Best of Spanish Cinema Ranges From Terror Plots to Barcelona Teen Angst
For two decades the American Cinematheque's annual distillation of Spain's finest new films has been a highlight for local movie lovers, and the five available for preview this year all are outstanding.
Two sisters -- played by María León and Inma Cuesta, both superb -- hold the center of Benito Zambrano's La Voz Dormida (The Sleeping Voice), set in the first years of Franco's fascist dictatorship. Cuesta is fiercely defiant of the regime, but in prison and pregnant. León is just as fiercely apolitical but passionate in her quest to save Cuesta's life and baby. The Nazi-like brutality of Franco's regime and its toxic psychological partnership with the Catholic Church are also dramatized, but what one takes away are the flashing eyes of León, who, not surprisingly, won a Goya, the Spanish Oscar, for her performance.
Arrugas (Wrinkles) is an animated feature about Emilio (voiced by Tacho Gonzáles), who descends into dementia and -- if this were not torment enough -- rooms in a nursing home with Miguel (Álvaro Guevara), an elderly charmer who is also a shameless thief. Writer-director Ignacio Ferreras -- adapting a graphic novel by Paco Roca -- creates an atmosphere of complete honesty about the plight of the elderly, yet tenderness also comes through, in part because the film is animated, rendered in a spare, realistic style comparable to that of American cartoonist Daniel Clowes. Live actors would not have been this fragile, this thanklessly (and movingly) mortal.
Los Niños Salvajes translates as "The Wild Ones," but the more hopeful word salvage also operates as director Patricia Ferreira depicts three angry, energetic Barcelona teenagers who lightheartedly flirt with violence and court disaster. A rage of displacement drives the most outrageous and creative of the trio (Àlex Monner). By contrast, his girlfriend (Marina Comas) radiates a deceptive calm. Bullied and spoiled by her parents, she loves both Alex and his best friend, Gabi (Albert Baró), yet perpetrates a crime that leaves the shocked adults in authority (teachers, police) at a loss to understand.
In Unit 7, director Alberto Rodríguez evokes the city of Seville during its preparations for the 1992 World's Fair. The cops who drive the story press an aggressive, transgressive mandate. Like Jerusalem, Rome and Venice, Seville has more than 2,000 years of culture visible in its mazelike rooftops and narrow alleys. Crime has too deep a tradition to be uprooted before the outside world comes to visit, unless the cops (Antonio de la Torre and Mario Casas) can prove themselves harder, meaner and more lawless gangsters than the criminals they're sworn to defeat.
In Enrique Urbizu's similarly themed No Rest for the Wicked, José Coronado is a cop who's unjustly disgraced before -- drunkenly -- stumbling into a lethal drug deal at 4 in the morning. The only way to save his own life is to shoot his way out. That done, the only way to save his self-respect is to cover his tracks, gather the IDs of his attackers and get to the bottom of what he stumbled into -- an international terror plot that's a nod to "3/11," the Madrid bombings of March 11, 2004. What adds to the film's power for an American viewer is Urbizu's healthy and very Spanish refusal to make his hero "likable." (This is also a virtue of the cops in Unit 7.)
There are rarely good or evil people in Spanish drama, only good and evil acts, although evil tends to have the upper hand with its demonic energy and power to inspire fear. Thus when goodness prevails in an individual character, it's more movingly heroic.
Recent Spanish Cinema XVIII is at American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd., Oct. 11-14, americancinemathequecalendar.comFollow us on Twitter at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.