Spanish Film Festival 2019, Part 1: The Realm, Tremors, Champions, Crime Wave, Rojo

It’s an exciting season in Sydney, with multiple festivals concurrently keeping us entertained from April to the end of June. First up is one of my favourites, the Spanish Film Festival. I bought a pass to see 10 films, mostly from Latin America and half by non-Indigenous, non-Afro women directors. We have a long way to go with stories reflecting the writing and direction of minorities. The festival has, however, included stories with disabled, queer and/or other ethnic minorities as protagonists. Those are the films I’ve predominantly chosen. The rest are political stories. Today, I bring you the first of two posts reviewing films from an intersectionality perspective. The festival began in Sydney on 16 April and ends 8 May, before travelling to all metropolitan cities.

Let’s take a look at the political thriller, The Realm, which sweeped this year’s Goya Awards (the ‘Spanish Oscars’). Tremors is the compelling but distressing story of a devoutly religious gay man from Guatemala. Champions is a highly successful Spanish movie featuring an ensemble cast of disabled actors playing a famous basketball team. Crime Wave takes a serious premise (an emotionally abusive man is murdered) and turns it into a cascading set of comedic deaths. Yikes! Finally, another political drama, Rojo, swells from the early days of the devastating Argentinean coup. The players ponder: under which local conditions do national tyrants rise? The answer is from ordinary towns, where people are too polite to notice men arguing and boys “disappearing.”

Central Park Mall, where Palace Cinemas Central and Platinum is hosting the Festival

The Realm

Quintessentially, Spanish dramas subvert all Hollywood conventions, with The Realm (El Reino) being a perfect example. Manuel López-Vidal (powerhouse Antonio de la Torre in his Goya- winning role) is a corrupt regional politician whose opulent lifestyle is fed by multiple shady deals. Well-connected and well-liked, he’s built his career by ripping off his constituents. When one of his colleagues has a crisis of conscience, Manuel’s role in one (of many) corruption cases comes to light. He is offered up as the sacrificial lamb; the public face of the crime to throw off further scrutiny of his party. He’s told by his (woman) president to hold tight. When it blows over, the party will bring him back. But Manuel has hubris enough to power the entire Spanish electricity grid. He is not in it for the party, and he refuses to fade into the background.

As a protagonist, he’s truly awful: unethical and greedy, his actions affect his wife, and he uses up the family’s savings meant for his daughter, as he pushes further from one scheme into the next depravity, all because his ego can’t handle that he got caught. de la Torre makes Manuel’s desperate plight compelling, even though there’s no redeeming qualities in a character that exists as an indictment of all political figures in Spain.

Intersectionality: there are no minority characters. The White women are just as ruthless as the White men. Bárbara Lennie as national journalist Amaia Marín delivers a thrilling conclusion, in one of the best verbal sparring matches ever seen on film. It is ultimately her searing anger that delivers the central question at the heart of the film: how do politicians live with themselves, day after day, from one decade to the next (15 years in Manuel’s case) lying and deceiving the public?

Score: 7/10. This film is a centrepiece for the Festival and with good reason. Go watch it.

Tremors

While I went into Tremors (Temblores) somewhat apprehensive – do we really need to see another story about an unhappy queer person? – this story, set in beautiful and bustling Guatemala, is a profoundly affecting film.

Ultra religious Pablo (Juan Pablo Olyslager) has recently left his wife and beloved children, after starting an affair with the effervescent Francisco (Mauricio Armas Zebadua). Pablo is at once free to be true to his sexuality, and is intoxicated by Francisco’s unwavering love. And yet Pablo is equally filled with shame, as his ex-wife denies him access to his two young children.

Shut off from his tight-knit extended family and Church, Pablo is soon fired from his lucrative job when his wife begins to tell the community that Pablo is gay. With divorce proceedings in train, a judge places an order that Pablo cannot be given custody and he’s further banned by the court from being near other children.

The injustice, misinformation and alienation will be familiar to Latin audiences, as some Latin American communities are openly hostile towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and asexual (LGBTQIA) people. Pablo is desperate to be let back in the congregation. And so his Church presents a putrid ultimatum: participate in a harrowing ‘gay conversion’ program that is exceedingly barbaric.

