Spanish art films prosper

Well-crafted, personal movies proliferate

MADRID — As far as offshore auds are concerned, Spanish cinema in 2007 can be boiled down to the two names on its Oscar-winning A-team: Pedro Almodovar, loved abroad but merely admired at home, and Alejandro Amenabar, Spain’s finest Hollywood director.

Discounting the Mexican Guillermo del Toro, whom sections of the industry gratefully consider an honorary Spaniard given his cinematic concern with the Civil War (“Pan’s Labyrinth”), the A-Men can claim both critical and commercial success that other filmmakers can only dream about.

In fact, the local industry is being sustained by these helmers plus a shifting, low-quality handful of others, with Spanish producers showing a startling lack of insight when predicting what will and will not bring B.O. returns at home.

The fact that the most successful Spanish-born helmer of the last 12 months in commercial terms has been Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, with “28 Weeks Later” — an English-language horror sequel set in the U.K. — amounts to a warning.

There is still a place for the kind of carefully crafted, personal projects that come as a pleasant surprise to the production companies when they do any B.O. at all.

No new talent roundup at the end of 2006 failed to mention a cunning, idiosyncratic take on life in a working-class Madrid barrio, “DarkBlueAlmostBlack,” which marked out Daniel Sanchez Arevalo as perhaps the most interesting new helmer of recent years.

“The Night of the Sunflowers,” Jorge Sanchez Cabezudo’s narratively inventive, accomplished study of an accidental death in the Spanish badlands, topped any other Spanish thriller produced in 2006 for quality.

But for their thrills and chills, Spaniards still invariably turn to U.S. product — “Sunflowers” was the only homegrown thriller title on the top 25 list.

Of the 2007 tyro harvest, three stand out: the Mallorcan director Rafael Cortes’ daring “Yo,” about a German worker in Mallorca, well received at a variety of fests; Jaime Marques’ “Thieves,” featuring Spanish cinema’s most popular young film thesp, Juan Jose Ballesta, in a lyrical homage to teen alienation; and Felix Viscarret’s understated “Under the Stars,” about the troubled homecoming of a washed-up jazz muso, featuring a terrific central perf from Alberto San Juan. All three pics combine an awareness of traditional filmmaking values while attempting to deliver their stories in a new register.

Funds can still be found for high-quality experimental cinema of the uncompromising variety.

Two recent examples, both beautiful, stately studies of female isolation which have played well at fests, are Jaime Rosales’ “Solitude” and Jose Maria de Orbe’s “The Straight Line.” Add Jose Luis Guerin’s “In Sylvia’s City,” about a young man hopelessly pursuing lost love through the Strasbourg streets, and you have the makings of a movement.

Julio Medem’s good-looking but uneven “Chaotic Ana,” meanwhile, shows the maverick auteur remaining steadfast to his arthouse principles.

One new tendency sees helmers mining the country’s recent history for inspiration, generally with greater artistic distinction than items set in more distant times, such as Agustin Diaz Yanes’ swashbuckler “Alatriste,” a B.O. success but largely a critical failure, and Milos Forman’s wasted opportunity “Goya’s Ghosts.”

Standouts here include Manuel Huerga’s good-looking, urgent “Salvador Puig Antich,” starring Daniel Bruehl as the eponymous Catalan anarchist executed by Franco’s regime; Carlos Iglesias’s dewy-eyed, winsome “One Franc, 14 Pesetas,” about ’60s Spanish emigration; or the punchy corruption thriller “GAL,” which showed Miguel Courtois maintaining the thriller credentials he successfully showed in “El Lobo.”

Contemporary Spain, meanwhile, seems to be a subject of scant interest to home auds, who are anyway infamously indifferent about local product.

Of the top 25 features of 2006, the only edgy, supposedly streetwise item to deal decisively with the current state of the nation was “I Am Juani,” made by the 60-year-old Bigas Luna.

Troublingly, though, it is to docus such as “Septembers,” Carlos Bosch’s searching study of love in prison, that Spaniards now have to go to find the most faithful reflections of who they currently are.