American movies may consider work a four-letter word, but their European counterparts are somewhat less allergic, whether in depicting the real-time minutiae of labor or the psychic and economic consequences of its absence. Unemployment occasions a double life in Time Out, existential terror in Rosetta, and manhood-reclaiming bump and grind in The Full Monty. Inspired by the retrenchment of hundreds of shipyard employees in the northern Spanish port town of Vigo, Fernando León de Aranoa’s Mondays in the Sun (which edged out Almodóvar’s Talk to Her as the country’s Oscar rep this year, and also cleaned up at the Goya awards) gives the subject a temperate treatment, more sorrowful than angry, emphasizing its characters’ laconic camaraderie as much as their emasculated frustration.
The movie flits among a group of laid-off dockworkers; the ringleader, by sheer force of personality, is sad-eyed, short-tempered Santa (a bearded, paunched Javier Bardem), the most articulate about his plight—which is to say, the plight of the working class in a globalized, post-industrial world—but also the most paralyzed by rage, clinging to the few tiny shows of defiance still within his power. (He refuses to pay the fine for the streetlight he smashed during a labor protest, and is subjected to a series of ever more demeaning hearings.) Lino (José Ángel Egido), who keeps a tight lid on the despair that mounts with each fruitless job interview, takes to dyeing his hair in the hopes of a callback. Meanwhile, fretful José (Luis Tosar) reluctantly cedes the role of breadwinner to his wife, Ana (Nieve de Medina), who ends her exhausting shifts at a fish cannery with arduous deodorizing rituals. A couple of the trio’s friends have fared better—one is a security guard for the local football club (he offers the gang highly restricted-view rooftop seats); another used his severance to open a bar, though his only patrons seem to be his tab-happy ex-colleagues. On the other hand, there’s old, drunk, lonely Amador (Celso Bugallo), who represents a future that looms all too plausibly.
The visual style is deliberately flat and the dialogue a little prone to speechifying. Perhaps too toothless for its subject, the film stops short of indulging the art-house love for ennobling prole porn, thanks not least to Bardem, who bestows on every one of his scenes a center of gravity and a flicker of unpredictability. (Like the dreamers of Happy Together, Santa nurses an antipodean fantasy; gazing at the water stain on his ceiling, he sees a map of Australia: “the opposite of here.”) The film’s title sums up the state of involuntary idleness that afflicts these men, whose days have long merged into a blur of cumbersome inactivity. It’s forgivable, and even appropriate, that Mondays itself suffers from a certain lack of definition—a drifting, repetitive dead-endedness that, at the inconclusive finale, shows no signs of abating.