takes the silly way out. Visually, the film includes some gorgeous scenes–in particular, there’s one scene at night with a car driving and the street lights are reflected in the rain. Gorgeous shot.

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Dark Blue Almost Black (2006)

 “I’m a love addict.”

Dark Blue Almost Black is an impressive directorial debut from Spanish director Daniel Sanchez Arevalo. The ambitious plot involves a number of characters who are all trapped for various reasons in lives they didn’t choose.

dark-blue-almost-blackThe film begins with Jorge (Quim Gutierrez) setting fire to a trashcan in a demonstrative denial of his father’s wish that Jorge become a janitor. Ironically, this incident begins a chain of events that basically ensures that Jorge becomes just the thing he so fervently wanted to avoid. The film then skips ahead several years, and there’s Jorge … the janitor of his building. But on top of working a job he finds boring and demeaning, Jorge now is also the caretaker for his father, Andres (Hector Colome) who’s in a wheelchair and brain damaged. While it’s obvious that Jorge isn’t happy, he takes care of his father with the same dogged determination he applies to his job as a janitor.

With a great deal of drive and desire to get out of the rut he finds himself in, Jorge has managed to get a BA in Business Administration. But so far, his diploma has got him nowhere. While Jorge is trapped by circumstance and duty, Jorge’s brother Antonio (Antonio de la Torre) is literally locked up in prison. He attends a theater workshop for prisoners where he meets Paula (Marta Etura). They strike up a relationship based on mutual need, and Antonio is well aware that Paula is the type of girl he wouldn’t stand a chance with on the outside.

Other characters include Jorge’s childhood friend Israel (Raul Arevalo). Nicknamed Sean for his likeness to Sean Penn, Israel and Jorge hang out on the apartment building’s rooftop and enjoy a quiet relationship based on regret and longing. Israel, however, discovers some unpleasant truths about his parents’ relationship, and this discovery sparks a chain of illuminating events.

Also in Jorge’s life is his childhood sweetheart Natalia (Eva Pallares)–a girl who lives in the same apartment building and who has just returned from an internship in Germany. Their relationship is similar to Antonio’s relationship with Paula, for Jorge has a sneaking suspicious that Natalia is too good for him, and the giant chip on his shoulder doesn’t help.

There’s a lot going on in this film, but the plot never loses control of the storyline (also written by the director). All of the characters seem to try to break free of their chains–emotional, financial, and sexual–but some of characters’ attempts to gain freedom result in more problems and painful choices. But here’s the crucial thing–while Jorge may make a choice that’s questionable, it’s still a choice, and that’s what matters.

Ultimately this is a bittersweet tale that deals with compromise and adjusting dreams to painful reality. Arevalo rather cleverly engages the viewer in dreams and compromises too–this is achieved in several ways through our expectations of the characters. Take Antonio, for example, when he’s released from prison and moves home, I found myself saying, “ha! The perfect solution. He can start helping take care of the dad and then Jorge can go off and have a career….” By placing that possibility in front of the viewer, the film creates exactly the sorts of wishful scenarios in our heads faced by our characters, and just like our characters, we have to deal with–and adjust to–the realities of life.

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Una Pasion Singular (2003)

“My patriotism is for the human race.”

Based on the true story of Blas Infante, the Spanish film Una Pasion Singular explores the life of the man known as “the father of Andalucia.” The film begins with the arrest of the upper class, middle aged, Blas Infante (Daniel Freire) and his subsequent imprisonment during the Spanish Civil War. As Infante’s wife Angustias (Marisol Membrillo) struggles with the authorities to get her husband freed, flashbacks depict their meeting and early courtship. Infante and his wife are depicted as individuals with vastly opposed value systems. Infante is devoted to the notion of a separate, autonomous Andulucia, and agrarian reform that includes “returning the land to the peasants” but Angustias, the daughter of wealthy elites, is used to a life of privilege. Infante courts and marries Angustias and they both secretly hold the idea that they can ‘change’ the ethics of the other if given time and proximity of marriage.

