Fall harvest of films cop an angry attitude

Spanish pics offer 'less sex, more strife'

MADRID — At the beginning of Enrique Urbizu’s just-released “La caja 507,” Modesto Pardo is a mild-mannered, balding bank manager who keeps his nose clean on Andalusia’s Costa del Crime. One hour into the film, Modesto has discovered the forest fire that killed his daughter was arson. And he’s pursuing a one-man vendetta on the region’s ex-chief of police, bent big business, a media mogul and the Italian Mafia.

Bowing Aug. 23, “Caja” has obviously touched a local nerve, grossing $349,393 on just 68 prints. Urbizu says he’s “pissed” by contemporary Spain, and he’s not the only director who feels that way.

Post-Franco Spanish cinema is best known abroad for its celebration of sexual desire. Think Almodovar or Bigas Luna. But its latest crop of pics suggests it’s gaining in social attitude.

For example, Fernando Leon’s “Los lunes al sol” mixes Javier Bardem with Leon’s Ken Loach-ish love of the quirks, lilts and hangdog humor of the put-upon working class.

Screening at Toronto and Venice, Chus Gutierrez’s “Poniente” follows a schoolteacher who goes back to her native South. Doing so, it aligns three immigrant generations: sixtysomethings who left a near third-world Spain to work abroad; Spain’s new middle class, returning to its parents’ villages; and the current massive influx of illegal, unskilled labor from North Africa. The result is a kind of modern Western, set on Spain’s new frontier.

Now in post, David Trueba’s “The Salamina Soldiers” returns to the appalling executions of the Spanish Civil War.

Both Gerardo Vera (“La Celestina”) and Salvador Garcia Ruiz (“El otro barrio”) are making romantic dramas — “Deseo” and “Las voces de la noche,” respectively — set in Spain’s glum and repressive post-Civil War period.

Producer Francisco Ramos at Alquimia Cinema made his mark with entertainment-driven genre pics. But he’s now co-producing Argentinian Marcelo Pinyero’s “Kamchatka,” about a family on the run from the Argentine military.

In the 1980s, Spanish auds largely turned their backs on social films. They now may be experiencing a certain change of heart. “When we previewed ‘La caja 507,’ we were concerned that spectators would think the film was too close to reality. But it was one of the factors they valued most,” says its producer, Sogecine’s Gustavo Ferrada.

The bottom line could be that Spain is suffering a crisis of confidence. After Franco’s dictatorship, most Spaniards thought things could only get better. Which, broadly, they did. Now many think they could get worse. Economic growth has leveled; unemployment has edged up; and irking Spain’s intelligentsia, the government insists “Spain is going well.”

Social cinema” is, of course, a catch-all phrase. Having made a Mars-set thriller, “Stranded,” femme helmer Luna is prepping a second English-lingo pic, “Whore,” turning on the sex business. The pics may look different, but both forefront psychology, she insists; “Whore” explores why people sell their bodies.

Emilio Martinez Lazaro’s musical “The Wrong Side of the Bed” — this year’s biggest local hit, with $7.5 million and still counting — could hardly be called a social pic. It focuses, rather, on the momentous joy and permanent dissatisfaction of sexual infidelity. Yet a part of its success could be chalked up to Spain’s growing malaise. Some of its songs come from Spain’s ’80s movida music, a punkish reaction to the death of Franco. “That may increase the film’s appeal for older spectators,” says “Wrong Side” producer Tomas Cimadevilla at Telespan 2000.

For a country with such a ghastly past, Spain may finally be experiencing another first: a rise in retro.

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