Intersectionality: Pablo is a rich non-Indigenous gay man whose servants are all Indigenous. Indigenous actress María Telón as Maria is a bright spark as the stern but brave maid and nanny. Francisco is kind, sensual and a proud gay man who lights up every scene. A masseuse to elderly patients, he is warm but insightful, patiently forgiving Pablo’s internalised homophobia and the relentless cruelty of Pablo’s family. When Pablo’s mother sneakily shows up to be serviced by Francisco, he carries on professionally, and with great stoicism, as she delivers a dispassionate, but inmutable, homophobic stance. “I don’t hate you people, but men are made to love women,” is the gist. Pablo’s mother is naked beneath his touch, but Francisco does not yield to her. Pablo deserves his love. The scene is remarkable because, even in this context, a disrobed heterosexual woman face down on a massage table, armed with misguided fear of the other holds much more power than a gay man simply trying to do his job, and respect his partner.

The affluent non-Indigenous women in the film are the strongest defenders of heteronormativity (the taken-for-granted belief that heterosexuality is “natural” and “normal,” and needs no explanation). Sabrina de la Hoz as the Pastor is frighteningly intelligent but tremendously bigoted, without being a caricature. She is a serious and layered character conveying the multifaceted ways in which homophobia is maintained by institutions. She leads the (lucrative) weekly mass with the same charismatic conviction as the ‘conversion.’ The scenes of the chic, stilletoed woman Pastor yelling at gay men to act ‘more like a man‘ are chilling. That this happens while the men are encouraged to wrestle naked and in the showers is a powerful statement not just about heterosexual women’s complicity in homophobia, but in our active policing of queer bodies. The Evangelical mass scenes create the stifling but emotional spine of the story: Pablo wants to be safe in the religious fervour, even if it cuts the best from him.

Score: 8/10 Distinction. This film is heartbreaking and demands to be seen.

Champions

Palace Cinema Central, one of three sites hosting the festival in Sydney

With an ensemble cast of disabled actors, including Jesús Vidal, Goya-winner for Best New Talent, Champions (Campeones) is an insightful comedy that opened the Festival. It provides a fictionalised account of the 12 championship-winning basketball team Aderes, from Burjassot, Valencia, Spain.

The story first invites laughs via the unwilling coach, Marco Montes (Javier Gutiérrez Álvarez), exasperated as he’s court-ordered to serve as their coach for three months. This is his community service for driving three times (!) over the alcohol legal limit. Marco, a White able-bodied man, has led a privileged life, as assistant coach to a major team. But his alcoholism is out of control and he’s estranged from his wife.

Marco is positioned as the centre of the film, but his story of personal redemption is the least engaging aspect of the story. Instead, this film interestingly shows a range of people with intellectual disabilities – they live independently, or with parents or in shared accommodation. They work hard (as kitchenhands, in animal care, as mechanics). Some can drive. They have romantic relationships. They have close families, others are alone.

The message of the film is led by the disabled characters and it’s beautifully handled – that teamwork is about doing your best but without humiliating opponents.

Intersectionality: one disabled person of colour is a loving character. Gloria Ramos as Collantes, is the only woman player (she is White) and she’s a superstar: self-assured, smart, funny and thrilling to watch. Disappointingly, homophobic jokes are used among the players, even though earlier Marco notes that gay slurs are not okay but less is known about ableism. A relationship with a sex worker is a cheap running gag that could’ve been an opportunity to endorse sex positivity. A subplot about forcing Juanma and Marco to face their phobias is misguided. Marco is needlessly cruel to his wife, Sonia, but problematically this is supposedly because he loves her. This is infuriating. Marco is ableist about the risk of Sonia having children in late age, for which the film forgives him too easily.

Score: 7/10 Strong Credit. A fun and highly endearing watch.

Crime Wave

As a Spanish-speaker and lover of Spanish cinema, I have sworn a blood oath to worship Maribel Verdú until the flesh drops from my bones. Her broad smile and uber expressive face has made her one of Spain’s biggest stars, especially of crowd-pleasing comedies, and rightly so. I really wanted to love Crime Wave (Ola de Crimenes), and while the film was amiable, it wasn’t laugh out loud funny.

Verdú stars as Leyre, a single mother who lives with her socially awkward son in a large, beautiful house owned by her oafish ex-husband. They make do on a modest alimony payment. Her ex shows up saying he’s selling the house, belittling her for having sex with him for gifts (he’s the worst!) and then berates their son, Asier. Asier kills him in retaliation. Nothing is made of how casually the boy does this.

Instead, Leyre rushes to cover up and save Asier from the law. This sets in motion multiple murders, blackmail and double crosses. The slapstick pace was entertaining enough but I didn’t enjoy the journey.