Through flashbacks, the film shows Infante, who designed the Andulucian flag and wrote the national song, at various meetings organizing political strategy. Other scenes depict Infante offering his legal services to the disenfranchised peasants at no charge. These scenes of political, and social involvement are contrasted with scenes of conflict with Angustias. She was born to a privileged life, and she fails to understand why life shouldn’t continue on in the same manner. Disagreements about money, and Infante’s devotion to the cause lead to bitter arguments.

The scenes involving Infante’s fate at the hand of Franco’s brutal system of repression are very well done. The film does an excellent job of depicting the arbitrary cold brutality of the system–men taken out of the jail by night and shot, men taken on journeys by guards from which they never return. One of the most powerful scenes occurs when Infante is taken to a makeshift prison. The door opens and as Infante’s sight adjusts to the dim light, the room is seen to hold hundreds of men in various attitudes of despair as they await their fate. In this hideous makeshift facility, there are no trials, and there is no justice. Guards arrive periodically to take the despondent men away to their doom.

The contrasting flashback scenes of Infante’s relationship with his wife are not as interesting, and they tend to distract from the much more interesting story of Infante’s social and political beliefs. If, however, you are interested in the Spanish Civil War, or the tyranny unleashed in Franco’s Spain, then Una Pasion Singular is worth catching. Directed by Antonio Gonzalo, the film is in Spanish with English subtitles.

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Silencio Roto (2001)

“Strangers fight for a short time–families for a lifetime.”

The Spanish film, Silencio Roto begins in 1944 when Lucia (Lucia Jimenez) arrives in a remote mountainous village. Lucia left the village as a child, and she’s returning to work in her aunt and uncle’s bar. Franco now rules Spain, but the village is a hotbed of activity by the Maquis–Republican guerillas in the mountains who continue to fight after the collapse of the Spanish Civil War.

Soldiers garrisoned at the village maintain a tight atmosphere of fear over the residents. Soldiers publicly humiliate villagers, and relatives of known guerillas are ordered to the garrison for sessions of questioning and torture. In spite of the fact that the villagers, are in many ways kept hostage by the army presence, some of them still find time to aid the rebels. Lucia forms a relationship with the young blacksmith, Manuel (Juan Diego Botto) until he too is forced to take to the mountains and hide out with the guerillas.

As rebel activity increases, reprisals against the villagers occur in the form of crackdowns and punishments. With informers everywhere, it soon becomes impossible for anyone to remain neutral, and Lucia’s involvement with the guerillas becomes increasingly dangerous.

Silencio Roto is highly romantic–and the fate of these star-crossed lovers–Lucia and Manuel is set against the national discord in Spain. The film illustrates that the Spanish Civil War–although conveniently forgotten by the rest of the world–still raged in parts of Spain long after the end of WWII. The film examines the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, and the point is made that it just wasn’t possible to lay down one’s arms and return home. The length of the conflict ensured the involvement of several generations of family members, and this idea is well conveyed in this sad, and yet beautiful film. From the Basque director Montxo Armendaria, the film is in Spanish with English subtitles, and it joins the growing ranks of Spanish films that are now announce and examine the atrocities of Franco’s Spain.

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Libertarias (1996)

 “No Gods-No Masters.”

The Spanish film Libertarias examines the Spanish Civil War though the fate of the Free Women (Mujeres Libres) of Spain. During the Spanish Civil War over 30,000 female anarchists were Mujeres Libres, and many fought and died for the revolution. The action begins in July 1936. Anarchists overrun Barcelona, and in the process, a Catholic nun, Maria (Ariadna Gil) leaves the convent with orders from the mother superior to return home. Maria takes shelter in a brothel, but this hiding place is short lived when female CNT anarchists arrive and liberate the prostitutes announcing that they no longer have to submit to the “sexual voracity of strangers.”

libertariasSome of the prostitutes join forces with the anarchists, and Maria–who isn’t adjusting well to being on the outside of the convent walls–goes along. To fiery anarchist Pilar (Ana Belen), Maria is a “victim of the clergy”, and she takes Maria along with the group. While the women join Durruti’s Column of over 3,000-armed anarchists ready to spread the revolution to the rest of Spain, they also clearly maintain their autonomy. Initially the women fight with male anarchists, but when Buenaventura Durruti (Hector Colome) decides that the town of Zaragoza is not defensible, the women stay to fight on the front lines.

