Movie radicals take back the cinema

Avant-garde resurfaces as auteurs and edgy pix find acceptance

BARCELONA — At one moment in Albert Serra’s “Honor de cavalleria,” Don Quixote is whisked away on horseback by shadowy night-time visitors. This is the most dramatic moment in the whole film. In fact, it’s nearly the only dramatic moment in a film whose minimalism and natural lighting — characters remain dark silhouettes, dim shapes — makes Dogma look like Jerry Bruckheimer.

Yet, “Honor” was a critics’ darling at Cannes. It’s merely one of the vibrant brace of films — Isaki Lacuesta’s “La leyenda del tiempo,” “The Encirclement,” “The Taxi Thief,” “The Chair,” “August Days” and, the most mainstream of all, “Remake” — which suggests radical auteur cinema is alive and well in Spain, and has taken up residence in Catalonia.

But Catalonia’s also rich in docus, leads Spain’s genre production and boasts fine arthouse auteurs and pioneering animation. This mix endows the region with something like a film democracy.

Why the radical film revival?

Like the Parisian bourgeoisie, Barcelona’s enlightened middle class has always patronized avant-garde art. A young Picasso painted there. Architect Gaudi designed undulating facades for industrialists’ townhouses. Cutting-edge films have a market logic.

“The rest of Spain only really accepts Catalan theater,” says vet auteur Ventura Pons. “The cinema’s had to make a virtue out of limited home-market financing.”

Radical cinema in Catalonia “is like Spain’s Guadiana River. It’s always resurfacing,” says Pere Roca, director of Catalonia’s Center for Au-diovisual Development.

Its latest resurgence taps a gathering critical mass of directors and producers, often lecturers or even students — such as Mercedes Alvarez (“The Sky Turns”) — from Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra U.

Production isn’t easy. “You just about get your money back after three years,” says Eddie Saeta exec Lluis Minarro.

“Exhibition outlets are limited,” says Benece’s Xavier Atance. Production house Zip had to distribute “Taxi Thief” itself, and producers often have other business. Zip twins feature and TV movie production.

“TV movies give you financial stability,” says Jordi Rediu. Eddie Saeta also makes commercials. Benece’s pics share overheads with its TV tykes production, says Atence.

But offbeat films find ready, if numbered, devotees, often twentysomethings — a rare-ish case of Spanish films connecting with young adult auds: Marc Recha’s “Where Is Madame Catherine?” grossed $178,000.

Catalonia’s TVC, Spain’s most forward-thinking state broadcaster, backs niche pics.

Its liberal ICIC film board has launched an Auteur Cinema fund specifically for “innovative” films, capping incentives at $148,800 per pic. What’s more, the films — and this is always exciting for film buffs — suggest a film movement, lodged in Catalan cultural sensibilities.

Emulating Victor Erice, a seminal figure in local film, they practice a “cinema of resistance,” combining social critique, documentary and fiction, resisting film’s degeneration into mass consumer product. Such ideas are appreciated at festivals.

Get a life, say many of these films. In “Cavalleria,” Don Quixote and Sancho are supposed to be on a mission, saving fair maidens, etc. Instead they meander hither and thither, enjoying the scenary.

Recha’s pointedly indolent, exquisitely framed rural road movie “August Days,” seen at Locarno and Toronto, suddenly fixates on an olive branch, or the countryside’s contours, or ambles around a reservoir of weird natural beauty, a short hop from a power plant.

In Jo Sol’s mockumentary “Taxi Thief,” a San Sebastian hit last year, a work-proud taxi driver is taken in by antiglobal, antiwork squatters. He learns work isn’t everything.

A man spies a chair in a bric-a-brac shop in the absurdist “The Chair,” also at Locarno. He finally feels an authentic passion for something. It proves his undoing.

The radical revival isn’t flagging. Eddie Saeta is in post on “Sylvia,” by Jose Luis Guerin. Zip will produce Sol’s next, “Buddha at the Barricades.”

Only a state that cares for avant-garde culture, and a near-cottage industry that wants to distance itself from Madrid and work for “personal, not monetary enrichment,” as Minarro puts it, could yield such productions.

But Catalonia sports a clutch of arthouse/crossover auteurs: “Celia’s Lives,” from social chronicler Antonio Chavarrias, was a San Sebastian competish player; “La vida abismal,” a poker-playing thriller from Pons, a Berlin fixture, is in post; “Fiction” from Cesc Gay, another social ironist, played at Toronto. The underrated Eduard Cortes (“Nobody’s Life”) has finished filming on ethical drama “The Clown and the Fuhrer.”

“Our products are filmed entertainment, linked to a business model. We don’t make one film, we make a line of films,” says Filmax chairman Julio Fernandez.

Filmax’s entry into pic production in 2000 marks a modern attempt to create truly industrial structures: Mini-major Filmax practices vertical integration, economies of scale and distinct production lines, such as auteur genre pics (“Fragile”), new directors (“The Abandoned”) and animation (“El Cid”).

Filmax plans to raise the bar, inaugurating “nonstop production” at its new Terrassa studios and focusing increasingly on $30 million-$50 million pics, says Fernandez.

Its biggest future bets are Brad Anderson’s “Trans-Siberian,” in pre-production, and a film by Jaume Balaguero (“Fragile”).

Established (DeAPlaneta) and emerging (Mediapro) groups have moved into film production.

DeAPlaneta aims to mix genre items and larger-budget fare. Mediapro will co-produce a Barcelona-shot Woody Allen film, rolling summer 2007.

Rodar y Rodar is moving into English-language production with a remake of “An Uncertain Guest,” while it’s prepping the directorial debut of “Orphanage” screenwriter Sergio Sanchez and another from Morales — “Julia’s Eyes” — both in English.

“Making films in English opens up vastly larger markets,” says Rodar co-owner Mar Targarona.

Like almost all Catalan companies, Rodar is nursing Catalonia’s common currency: directorial talent.

“The phrase ‘auteur cinema’ is much more common in Catalonia than Madrid,” says Roca.

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