Directed by a woman (Gracia Querejeta) but very clearly written by a man, it stars multiple White women acting in ways men usually behave but it feels hollow rather than escapism. In particular, a major subplot with Asier’s creepy friend, Julen, is irritating. Movies usually set up the leading man with a younger woman. This is meant to be exciting. Here, Julen is emotionally manipulative, demanding, underage (!) and sexually inexperienced. This isn’t a fantasy for heterosexual women. Having seen her awful husband, I was put off by watching Leyre lumbered with another selfish manchild. This script shows the limits of supplanting women into a male violence escapade.

Score: 6/10 High Pass. As we say in my family, “Se deja ver.”

Intersectionality: The only person of colour is Montse Pla, a gifted Afro-Latina actress playing a no-nonsense maid, Evelyn. One of the few ways in which Afro-Latinas are depicted onscreen is as maids or as criminals. This film leans into both rubbish stereotypes, as it clumsily and self-consciously tries to deal with race. Even with her memorable quips, Evelyn endures Leyre’s racist mother in a running gag that is not funny. Epitomising this cruelty is when Evelyn is goaded to be unethical by a rich, White woman, who says, “Did you come to this country to make money or to be Black?” This racist justification for what follows is appalling. Leyre’s racist mother struggles with what seems to be memory loss, hearing loss, and she lacks mobility. This is an ablesit and ageist depiction of an older (albeit rich) woman.

Rojo

Even without knowledge of the “Dirty War” in Argentina, a brutal military regime backed by the USA Government, Rojo is an engrossing thriller. We meet well-respected lawyer Claudio (Dario Grandinetti) in a restaurant as he suffers through rudeness from a stranger in town. In a tense exchange, the stranger acts entitled, angry and seems out of control. Claudio initially gives up his seat so the stranger will calm down, but as he watches him with quiet contempt, Claudio unleashes a searing monologue that eviscerates the stranger, cutting down his bad manners and lack of respect for order. This spectacular scene sets up several dynamics of the film: Claudio’s simmering self-righteousness, the thin veneer of civility that keeps everyone in the restaurant from intervening, and the bubbling hostility of men who think society should bend to their whims.

Set in the mid-1970s, the film explores the social conditions that give rise to tyrants, as seemingly ordinary, educated, hard-working people in close knit towns would eventually fall victim to other men with an arsenal of power that would create one of the most violent and long-standing human rights abuses in postcolonial Americas.

Around 9,000 people were “disappeared” by the regime and another 10,000 fled the country. How does this happen? According to the filmmaker, not out of nowhere. Not in this idyllic town, where men and boys routinely disappear in the desert, sacrifices for wounded egos, often taken in plain sight. Corruption rises in nice neighborhoods where everyone is too polite to speak up after a public altercation, and where neighbours raid abandoned homes of well-to-do families that suddenly “disappear.”

Alfred Castro as Sinclair, the Chilean actor/ detective who shows up from Buenos Aires, is great. He is a brash, one-man Greek chorus haunting Claudio’s facade of the good citizen.

Score: 6/10 High Pass. Slow burn script with its climactic political indictment searing deeply.

Intersectionality: That there are no Indigenous, Afro-Latino nor minority characters is remarkable, given the mighty nation of Argentina is home to 35 Indigenous groups and a national population of 30% migrants. This is a film about toxic masculinity with women on the periphery. Claudio’s wife silently watches him lose control. His daughter is subjected to sexual coercion by an insufferable rich, White boy, in a scene where all the hetero women in the audience either laughed uncomfortably or groaned in frustration (me!).

Other recommendations

Can’t wait until these gems reach your city? Check out my other film reviews of previous Spanish and Latin film festivals:

  • Roma: rumination of class, gender, race and violence in this Mexican movie centred on a Mixtec woman (Indigenous people of Mexico)
  • Guarani: sublime and unmissable journey of a grandfather and granddaughter who belong to Paraguay’s Indigenous people, the Guarani
  • Woodpeckers: Dominican exploration of the lives of incarcerated Afro-Latin characters, who find inventive ways to communicate across walls
  • The Companion: on the physical isolation of gay men who were HIV positive in the 1980s, and one heterosexual, Afro-Cubano assigned to look after a special White Cuban “patient”
  • Ma Ma: chronic illness, motherhood and the making of new families in this Spanish drama
  • Sidetracked: if you love revelling in life’s disappointments, this sour comedy about a family who do the same is your ticket
  • Happy 140: greed and gender politics of an affluent, but fractured, family
  • You’re Killing me Susana: Mexican film on patriarchy falls short of its aspirations, as it fails to usefully reflect on heterosexual men’s possession over their partners

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