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Spanish helmers mine nation's character in all genres

MADRID — Imagine a future film historian seeking to draw conclusions about Spanish society in 2006 from the movies it produced. The sheer volume of 2005 titles — 142, if co-productions are included, representing around 10 days of continuous screening time –would make the project daunting.

Just about every available genre (of those that don’t require a Hollywood budget) is represented, ranging from radical docus about child pornography to flagrantly aud-friendly Hollywood imitations.

As ever, international recognition of Spanish cinema focuses on a handful of star helmers, with the ones likeliest to make their offshore mark: either those who are peddling someone’s idea of an “authentically Spanish” vision (Pedro Almodovar), those with a sophisticated sense of how to engage universal emotions (Alejandro Amenabar) or those who have generated a cult following based on an idiosyncratic style (Isabel Coixet).

Almodovar’s “Volver,” enormously successful at home and scheduled for a June release in the U.S., reps a settling of accounts, in a comic key, between the director and his La Mancha past. Such re-negotiation of personal and political history has been much to the fore, although direct treatments of the Civil War are increasingly rare.

Instead, the focus increasingly falls on more recent Spanish history, with docus such as Israel Sanchez-Prieto’s “Blue Days,” showing the excavation of mass war and post-war graves, and “The Train of Memory” by Marta Arribas and Ana Perez, tackling the experiences of ’60s workers forced into exile in pursuit of work. Film is used to contribute to Spain’s recuperation of its often-censored 20th century history.

Such interest is not only limited to docus. A clutch of recent features, too, have dealt with Spain under Franco, particularly Santiago Tabernero’s haunting debut “Life and Color,” about a village, and a society, on the point of change, and Carlos Iglesias’ exiles comedy “Crossing Borders.” Mercedes Alvarez’s “The Sky Turns,” by common consent the best Spanish documentary of 2005, gathered these issues together into a complex meditation on preservation and loss.

Moving from past to turbulent present, teenagers are finding a voice in Spanish cinema.

Though it hardly constitutes a trend, an increasing number of street-teen movies are being made, reflecting a desire on the part of filmmakers to allow young auds to see themselves as they are, rather than what they wish to be.

Examples are Cesar Martinez’s yet-to-be-released “Sand in Your Pockets” and Ramon Termens and Carles Torras’ fine “Youth,” criminally ignored on its 2005 release.

In a commercial class apart was Alberto Rodriguez’s “7 Virgins,” a raw, energetic trawl through backstreet Seville, which rapidly garnered a cult following and unpredictably became the fifth-highest domestically produced earner of 2005. Another youth-themed item, tyro Daniel Sanchez-Arevalo’s “Darkbluealmostblack,” points to a healthy future.

An increasing number of scripters, perhaps given confidence by the success of the Loachesque Fernando Leon de Aranoa, are tackling contempo issues. Spanish filmmakers have often dealt with political themes in an earnest, brow-furrowed manner, a tradition that continues with Manuel Martin Cuenca’s treatment of the immigration issue in “Hard Times” and Iciar Bollain’s painful, prizewinning study of domestic abuse, “Take My Eyes.”

But a healthy injection of irony on political subjects is also increasingly apparent, as in Chema de la Pena and Gabriel Velazquez’s Euro-wide “Sud Express” (also dealing with racism) and Jose Corbacho and Juan Cruz’s “Tapas,” a series of up-to-date vignettes looking at aspects of Barcelona life. (Another trend, it seems, is for tandem-helmed movies.) The irony probably derives from Leon de Aranoa, too. His recent “Princesses” tackles the issue of prostitution in an entirely unpreachy manner, which shows he is more interested in people than in the ideas they represent.

The latter two pics, along with “7 Virgins,” took three of the top 10 B.O. positions of 2005, suggesting that Spanish reality is no longer box office taboo.

Animation, such as Miguelanxo Prado’s “De Profundis,” bubbles under.

Filmax churns out its entertaining horror fare in industrial quantities, while other genre work is increasingly accomplished: witness Mariano Barroso’s well-turned Havana-set noir “Ants in the Mouth” and Miguel Courtois’ terrorist drama “El Lobo.”

Comedy, that old Spanish staple, still abounds, with the biggest B.O. smashes of 2005 (such as Santiago Segura’s gross-out cop item “Torrente 3: The Protector”) and the musical “The 2 Sides of the Bed” still showing everyone elsehow it’s done

Recent Spanish cinema is supplying a growing number of quietly personal, reflective adult dramas that seem to take pride in the fact that they are tough to market and are artistically the finer for it.

These include Antonio Hernandez’s “Hidden,” Gracia Querejeta’s “Hector,” Eduard Cortes’ “Other Days Will Come” and Rafa Russo’s “Love in Self-Defense.”

These accomplished musings on affairs of the heart live and die away from the limelight, and the future film historian will have to scratch beneath the surface to locate them. But they confirm that in 2006 Spain had other cinematic talents that deserved to endure — talents insufficiently recognized by an industry hell-bent on turning up the next big thing.

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