The female fighters are a motley crew, but they aren’t afraid to fight and are willing to die for their cause. With the exception of Maria, the women are peasants, and they’ve all suffered experiences that ensure their dedication to the revolution. The female anarchists are also boldly sexually liberated, and again this is another issue Maria cannot understand or accept. But as misfortunes come their way, and the women decide to stick together–no matter what–Maria finds herself morally aligned with the cause. At the same time, she continues to seek out a patriarchal authority figure in an ex-priest-turned-freedom-fighter.

While the women march to war, it’s obvious that they really don’t grasp what’s in store for them. One scene depicts them playfully tossing a pumpkin around until they receive a harsh reminder of their surroundings. The film’s brutal, searing conclusion allows for no sentimentality, and by its very harshness, somehow the ending pulls the entire film into sobering perspective. From director Vicente Aranda, Libertarias is in Spanish with English subtitles.

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Common Wealth (2000)

 “I could go around the world until I get dizzy.”

common-wealthThe Spanish comedy Common Wealth (La Comunidad) from director Alex de la Iglesia is for those who like their comedy dark, energetic, full of surprises and packed with peculiar characters. Think Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown meets Shallow Grave with an element of Neighbours thrown in for good measure. It’s brilliant, extremely funny, and also somewhat macabre.

Savvy Madrid Real estate agent Julia (Carmen Maura) has to sell a beautiful, posh apartment. It’s the sort of place that she and her mismatched husband could never afford. She invites him over to whoop it up and suggests that they “savagely desecrate this holy waterbed” little realizing that enjoying material comforts they can never afford is something he’d rather not be exposed to. Julia’s relationship with her bouncer husband captures the essence and pettiness of domestic squabbles that are laced with subtle yet bitter recriminations based on financial disappointments. While romping around, Julia makes the horrible discovery that the apartment upstairs contains the rotting corpse of a reclusive millionaire. When she uncovers the dead man’s secret stash of money, Julia realizes (the hard way) that the apartment building’s tenants consider the money theirs and will stop at nothing to get the money away from her.

Common Wealth contains the sort of wild, frenetic energy that’s reminiscent of Almodovar, and the film’s clever plot twists keep the viewer engaged to the very end. The first half of the film is much stronger (and funnier) than the second half, but it’s a powerfully funny, engaging package. The story explores the voracious nature of human greed, and how seemingly ‘normal’ people revert to their uglier, baser instincts when a large sum of money is at stake. The comedy element here is fresh and just unhinged enough to be absolutely marvelous. Julia is a splendid creation–she’s hard-edged, ambitious, and crafty, and all these characteristics rise to the surface under adversity. One of the best characters is the middle-aged son of one of the tenants who sports a Darth Vader costume to become a Vader Voyeur. When discussing Julia, he suggests “we should take her to the dark side.” If you enjoy this film, I also recommend Crimen Perfecto (aka Crimen Ferpecto). In Spanish with English subtitles.

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Filed under Carmen Maura, Comedy, Spain

Sound of the Sea (2001)

 “Travelers willing to make together the journey of no return.”

Sound of the Sea DVDIn The Sound of the Sea Spanish director Bigas Luna creates a romance, wraps it up with allusions to mythology and produces a marvelous tale of love, passion and revenge. Martina (Leonor Watling) works in her parents’ cafe, listens to rap music and remembers the day a film star visited their small coastal town. Ulises (Jordi Molla), the newly employed literature teacher arrives and rents a room from Martina’s parents. The extremely wealthy Sierra (Eduard Fernandez) courts Martina–a relationship much encouraged by Martina’s parents–but clearly she prefers the more elusive Ulises. Ulises and Martina seem an unlikely pair–she possesses undeveloped strains of materialism, and Ulises is a dreamer and a drifter. But when Ulises quotes favourite passages from the Aeneid to Martina, it seems to satisfy them both–the poetic exercise captures her trapped imagination, and also allows him to impress her. When Martina discovers she’s pregnant, Ulises agrees to marry her. There’s a brief honeymoon, and then the couple are back to domesticity and discontent.

