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Friday, 11 May 2018

Spanish Film Festival - Supercinephile Barrie Pattison ticks off the last handful

CINEMA REBORN held me up on finishing off the 2018 Spanish Film Festival, an event which proved an anti-climax after last year’s exceptional success. It started to resemble the pattern the detractors put forward – so-so multiplex movies. One plausible reason is that there was nothing from Argentina here this year, possibly being hived off into the proposed Latin-America event.

The Solar System
A single digression was Chinón Higashionna and Bacha Caravedo’s Peruvian El sistema solar/The Solar System. Inadequately transcribed from theatre, this was wrapped around the cinema’s most abused cliché - the family that rediscovers itself at Xmas.

In César Ritter’s suburban Lima bungalow, his wheel chair bound dad, who has paired with Ritter’s old love Adriana Ugarte, joins his family with daughter Gisela Ponce de León, the film’s star also managing to get in a song. Her character burns the turkey and Ugarte ‘phones for pizza as all the old tensions surface. Even a Santa hired to distribute presents doesn’t go too well.

Meanwhile young Sebastián Zamudio has made a painting of the Solar System and assures them that his pet turtle is racing round the yard off screen. 

There are competent conventional production values and a chance for each of the cast to get in a ringing speech. It’s mainly tedious.

Lord, Give Me Patience
Álvaro Díaz Lorenzo’s Señor, dame paciencia/Lord, Give Me Patience  was characteristic of the event. Hopes rise when we spot Rossi di Palma in the credits but she’s rapidly banished to a special effect. Husband and Real Madrid supporter Jordi Sánchez is stuck with taking a decorated mini-van across the counTry to San Lúcar de Barrameda in Andalusia, packed with  his offspring Megan Montaner, Silvia Alonso, Eduardo Casanova and their significant others - David Guapo a Barça' Club supporter, Salva Reina a hippy layabout and Boré Buika the gay son’s Senegalese Basque lover.

They are all expert farceurs and the film is glossily mounted and gets the full value out of it’s beautiful people but it’s only occasionally that anything involving breaks through the sunny surface - Guardia Civil traffic cop Antonio Dechent, learning about Sánchez’ situation, berating his deputy for wanting to give a ticket to someone baring all the nation’s afflictions or priest Paco Tous slapping the anarchist slacker about.

More interesting was Luis Oliveros’  El jugador de ajedrez/The Chessplayer, recognisably the kind of film we get in art house distribution here - but this time they are speaking Spanish.

The Chessplayer
It’s 1934 and French Journalist Melina Matthews’ red coat stands out among the severe black outfits of the male spectators at the Spanish Chess Championship. Observer Alejo Sauras knows how the match is going to go, with his chum, young Marc Clotet, relying on the established master’s ego to trick him into over confidence. Afterward Sauras
introduces the pair and romance follows.

Matthews and Clotet marry and have a daughter. After the end of the Civil War, she convinces him he should move to Paris but when the Germans invade he is denounced as a spy and sent to an SS prison. So far, so familiar.

However, the film develops an impressive third act when Sauras is called out of the intimidating communal cell emptying of the prisoners the Germans are shooting, because of his status as a chess player. (“That’s not a profession” sadistic Sergeant Mike Hoffmann objects).  When it looks like Clotet has out-played Commander Stefan Weinert, he’s about to be sent to his fate when he objects that the officer can still win and turns the board around, recovering domination of the game with the Colonel’s pieces.

Impressed Weinert tells Hoffman to bring him back the next day shaven (clean up with the fire hose) and Sauras begins coaching the German. Classical music devotee and wine collector Weinert shows no interest in progressing his opponent’s claims of innocence. This is the twist. The two do not develop mutual respect. However when the skies fill with allied bombers (cf. Jonathan Teplitzky’s The Railway Man, where the effects work was better) the true nature of the situation is revealed - something we haven’t seen in a movie before.

There’s an enigmatic coda with Matthews and the couple’s daughter which is similarly effective. 

It’s the director’s second film. The strong-featured cast are new to us though they all have extensive credits. The film’s look is also unfamiliar studio realist with great attention to period, which props up the plot’s artificiality.  Some of the shooting appears to have been Hungarian.

Abracadabra
Hopes however centred on Abracadabra, the new film from the Blancanieves team of director Pablo Berger and star, the always impressive Maribel Verdú. Who else manages to turn an overbite into a fashion statement? It’s an effort to recognise her chic corporate trouble shooter from La punta del icebergs  as this film’s Madrid housewife in glitter pants and dangly ear rings.

Here her insensitive husband Antonio de la Torre (the lead in Alex de Iglesia's Balada triste de trompeta/The Last Circus) is more interested in the TV soccer match than the wedding she is getting herself up glamorous for. He disrupts the ceremony by calling out “Nooo!” at the wrong moment
when he hears the other team get a goal on his headphones. On the church steps, the priest asks about the score.

So far so good but things get confused when her cousin attempts to hypnotize de la Torre at the reception and he gets possessed by a ghost of a homicidal waiter. Maribel and the cousin hire in an exorcist and we get an elaborate and unconvincing exposition leading to a so-so ending.

The actual Abracadabra sequence is a great set piece in itself and in the context of the film, but it’s not enough to carry the whole production. Money has been spent on this one but it’s undisciplined and uninvolving.

I didn’t take in the new Penelope Cruz and Xavier Camara movies and it’s always possible that the pieces I missed were brilliant but a combination of time pressure, a few disappointments and  cost made me more selective than I like. 

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