Uncivil Wars

Spanish prisoners: Castile magnolia, unhappy couples, and the region most likely to secede

Never mind the requisite red-states-versus-blue-states opening sentence—Spain's truly a house divided against itself. At least that's the picture that emerges from this year's Spanish Cinema Now series, where long-simmering rivalries, racial tension, and gender disparity play out both literally and metaphorically. The bloodiest of these conflicts, Basque nationalism, polarizes Spaniards and often defies reasoned analysis. But in the meticulously crafted documentary The Basque Ball, director Julio Medem (Lovers of the Arctic Circle, Sex and Lucía) eschews easy black-or-white thinking and maps previously uncharted gray areas. He inserts footage of the titular game—known stateside as jai alai, reputedly the world's fastest sport—to bounce back and forth between talking heads, lending the doc an unusually kinetic visual style. Still, Medem doesn't find much common ground. About the only thing most interviewees agree on is the government's fondness for the war on terrorism as an excuse for abusing civil rights and repressing dissent. No wonder Bush's name is invoked almost as often—and in similarly contemptuous tones—as Franco's.

In The 7th Day, an ancient land dispute fuels a deadly family feud that makes the Hatfields and the McCoys look like kindergartners at nap time. A young woman, abandoned by the studly scion of the rival clan, goes nuts, triggering decades of vendetta that have corroded the soul of a rustic town. A generation later, a teenage girl dreams of running away with the handsome village drug dealer, but there's no escaping the wrath of the crazy old jilted bride (Victoria Abril, in an almost silent role of horrific intensity). Veteran filmmaker Carlos Saura is back in top form, drawing from actual events a classic Lorca-esque tragedy with an operatic sweep, filled with breathtaking imagery down to its shocking conclusion. Visual leitmotif: electric fans. Another violent feud, this time over a stray cow, brings death and ruin to a remote valley in Your Next Life. Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón beautifully evokes the insular traditions of the Pasiegos, peasants who have lived in undisturbed isolation for centuries, now threatened by encroaching modernity. He also elicits memorable performances from The 7th Day's Juan Diego as a paranoid patriarch, Marta Etura as his long-suffering daughter, Luis Tosar as the mysterious brooding hunk (MBH) who longs to take her away—and Vanessa, a mambo-loving cow who can milk herself.

Modern life also threatens the Andalusian fishing village of Tuna and Chocolate: The former used to be the local industry; now it's the latter (hashish) and illegal immigrants from Morocco. Pablo Carbonell wrote, directed, and stars in this sunny comedy with dark undertones. Even the comedies are ominous this year, but nowhere near as somber as the dramas. Take My Eyes. Please. Icíar Bollaín's blistering take on domestic violence follows Pilar (the impressive Laia Marull) as she alternately leaves and rejoins her volatile husband, Antonio (MBH du jour Tosar), in a fatal vicious circle. To Bollaín and Tosar's credit, Antonio isn't an entirely unsympathetic character; his magnetic pull makes her return(s) inevitable and all the more plausible. Bonus: As a museum guide, Pilar describes Titians and El Grecos, illustrating her character's emotions.

Marriages elsewhere are comparably doomed. Best friends stab each other's backs for a shot at each other's jobs and spouses in The Archimedes Principle. Visual leitmotif: oranges—halved, squeezed, and discarded. In the Costa Brava beach resort of Summer Clouds, the usual friction between Catalan-speaking townies and Castilian Spanish-speaking vacationersis upstaged by two locals' Dangerous Liaisons–style scheme to split a married couple. In both films, Roberto Enríquez plays the put-upon husband.

Proof that unhappy families are all different, Héctor's preternaturally wise 16-year-old protag moves into his aunt's Madrid flat when his mom dies, confronts his absent father, and teaches everyone valuable life lessons. Sensitively directed, with no weak link in the cast, this not-quite coming-of-age story is almost too charming for its own good. Resistance is futile.

A sidebar retrospective of actor-director Fernando Fernán-Gómez ranges from his '50s and '60s classics to more recent Oscar bait such as Belle Époque and The Grandfather. More nostalgia kicks come from a new remake of the Franco-era Hotel Danubio, a Hitchcockian thriller about a frustrated writer and his chorus-girl mistress, who thinks she's falling in love with his mysterious son. Based on a '50s potboiler called Red Fish, this suspenseful noir boasts plenty of the herring variety.

 
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