Sitges showcases edgy Catalan pix

Area's tradition is auteur-made, modestly budgeted pix

MADRID — Spain boasts an A team: Almodovar and Amenabar. What — or who — lies beyond? One less obvious answer would be Catalonia, Spain’s richest major region. Its largely Barcelona-based producers made 31 films in 2003.

Outside Europe’s big five countries, only Holland regularly matches these production levels. Catalonia’s profile is rising. Its film/TV subsidy board, the Catalan Institute of Cultural Industries (ICIC), will hike its budget 30% in 2005.

Opening Dec. 2, the Sitges Intl. Film Festival of Catalonia is screening its biggest showcase of Catalan films ever, Audiovisual Catala, backed by a new Sales Office video library.

Many of the Catalonian titles tap the area’s central filmmaking tradition: auteur-made, modestly budgeted films turning on the lack of emotional empowerment in a stifling, consumerist, modern Barcelona society.

Set in a plush 1913 Barcelona, Joaquin Oristrell’s Sundance-selected “Unconscious” has a running joke: Its protagonists worship Freud but repress or ignore their emotions. Fretting at her stale marriage in “Living and Dreaming,” Carmen Maura seeks amour in Paris. And in Cesc Gay’s “In the City,” middle-class professionals have everything they could ever want, save romantic fulfillment.

Such modest, affecting stories about people chafing for emotional satisfaction is closer to the French tradition of Manuel Poirier (“Women and Children First”) and Cedric Klapisch (“When the Cat’s Away”) then Almodovar and company.

Like the French, many Catalans cleave to the idea of the director as an artist, however extravagant, damned, or visionary. On show at Sitges, docu “Hermanos Oligor” turns on two brothers who literally go underground — in a cellar — for three years to make puppets. “Ivan Z” records the daily life of avant-garde legend and heroin addict, Ivan Zulueta, who’s made two films in 25 years. In mockumentary “Los Caprichos de Goya,” director Juan Carlos Garay suggests Goya’s sketches were conceived as a movie storyboard. Goya died in 1828.

Catalonia’s challenge now is to turn high art into equally strong B.O. The recent surge in horror production has helped this quest. Sitges’ competish features three Catalan chillers: Brad Anderson’s Filmax-financed “The Machinist,” Eugenio Mira’s “The Birthday” and Guillem Morales’ “An Uncertain Guest.”

Pioneered by Filmax, horror films have created the first business model in modern Catalan pic production, proving it’s possible to maintain creative integrity and make money too.

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