After the birth of their baby, Martina is invited to attend a party at Sierra’s mansion. While Sierra still indicates his interest in Martina, Ulises eyeballs a seductive brunette in a red dress. After a brief squabble, Martina and Ulises abruptly leave the party. The next day Ulises goes fishing and disappears …

Years pass. With Ulises officially dead, Martina marries Sierra. He adopts her son, and Martina lounges next to the pool, flipping through fashion magazines as she lives in the lap of luxury. Total materialism suits Martina somehow–she’s become sleeker, harder, and much more polished. Surrounded by a pet crocodile and matching Alsatians, it seems almost as though Martina finally landed up living the life she really belongs in. And then the phone calls begin. Ulises has returned …

The Sound of the Sea–based on the novel by Manuel Vicent–is another remarkable film from Bigas Luna. It begins as a sticky sweet romance but then morphs into something much darker–much deeper. “From loving to not loving is a road everyone travels”–but have Ulises and Martina traveled that road? The film’s cinematography is simply spectacular–captivating shots of the sea in its many states echo throughout the film and resonate long after the closing credits. In Spanish with English subtitles, the DVD extras include: cast interviews, an interview with the director, and a cast photo gallery. If you enjoy this film, I recommend The Chambermaid on the Titanic also by Bigas Luna.

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The Promise (La Promesa) 2004

 “Your place is in the home, and even then you can’t cope.”

promiseIn the Spanish gothic thriller, The Promise (AKA La Promesa) Gregoria (Carmen Maura) is an unhappy dumpy housewife. Her husband continually berates her for her sterility, and beats her when she gets on his nerves. And she gets on his nerves quite a bit by constantly praying and mumbling under her breath to various saints. While the husband seems to find fault in Gregoria’s functionality (“All you do is clean and pray”), it’s obvious that Gregoria is a deeply troubled woman–at one point, she stands transfixed in the marketplace believing that she’s watching long-dead fish gasping for air. One day, Gregoria’s husband pushes her too far, and she hits the road with a suitcase and heads towards a village she heard about. She changes her name to Celia and gets a job as a nanny to an extremely wealthy couple who have one small, silent child named Daniel. Apparently, nannies don’t stay long with the family, so mother, Dorita (Ana Fernandez) is eager to give the reference-less Celia the job–no questions asked. Husband Leandro (Evaristo Calvo), on the other hand, sniffs a rat, and remains suspicious of Celia.

As time goes on, Leandro’s suspicions are proved correct. Celia/Gregoria becomes increasingly more attached to the boy, and she begins to see him as threatened by his father. It occurs to her that she should “liberate” Dorita as a fellow abused wife. Celia slides into even deeper religious ferocity–visiting a local religious shrine, hallucinating and hearing voices in her head.

The set-up (the loony nanny left in charge of an innocent, defenseless child) is a familiar one, but director Hector Carre handles the material nicely. Right from the beginning of the film, odd things occur, and it’s never quite clear exactly what is real and what is Celia’s superstitious imagination. This is an atmospheric film, and camera shots capitalize on the peculiarity of Celia’s twisted vision. A thread of black humour runs through the story and this serves to alleviate some of the tension. The film’s conclusion is a little odd, but it is great fun to see Carmen Maura in the role of Celia. Maura is excellent at portraying the neurotic woman (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), but in The Promise Maura isn’t just neurotic–she’s sinister. In Spanish with English subtitles.

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Golden Balls (1993)

 “I married her for money. She’s an investment.”

Golden Balls DVDIn Bigas Luna’s film Golden Balls Benito Gonzalez (Javier Bardem) is a loutish, crude Spanish construction worker with ambitious plans to build the tallest building in the city. The film begins in Morocco, and Benito’s relationship with the lithe Rita (Elisa Tovati) is about to end badly. Benito–who’s not the sensitive sort–moves on to bigger and better things, and when the film picks up the story again, Benito is now back in Spain, the owner of a construction company assisted by Rita’s brother Mosca (Francisco Casares).

Even though Benito now has his foot on the first rung of the ladder to success, his character continues to trip him up. His construction company is on the brink of bankruptcy. He works without permits, breaking the rules along the way to his ambition to build the Gonzalez Tower (with its own massage parlour)–a homage to his ego, and also, the film makes clear–a giant phallic symbol. When Benito runs out of money, he manipulates his latest love, secretary and would-be actress Claudia (Maribel Verdu) into sleeping with an influential banker, and when that plan fails, he marries the banker’s naive daughter, Marta (Maria de Medieros).

