The 30 features in this annual series of recent Spanish film are a varied lot, but together they suggest that politics and melodrama remain the lifeblood of that nation’s cinema. Accomplished thrillers and mysteries like the opening-night selection, Intacto (to be reviewed when its commercial run begins next week), are abundant, but the strongest scripts explore the intersection of personal memory and the country’s turbulent past.
Such is the case with The City Without Limits, a haunting drama directed by Antonio Hernández, who co-wrote the screenplay with Enrique Brasó. Set in present-day Paris, it stars veteran actor Fernando Fernán Gómez as Max, a former titan of Spanish industry who lies dying in the hospital, as assorted family members (including a glacial Geraldine Chaplin as his wife) gather around him. Half delirious, Max rants on about the plot against Rancel, someone he seems to have known years ago; his youngest son, Victor (Leonardo Sbaraglia), newly arrived from Argentina, is the only one to take him seriously. The film’s strength lies in the surprises it offers as the enigma unravels.
Stars with international wattage have been one of Spanish cinema’s major exports. The lovely Leonor Watling (who languished in a coma for Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her) is the latest candidate for Pénelope Cruz-dom; here she leads opposite Sbaraglia in Beyond Desire, a melodrama directed by Gerardo Vera that takes place in Madrid at the close of World War II. Watling plays Elvira, whose activist husband and father (a doctor) were, respectively, imprisoned and executed by Franco. She’s thrilled to find work as a housekeeper to Pablo (Sbaraglia again), a wealthy young Argentinean, in order to help support her Communist sister and her mother (Rosa María Sardà), who hasn’t spoken since the tragedy. But Pablo’s growing love for her combined with his shady dealings with German officials soon complicates matters irrevocably. The subterranean channels by which Spain supported the Axis powers form an interesting subplot to a handsome but over-the-top political romance, which is nevertheless imbued with tenderness by its two stars.
A fatal attraction also lies at the heart of Sola Mia, first-time director Javier Balaguer’s harrowing and (in Spain at least) controversial account of a marriage soured by one partner’s violence. Joaquín (Sergi López) and Angela (Paz Vega) are a typical yuppie couple—at least until his fists start flying at her. López’s courageous performance effectively captures a man whose habitual charm suddenly collapses in unexamined fits of rage. The film is marred by a tacky coda worthy of a telenovela, but its rhythms of abuse and reconciliation have a visceral reality.
Javier Corcuera’s documentary Memories of Guerrilla Warfare (unavailable for screening) concerns the maqi who continued waging war against Franco long after the demise of the Spanish republic. Centuries earlier, another idealistic Spanish warrior rides off to battle in director Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón’s Don Quixote, Knight Errant. In this stolid adaptation of Cervantes’s second volume (written a decade after the first, in 1615), the Don (Juan Luis Galiardo), setting out to fight the Turkish fleet alongside his faithful squire, Sancho (Carlos Iglesias), finds that his fame has preceded him, and uncovers a host of puerile imitators. Though the story has a playful, postmodern sensibility, Aragón’s plodding presentation feels unsatisfyingly episodic.
Speaking of postmodern, contemporary Spain’s wackiest auteur, Alex de la Iglesia, is the subject of a six-film mini-retrospective. A melancholy thread runs through these comic-book-inspired, slapstick allegories of man’s fallen condition. In the hilarious and violent Day of the Beast (1995), a humble priest explores Madrid’s dark underbelly in search of the Antichrist. In the latest, 800 Bullets, Carmen Maura plays a hard-bitten Madrid real estate developer whose young son (Luis Castro), tipped off by his shady grandmother (the marvelous Terele Pávez), leaves home in search of the grandfather he’s never met, a former stuntman for American westerns filmed in Spain. Grandpa (the great western star Sancho Gracia) now leads a group of flea-bitten actors in performances for the rare Japanese tourists who pass through Texas-Hollywood, a rundown stage set on the dusty plains of Almería, left over from the glory days when he wore Clint Eastwood’s poncho.