Category: Spanish Cinema

¡Viva! 21 #2: Os fenómenos (Aces, Spain 2014)


Lola Duenas as Neneta with one of the workers who dreads retirement which will surely be forced on him if the building boom ends.

Widely seen as a Galician version of a Ken Loach film, Os fenómenos is engaging and intriguing with its ‘open’ ending. It isn’t the first Galician nod to Ken, that would be Mondays in the Sun (2002) with Javier Bardem as an unemployed shipbuilder, but with its ensemble cast of workers in the construction sector complete with ‘lump’ workers (i.e. the ‘undeclared’ workforce of migrants), its Chrissie Rock type of character played here by Lola Duenas and plenty of humour, it has many Loachian elements.

Duenas (best known for her roles for Almodóvar and in Alejandro Amenábar’s The Sea Inside) plays Neneta, abandoned by her partner Wolf and left to look after their infant son Roi on her own in Wolf’s improvised campervan. She returns to Galicia, makes peace with her mother (and babysitter) and gets a job on a building site. Cue many predictable jokes and badinage before she gains respect. The characters in the group of workers on the site are carefully written. There is an element of class distinction (Neneta completed a degree before she opted out of a bourgeois lifestyle). One of the workers is a religious young man with a family whereas others have been attracted to the good money builders can earn in boom time. Once she is accepted, Neneta’s world gets brighter, including her love life. But all this is prior to 2008 and the collapse of the Spanish economy, caused in part by speculative building projects. All of the workers are headed for trouble.

The reaction to the crash is the political test of the film and this is where it departs from the Loachian model and the other films of French/Belgian/British ‘social realism’. There seems to be an almost calm acceptance that it is all over – a willingness to simply walk away and try something else. Resignation rather than anger? Is this what is happening in Spain?

The film’s title also points to a political issue. It translates as ‘Aces’ – the term given by the building company owner to the workers who complete the most jobs each month. This piecework payment is divisive and largely corrupt. Neneta is smart enough to work out how to play the system but alongside the distinction between ‘declared’ and ‘undeclared’ payments it perpetuates discrimination just like the ‘lump’ system (labourer’s paid cash in hand without contracts) in the UK. There didn’t seem to be any discussion of unions in the film – perhaps that’s the point about the greed of bosses and some workers?

Os fenómenos is a film with many strong points from writing and direction by Alfonso Zarauza and Jaione Camborda through to cinematography and casting/performance. It’s interesting too in its focus on a working mother and there are key aspects of the narrative that focus on her personal life and how this interconnects with her success at work. Through the other workers we also get some sense about what unemployment might mean to different people. The film has been warmly praised and audiences clearly like it. I did think though that Neneta learned her building craft skills very quickly and I feel frustrated by the lack of anger in the film. Perhaps it’s just me – there has been a similar ‘acceptance’ of unnecessary cuts and austerity policies in the UK. Perhaps Greece will show us the way? Certainly we need more politically-focused films. I enjoyed Os fenómenos and I would recommend it, but I would have liked more anger. 

¡Viva! 21 #1: Who Killed Bambi? (¿Quién mató a Bambi?, Spain 2013)

Clara Lago and Ernesto Alterio as two-thirds of the team of kidnappers.

Clara Lago and Ernesto Alterio as two-thirds of the team of kidnappers.

This highly-entertaining black comedy was the opening gala screening of the ¡Viva! Weekender and on the Saturday the director, Santi Amodeo was present for a Q&A. The gnomic title is explained as the plot unfolds but this is actually a remake of Matando Cabos a popular Mexican comedy from 2004. Amodeo wrote the script for his adaptation, his first mainstream film with a ‘big’ budget. Like the other film on Saturday afternoon, Os fenómenos, Who Killed Bambi? is predicated on the desperation felt by many during the current economic depression in Spain. This is a black farce in which two separate ‘hostages’ are involved in schemes/fiascos. One involves an Italian who faces bankruptcy after his pizzeria fails to attract upmarket customers. The second involves a young man who is dating his boss’s daughter – and finds his position under threat. The Italian wants to kidnap the boss for ransom and the boyfriend finds himself saddled with a comatose boss by accident – inadvertently causing someone else to be the kidnap victim.

The third ‘ingredient’ in the plot is a dubious lawyer with a serious drug habit. In the Q&A Amodeo explained that the lawyer was a Spanish invention – a bit of ‘local colour’ replacing the wrestler in the Mexican version. (Both characters being iconic roles in local cultures.) I won’t spoil who Bambi is – but I will explain that the film’s title refers to the film about the Sex Pistols that was to have been made by Russ Meyer from a script by Roger Ebert in 1978! I should have remembered this! The other bit of high-profile ‘local colour’ is a surprise appearance by Andres Iniesta, the Spain and Barcelona football maestro. (The narrative does include a sequence in a football stadium, but not Camp Nou.) Who Killed Bambi? is the kind of mainstream Spanish comedy we rarely see in the UK (though it reminded me in parts of Ferpect Crime, the Alex de laIglesia comedy I saw at the Leeds Film Festival last November). I enjoyed the film very much. There is a great deal of violence, mostly cartoonish blows to the head to keep the hostages quiet – but at least one action we don’t expect usually expect in a comedy. I don’t see any reason why the film shouldn’t succeed on release in the UK – except that it would need subtitles. It’s sad that UK audiences miss out in this way. Amodeo himself wrote much of the music that appears in the film and this is another appealing aspect of the whole package.