Golden Balls is the story of the rise and inevitable fall of Benito–a second rate Lothario whose machismo-ridden character brings success but also destroys him. Bigas Luna’s film is a wry sexual farce that examines Benito’s progress in the world as he uses the women in his life to get ahead. A devotee of Julio Iglesias, who’s fond of Karaoke, when Benito finally gets money, his crass, lavish lifestyle includes two Rolex watches and his fulfilled dream of possessing his very own lobster tank. Similarly, the women in Benito’s life are also his possessions. Believing he “moves better” with a woman with an ideal weight of 94 lbs, he obsesses about their weights. While his motto is “always be generous with women and politicians” in reality, to Benito that sometimes translates to promising women their own bidets.

Javier Bardem fans will enjoy this sly film and its characterization of the larger-than-life Benito and his equally disproportionate ego. I’ve seen a couple of different covers for this DVD, and on my copy, Bardem is depicted grabbing his crotch; that just about says it all for his character. With over-the-top phallic symbolism, Bigas Luna charts Benito’s clumsy progress through Spanish society and his goal to “move in a different sphere.” Ultimately, Golden Balls shows that whatever sphere of society we may move to, we take our characters along with us–for better or for worse. Keep your eyes open for Benicio Del Toro in a small role. In Spanish with subtitles.

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El Grieto en el Ciel (1998)

“I’m already troubled.”

El Grito en el Cielo (AKA Shout Out) is a riotous Spanish film from directors Dunia Ayaso and Felix Sabroso, and it’s for those who like their comedies frenetic, crude and stuffed full of strong female characters. The male roles in the film are scant and slight. It’s the women who have all the power and rule here, and it’s a world full of vindictiveness, craftiness and no-holds barred competitiveness. While this is ostensibly a comedy film, on another level the film–which should appeal to fans of Almodovar’s early films–takes a sly look at the meaning of ‘reality.’

Gorgeous Miranda Vega (Maria Conchita Alonso) hosts a television programme called Miranda Vega’s Paradise. It’s a showcase for her talents, and with a glamourous, exotic format, she performs various showy numbers for an adoring public. But thanks to plummeting ratings, she’s forced to accept radical changes to her programme, and now she hosts a new style–Trash Television. A “live” talent contest using members of the audience is scheduled to take place with the winner becoming a co-host with Miranda. Naturally, the decision is made that the “most ridiculous” contestant will win.

Various losers who are addicted to Miranda’s programme see this chance as their one shot at fame. There’s Paco (Pepon Nieto) a chubby lonely taxi driver who lip synchs to Camilo Sesto songs, a mother and daughter prostitute team Merche (Carmen Balague) and Rita (Maria Pujalte), shop assistant Mila (Mariola Fuentes) and a narcotic-addicted couple who are “living statues.” In a hilarious sub-plot, a particularly vindictive videotape is played on Miranda’s new programme that shows veteran actress Marta Pena (Loles Leon) fighting with her lover. Vowing revenge, Marta sends her maid, Soraga (Malena Gutierrez) undercover to compete in the programme and destroy Miranda’s career in the process. Soraga, who’s fresh out of jail, enters the competition with her interpretative karate routine.

While the non-stop hilarious action keeps the laughs coming, with a plot loaded with hidden video cameras, insincerity and manipulation, the film also subtly tackles the theme of reality. All of the viewers who watch Miranda’s programme imagine that since she is beautiful and successful, she must also be happy. But the reality is that Miranda’s life is a mess. Her boyfriend is the studio Lothario, and his libido constantly creates enemies who surround Miranda and plot her downfall. But Miranda is well aware of this, and is swift to punish the women who attract the attention of her wandering beau. As a consummate actress, Miranda is perfectly capable of acting whatever part is necessary, and she moves so smoothly from her many roles, that it’s impossible for both her fans and her enemies to tell when she’s acting, and when she’s genuine. I loved this film. It was bold, crude and rude, but apart from that, it was also quite clever and entertaining. In Spanish with English subtitles.

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