Spanish dramas and genre fare hits mark

Anybody seeking a rapid take on Spanish cinema’s self-image in early 2010 could do worse than watch “Spanish Movie,” Spanish film’s first “Scary Movie”-style pastiche. Alejandro Amenabar, Guillermo del Toro and “The Orphanage” are all duly spoofed; the general picture is of a cinematic culture still dominated by name helmers, eager to please internationally, looking to Latin America, horror-obsessed — and mostly unfunny.

“Spanish Movie” was a relative B.O. success. But Spanish comedy mostly remains of little interest outside Spain: One of 2009’s bit comic hits, Fernando Gonzalez Molina’s “Brain Drain,” was about a bunch of Spanish nerds at Oxford. It was distinguished only by its exploitation of big TV names.

An edgier voice could be found in Borja Cobeaga’s witty, good-hearted, unlucky-in-love comedy “The Friend Zone,” a Hispanic “Gregory’s Girl.” Like Nacho G. Velilla’s “Chef’s Special,” it successfully welded contempo irony to the unsubtleties of 1960s and 1970s comedy. Velilla’s forthcoming “Ugly People Should Die” looks like it’s following suit and shows one way forward for the genre.

Ironically, neither of the titans of Spanish cinema — Almodovar nor Amenabar — particularly identifies with it, always looking beyond Spain for their cinematic inspiration; it’s a philosophy that others are increasingly heeding. A new generation of producers is realizing that Spanish film should focus on telling powerful human stories without losing commercial appeal — combining, in other words, a European interest in character with a U.S. interest in telling a good story.

Daniel Monzon’s explosive, compelling prison drama “Cell 211″ did just that and, language apart, it could have been set anywhere. Meanwhile, the revival of a Spanish horror through the last decade that started with Amenabar’s “The Others” in 2001 continues apace, with Juan Antonio Bayona’s “The Orphanage” and others.

A clutch of helmers continues to mine an edgier, fest-friendly seam. Javier Rebollo’s “Woman Without Piano,” a somewhat tedious study of homemaker tedium, is a key recent example.

But the major issues in Spanish politics — unemployment and immigration — receive only scant attention beyond docu treatment. Isaki Lacuesta’s slow-burning, intense “The Damned” at least dealt, albeit obliquely, with the very Spanish theme that past violence breeds present consequences, as a former guerrilla heads back to the jungle for the excavation of a former colleague’s grave.

Films by female directors still represent a minuscule percentage of Spanish output. Isabel Coixet’s disappointing “Map of the Sounds of Tokyo,” dealing with a hitwoman who falls for her target, was pretty but underperformed. On the other hand, Mar Coll’s debut “3 Days With the Family,” a beautifully nuanced X-ray of a Catalan family reunited at a funeral, was for many the strongest debut of 2009, while April’s Malaga fest featured a new name to watch in Juana Macias, with “Plans for Tomorrow” (Planes para manana).

Recently, there have been only two animation projects of distinction. The charming, eco-friendly “The Missing Lynx: Paws on the Run” (Manuel Sicilia, Raul Garcia) is about the escapades of one of Spain’s endangered species. The other was one of the most expensive film in Spanish film history, the long-awaited Spain-U.K. co-production “Planet 51″ (Jorge Blanco, Javier Abad, Marcos Martinez), in which an American astronaut lands on another planet to find that he’s the alien. Expect further action from an area rich in creative potential.

Spanish filmmakers continue to provide high-quality documentaries. Docu of the year was Edmon Roch’s multiple prize-winning’s “Garbo,” about the life and curious times of a Spanish double agent during WWII. Oriol Porta’s “A War in Hollywood” (Hollywood contra Franco) grippingly examined the U.S. film industry’s portrayals of the Spanish Civil War and the life of screenwriter Alvah Bessie, one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten.

And finally, the prizewinners. Claudia Llosa’s “The Milk of Sorrow” won a Berlin Golden Bear, while “The Secrets in Their Eyes,” Juan Jose Campanella’s noirish love story set to a backdrop of Argentine politics, won the Oscar for foreign-language picture. Like “Pan’s Labyrinth,” both were Spanish co-productions, suggesting that if Spanish producers can continue to fuse U.S. structures, European characters and Latin American script quality, then “Spanish Movie II,” if it comes, could represent a richer viewing experience than the first.

Based out of Madrid, Jonathan Holland reviews films for Variety.

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