The central character of David, the would-be son-in-law, is played by Quim Gutiérrez who I remember from The Last Days at ¡Viva! 2014. He’s very good, as are the others in the cast. Asked about the Hollywood influences on the film, the director pointed out that they were present in the Mexican original and, yes, they did include Tarantino and the Coen Brothers. Even so, this struck me as very much a Spanish film.  Santi Amodeo is scheduled to make an English language film in a co-production. It promises to be interesting.

¡Viva! at 21: Manchester’s Spanish and Latin American Film Festival

The opening film is Who Killed Bambi? (¿Quién mató a Bambi?, Spain 2013)

The opening film is Who Killed Bambi? (¿Quién mató a Bambi?, Spain 2013)

It’s an important year for ¡Viva!. The festival comes of age with its 21st edition as its Cornerhouse base gears up to move to HOME, Manchester’s spiffing new multi-arts venue. The festival team have therefore devised an ingenious plan to offer ¡Viva! 2015 in three long weekenders. The first runs from March 5th to March 9th and offers five films with accompanying Q&As and introductions. Four of the films are playing twice and all the screenings and other events are listed on the Cornerhouse website.

We’ve been a supporter of ¡Viva! for many years and you can see reviews of earlier festival screenings via this tag. ¡Viva! is often the only way in the UK to see important films from Spain and Latin America which will not receive UK distribution. It’s only the hard work of ¡Viva!’s staff (and the support of sponsors) that enables the festival to bring in prints and filmmakers. This first weekend includes films from Spain as well as from Colombia, Ecuador and Argentina.

The second ¡Viva! weekender will focus on six Mexican films in June in the new venue at HOME and the third part will focus on Spanish cinema in the Autumn. Festival programmer Rachel Hayward spoke to the Northern Soul website and explained:

“We absolutely wanted to make sure we took the audience with us on the journey from Cornerhouse to HOME and showcase the festival in this way. It’s perhaps a more manageable way to do it, given such a relatively small team working on it here, but we also thought it was important for audiences to be able to see such a popular festival in HOME rather than waiting almost a full year.”

“Next year, 2016, we’ll definitely be going back to the standard format. But we’re very interested to see how these weekenders work, of course.”

We hope to be at the screenings over the weekend and to report back next week.

LIFF 28 #7: Ferpect Crime (El crimen perfecto, Spain-Italy 2004)

Rafael (Guillermo Toledo) with the ghost of his rival salesman who is giving him advice.

Rafael (Guillermo Toledo) with the ghost of his rival salesman who is giving him advice.

One of many retrospectives at LFF 28 featured the work of Álex de la Inglesia in the Fanomenon strand – the wide-ranging genre/’cult’ section of the festival. Ferpect Crime is one of de la Inglesia’s most commercial films with nearly 2 million admissions across Europe – but not in the UK. Although UK distribution was available for some of the director’s early art films such as Acción mutante (1993) the later films have generally not been picked up and especially not a black comedy like Ferpect Crime. (The more recent Balada triste de trompeta (The Last Circus, Spain/France 2010) was reviewed on this blog when it appeared at the Viva Festival at Cornerhouse in Manchester.) ‘Popular comedies’ from other European countries are supposedly the most difficult sell in the UK and distributors simply won’t go there – unless it is Almodóvar. This means that often the biggest hits in Germany, Italy, Spain and even France simply aren’t seen in the UK. It seems that a DVD from a relatively obscure UK company, TLA Releasing (the UK arm of an American company specialising in LGBT and global horror) is available and LFF used this for projection. It didn’t look at all bad.

Ferpect Crime is not that dissimilar to some of Almodóvar’s films from the 1980s, but arguably less complex/surprising. However, it’s very difficult to define precisely why one is ‘art’ and the other is ‘popular’. I should also say that while Almodóvar has depicted all forms of sexuality, often outrageously, he’s never in my view been ‘sexist’. De la Inglesia, based just on the two films I’ve seen, does seem to stray a bit closer to the edge, even if the representations are exaggerated in order to drive a form of social critique.

The plot outline sees Rafael as a super-successful salesman in a Madrid department store. He employs mainly beautiful women as sales assistants on his territory (women’s fashions). They all appear to love him and he spends his nights seducing them one by one in the store after it closes, bribing the security guard. The store is his life  – until everything goes wrong and he accidentally kills his rival who runs the men’s department. Miraculously his problems are solved by the one woman who he has never noticed – the plain woman who desires him and who now has power over him. How is he going to get out of this mess?

I confess that I enjoyed the film and certainly laughed out loud at several of the scenes. I suspect as with many Spanish films, that I might have missed some cultural references and I did wince at some of the sexist moments. But I took the film overall to be a comedy about gender roles and a critique about consumerism and reality TV. I’ll file it next to several other popular Spanish films that have failed to get into UK cinemas but which have generally been very entertaining.