Luckily Spain has its own busy film industry making films good enough to compete with the rest. So, as the old adage goes, if you can’t dub them, watch something else. Here’s what Spanish cinemas have come up with in the last few months...
Despite it’s title – a misspelling of beautiful – this film avoids all sentimentality and resists beautifying poverty. Peeling back the glossy Barcelona a lot of us already know, director and co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel) introduces us to a patchwork of illegal migrant workers, corrupt policemen, and family breakdowns.
Uxbal (played by a Goya-winning, Oscar-nominated Javier Bardem) is the man living (on and off) with his children who he often can’t abide and with a wife who it;s difficult to love. Making money where he can, (and because a cosmopolitan city also means a city of marginalized immigrants) through him we meet Barcelona’s street vendors, drug-traffickers and sweatshop workers.
And although the family drama is powerful – thanks to some amazing and understated performances from Bardem, Maricel Álvarez as his wife, and Guillermo Estrella and Eduard Fernández as his children – the scenes that stick are the ones showing the two sides of the same city colliding: police chasing illegal immigrants through the busy touristic centre; the bodies of sweatshop workers washed up on the city’s palm-lined beach.
And when Gaudi’s monumental architecture does make an inevitable appearance, Iñárritu chooses his absurdly massive cathedral, El Templo de la Sagrada Familia, which looms over the city like a skeleton.
Biutiful is showing this month in the UK (both in independent cinemas and Vue). It might be hard to find, but it’s worth the search.
También La Lluvia (Even the Rain)
In 2000, while screenwriter Paul Laverty (Looking For Eric) was sketching out the idea for a film about Christopher Columbus and his conquering of the Americas, the Bolivian city of Cochabamba was the scene of another invasion, and where the water infrastructure was being sold off to foreign investors, the people were amassing and protesting in what became known as the Water Wars. Seeing strong parallels between the exploitation then (of natives by a foreign kingdom) and the exploitation now (of Bolivians by a foreign multi-national) he began to write También la Lluvia.
The parallels are drawn in such an inventive way. Instead of flicking between the past and present and then asking the audience to draw the obvious comparisons, Laverty brings the 15th century voyages into the present in the shape of a film crew (headed by Gael García Bernal and Luis Tosar, who both give good performances) who are in Bolivia making a film about Columbus when the clashes over water begin, and the two become intensely interwoven. An unrelenting thriller from the start, fact and fiction mix, but rather than simply confuse, the film-within-a-film layering makes us question even the motives for a foreign crew travelling abroad to make a film – brave, considering the filmmakers’ own position.
Chico & Rita
Also really worth a rummage around for is this animated gem, set in 1960s Cuba. A modern day fairytale, the story is simple in that it follows two star-crossed lovers – pianist Chico and singer Rita – brought together and torn apart again by their own success. But this simplicity makes room for Bebo Valdés’ music – which appears less as interludes and more as scenes integral to the film itself – and the animation – which is highly stylized and hypnotic. With the whole thing framed by flashes forward to present day Havana, where an ageing Chico is reminiscing over his time with Rita all those decades ago, it’s a slick production which, despite having been produced in four different countries, retains something of a small-studio feel. An amazing achievement.
Although you won’t need to put on a pair of unflattering black specs in as you enter the cinema, Chico & Rita is probably the most 3D animation in cinemas at the moment (Tangled, Gnomeo and Juliet, and Rango all considered). VUE and ODEON probably won’t give it a second look, but it’ll be in smaller picture houses – go and see it.
Pa Negre (Black Bread)
One film that probably won’t even be getting a showing outside of Spain is this Catalan film which stromed the Goyas (Spain’s Oscars) last month. Set in post-Civil War Spain, Pa Negre follows Andreu, a boy growing up on the war’s defeated side. As he tries to prove his father’s innocence of a brutal murder (in a spectacular opening set-piece) the film stops becoming merely a domestic-set coming-of-age drama and unfolds allegorically (like Michael Haneke’s White Ribbon) to become a portrait of a country moving from post-war ruin into dictatorial shackles.