Review: ‘We the Undersigned’

With the valiant but unfocused "We the Undersigned," director Joaquin Oristrell again scrutinizes the theater's usual range of vanities, jealousies and petty rivalries. This time, though, pic has a second, more challenging center of attention -- the actors' reaction to the war in Iraq.

With the valiant but unfocused “We the Undersigned,” director Joaquin Oristrell (“Shameless”) again scrutinizes the theater’s usual range of vanities, jealousies and petty rivalries. This time, though, pic has a second, more challenging center of attention — the actors’ reaction to the war in Iraq. Conceived, rehearsed, shot and edited inside three months, the film is largely redeemed by the quality of its thesps, though its multiple local references equip the pic more for politically inclined Spanish auds, with offshore chances limited to fest sidebars.

When the actor and director of a provincial production of Lorca’s “Untitled Comedy” die unexpectedly, Mario (Javier Camera) takes over as director and pretty-boy kidtube star Jorge (Juan Diego Botto) comes in as leading man, bringing with him confidence and a political attitude that make Mario most unhappy. The other members of the team are middle-aged drinker Carmen (Elvira Minguez) and insecure Laura (Maria Botto).

Believing that theater can have a social function, Jorge wants to read out an anti-war message from the stage, which was pretty much what happened on Spanish public TV at the Goya Awards in 2002. This splits the other actors. Pic then charts the ill-tempered preparations for the first night, at which 40 cheering school kids turn up to cheer their TV hero.

At the second perf, Carmen, with borderline risible pomposity, reads out an anti-war manifesto. This leads to violence by local thugs and a phone call from their producer, who wants to pull a forthcoming Madrid production.

Well-intentioned film is supposed to be examining the potential of theater to create political change and the artistic censorship provoked by the war. But it says little that hasn’t been said before, and says it in an unstructured, unconvincing way.

Still, the cast includes some of the finest Spanish cinema has to offer, and amid all the screaming, shouting and soul-searching they bring some necessary self-mockery to the egotism of their characters and generate a couple of potent scenes. Attempts to round out the storyline with other plots — particularly the arrival of Laura’s father at the theater — don’t work so well. Lensing is documentary-style handheld video.

We the Undersigned

Spain

Production

An Alta Films release of a Centro De Nuevos Creadores, Garbo Producciones, Cantinela production. (International sales: Alta Films, Madrid.) Produced by Joaquin Oristrell, Cristina Rota. Directed by Joaquin Oristrell. Screenplay, Oristrell, Maria Botto, Javier Camara, Juan Diego Botto, Elvira Minguez.

Crew

Camera (color, DV-to-35mm), Mischa Lluch; editor, Miguel Angel Santamaria; music, Nacho Mastretta; art director, Soledad Sesena; sound (Dolby SRD), Alvaro Lopez. Reviewed at Cine Princesa, Madrid, Sept. 15, 2003. (In San Sebastian Film Festival -- Open Zone.) Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Javier Camara, Juan Diego Botto, Elvira Minguez, Maria Botto.
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