The diversity and perversity that have become the hallmarks of post-Franco cinema are still much in evidence in this year’s Spanish program at the Walter Reade. Despite a number of disappointing selections (worst offender: Laura Mañá’s Compassionate Sex, an unfunny comedy of rare terribleness), it’s clearer than ever with this installment that Spanish filmmaking is distinguished by a pool of some of the liveliest and most attractive acting talents of European cinema.
The series dedicates a five-film sidebar to Javier Bardem, who’s creating a splash for his memorable performance as Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas in Julian Schnabel’s otherwise undistinguished Before Night Falls. The new Bardem could just be Miguel Angel Sola, the magnificent Argentinean actor who stars in two of the most striking selections, Imanol Uribe’s Plenilunio (2000) and Patricia Ferreira’s I Know Who You Are (1999). Sola’s no hunk—a bit Clint Eastwood-ian and approaching middle age, he’s tight-jawed and steely-gazed, but enough of a chameleon so that he’s as different as chalk from cheese in the two flicks. Uribe, the pivotal figure in the Basque film industry, is a director of great skill and discretion. His latest work, a riveting psychological thriller set in a provincial town, features Sola as a police inspector with a troubled past who is sent out to put the screws on a young serial killer. In I Know Who You Are, Sola is a charming lunatic, an ex-terrorist amnesiac patient in a remote clinic in Galicia, who (shades of Spellbound!) is taken on the lam by the beautiful shrink who has fallen in love with him.
A subject common to a number of films in the series—dealt with only sporadically by Spanish cinema in the past—is ETA, the Basque Liberation Front separatist group. ETA figures in the subplot of Plenilunio; in Uribe’s Numbered Days (1984), Bardem plays an ETA operative on a bombing mission in Madrid; in Helena Taberna’s Yoyes (1999), a work of fiction based on true events, Ana Torrent (child star icon of Spanish art cinema thanks to Victor Erice’s 1973 The Spirit of the Beehive) portrays the first woman leader of ETA’s military wing. Sad to say, although the source material in Taberna’s first film is fascinating, her account of the life and sorry death of Basque freedom fighter Dolores Gonzalez is a jumble of incoherently sequenced flashbacks and pretentious imagery. Torrent delivers a sensibly low-key perf as the exiled zealot, but the character as written is too irritatingly self-righteous to engage much sympathy.
The most immediately appealing offering, Cesc Gay’s first solo-directed flick, Nico and Dani (2000), is a coming-of-age story about two 17-year-old pals who are spending the summer together at a beach house near Barcelona, united in their eagerness to lose their virginity. They relieve tensions with mutual hand jobs, then start dating girls—Nico enthusiastically, Dani perfunctorily, since he’s clearly in love with his buddy. There’s a happy end—sort of—as the guys face up to their different sexual orientations while trying to remain friends. While Gay’s treatment of teen male sexuality is sensitive and respectful and he beautifully manages its special ambience, the film’s triumph lies in its casting. Handsome young film vet Fernando Ramallo is excellent as Dani; circus acrobat Jordi Vilches, a gangly, wide-eyed joli laid, making his screen debut as Nico, is merely irresistible.