Spain pins hopes on horror, high-tone

Jekyll and Hyde split the screen

MADRID — The run-up to Spain’s general elections in March was full of talk about the “two Spains” — on one side the progressives, on the other the conservatives, and ne’er the twain shall meet.

An X-ray of the current Spanish movie scene suggests something similar is happening in film.

On the one side, a clutch of well-turned but play-safe genre items have made waves both at home and abroad, the pack led by “The Orphanage,” the only Spanish film to appear in Spain’s 2007 top-10 box office rankings. Pic pushed all the right horror buttons, but the fact that it was rooted in a searching, psychologically credible perf by Belen Rueda was what really distinguished it.

This internationally acclaimed item suggests that helmer Juan Antonio Bayona is set to become the next Alejandro Amenabar, a rare example of a Spanish director who can claim both commercial and critical success.

“Rec,” a “Cloverfield”-like thriller by Jaume Balaguero y Paco Plaza, fused reality TV and zombies into a crowdpleasing whole, while Nacho Vigalondo’s time-traveler “Timecrimes” screened at Sundance, having been snapped up for a U.S. remake before it had Spanish distribution, repping an unfortunate example of the Spanish industry not recognizing the talent on its own doorstep.

That Spaniards can do good horror is becoming an industry cliche. But at the other end of the genre spectrum there is a clutch of defiantly experimental arthouse items that have also attracted the attention of international fests.

The Spanish Academy surprised just about everyone by awarding its best film Goya of 2007 to Jaime Rosales’ “Solitary Fragments,” a slow-moving, demanding film about women struggling against social odds. On the first weekend of its re-release, about half the number of people saw it as during the entirety of its first run, and though Spain’s streets may not have been abuzz with talk of the semantics of silence, the award at least alerted the average cinemagoer that such films do exist in the Spanish panorama.

Other examples of high-quality purist fare to have emerged from Spain in recent months include Jose Maria de Orbe’s Rosales-produced “The Straight Line,” and arthouse standard-bearer Luis Guerin’s “In the City of Sylvia.”

Between these two poles, it’s business as usual, with helmers exploring a range of genres to varying effect.

April’s Malaga fest, now seen as the finest platform for Spanish film, pointed up several trends.

First, that the much-derided (by Spaniards) comedy genre is undergoing a tube-inspired revival, with Nacho Garcia Velilla’s “Chef’s Special” and Peris Romano and Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s “8 Dates” both reinventing traditional Spanish comedy motifs for 21st-century auds.

Both films come from helmers with TV backgrounds, with the financial hold of the TV channels over the movie industry increasingly evident in the thesps, storylines and styles — all pretty much throwaway — of the movies on offer. The need to bring the teens through the turnstiles has generated an increasingly depoliticized cinema, where any social commentary often seems tacked.

It’s largely fallen to the old-timers, such as Manuel Gutierrez Aragon with “Who’s Next,” about the ever-burning issue of Basque terrorism, to directly tackle Spain’s contempo political realities.

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