The 12th annual “Spanish Cinema Now” series confirms once again what earlier installments had already established: Spanish cinema still can’t get over the civil war. This is not to minimize the enormity of the 1936-39 conflict, which left 1 million dead and led to Franco’s 36-year fascist regime. But why must filmmakers keep inflicting it upon moviegoers year after year?
At least a third of the current series is devoted to war- or dictatorship-themed programs, including an evening of war-era newsreels and propaganda shorts from both sides of the conflict, unavailable for preview. A more recent entry, the 2002 documentary La Casita Blanca—The Hidden City, recalls the history of Barcelona’s brothels and their role in the Catalonian resistance. Archival footage and gossipy interviews aside, the film strays early and often, opening with irrelevant newsreel reports of Eva Perón’s 1947 visit to Barcelona, stalling with a cheesy re-creation, and belaboring accusations against such well-known Franco collaborationists as the Vatican, the Eisenhower administration, and the former International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch, called here a playboy and an opportunist.
Elsewhere in the civil war sweepstakes, The Carpenter’s Pencil stars Sex and Lucía‘s Tristán Ulloa as a lefty doctor in love with the daughter of a well-connected Franquista. When Ulloa’s rabble-rousing lands him in jail, his fiancée (María Adánez) tries everything to get him out, while her dad (Manuel Manquiña) pulls every string to keep him there. Meantime, the decaffeinated army corporal Herbal (Luis Tosar), who’s obsessed with the couple, pulls strings of his own. Based on Manuel Rivas’s bestselling novel, Pencil occasionally smudges the line between romance and melodrama; first-time director Anton Reixa’s previous singing career may explain the bizarre jailhouse production number that briefly threatens to turn the film into “Shawshank! The Musical.”
Features set in post-Franco Spain, on the other hand, observe an unmoored society ill at ease with itself. In Nobody’s Life, 40-year-old Emilio (José Coronado) appears to have it all: beautiful wife, adorable son, huge house in the Madrid suburbs, and a high-profile job at the Bank of Spain—not. In fact, he spends his days in the park, fielding cell phone calls from friends and relatives whose investments he’s embezzled. But his secrets begin to unravel when he pursues an affair with the babysitter. Coronado affects a Dirk Bogarde-esque expression of barely repressed torment, but director Eduard Cortés lets the cat out of the bag too early, and the suspense-free resolution hardly rises above Lifetime movie level.
Conversely, The Hours of the Day succeeds by not revealing too much. In Jaime Rosales’s chilling study on the banality of evil, a reticent shopkeeper’s numb, alienated life unfolds in long scenes of mundane conversations and uncomfortable silences. Suddenly he explodes in a violent outburst of unprovoked anger. Creepier still, he then recedes just as swiftly back into his quiet shell. Alex Brendemühl’s cipher-like performance creates as jarring an effect as Rosales’s spare style and deliberate pacing.
Brendemühl reappears in the ensemble drama In the City, as a music teacher having an affair with a jailbait student who happens to be his best friend’s niece. The film follows a circle of friends, spouses, and lovers as they lie, cheat, and compromise, realizing, as Nina Simone sings, that they’d “rather be lonely than happy with someone else.” As in 2001’s Nico and Dani, director Cesc Gay overcomes a thin script (again co-written with Tomás Aragay) to draw nuanced, naturalistic performances from his cast, with a breakout turn by María Pujalte as a lovelorn compulsive liar.
In the spirit of such vacuous Oscar-bait as Belle Époque comes South From Granada, the salted-codfish-out-of-water story of Bloomsbury groupie Gerald Breen (Matthew Goode), who wanders into a dismal village, a land of reusable coffins and droit du seigneur, and finds love and local color—those wacky Andalusians! A brief visit from Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington brings a Merchant Ivory sheen to the proceedings, but this harmless period rom-com goes South from there.