Global influence boosts Spanish cinema

Genre pics, TV stars promote biz on and offscreen

MADRID “Spanish film is dead,” declared the veteran Spanish director Jose Luis Cuerda recently. On the box office side, 2009 would indeed suggest that Spanish films are a species in decline, with local films having dwindled to less than 10% market share.

The stats reflect the widely held perception that Spanish auds don’t go to Spanish films. In the words of producer Juan Gordon, “Studios and broadcasters need to realize that it doesn’t only have to be about stupid comedies.”

Some are starting to heed him. Even as strong young helmers such as Nacho Vigalondo and Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego like Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, are fielding offers from America, U.S. genre influences are being assimilated ever more successfully back home.

Patxi Amezcua’s “25 Carat,” the kind of low-budget, compelling thriller that the word “gritty” might have been invented for, is one example.

Daniel Monzon’s intense, testosterone-fueled prison drama “Cell 211” is further confirmation that, in Gordon’s words, “we are now seeing movies which have a powerful human story to tell without losing commercial appeal — stories that combine a European interest in character with a U.S. interest in telling a good story.”

What distinguishes these films is their fusion of dramatic verve with social commentary.

The U.S./Euro divide, then, is breaking down. There is a new tendency toward internationalism at the production level but also at the dramatic level. Quiet family-based dramas such as David Planell’s “Shame” deal with the impact of immigration on the lives of Spanish families — one big social issue too rarely addressed.

Meanwhile, Alejandro Amenabar’s “Agora,” on which the Spanish industry’s commercial prospects for the rest of 2009 partly depend, has a Spanish director working with an international cast in English on a film set in 4th century Alexandria, in a revisionist epic on the universally significant theme of fundamentalism. At the other end of the quality scale, the biggest B.O. hit of 2009, Fernando Gonzalez Molina’s comedy “Brain Drain,” has a group of dorky youngsters heading off to Oxford to wreak havoc.

“Brain Drain” is one example of how cinema screens are increasingly being populated by the young hunks and babes of the TV screen, leading to increased B.O. but little artistic merit as yet.

And what of women, famously under-represented in Spanish cinema?

One of 2009’s finest debuts has been Mar Coll’s quietly affecting family reunion drama, “Three Days With the Family.” Angeles Gonzalez-Sinde made “One Word From You,” a powerful, haunting two-hander about the tense relationship between two street cleaners. (Gonzalez-Sinde has since become head of the Spanish Culture Ministry, a quintessentially Spanish case of a talent being sacrificed to bureaucracy.)

Spanish cinema is not dead. Cuerda’s comment suggests his generation’s nostalgia for a time when Spanish directors were united around a common cause, but his latest film, “The Blind Sunflowers,” is precisely the kind of Civil War fare that in general the new generation of Spanish moviegoers has grown weary of.

“We have a great tradition, and there are still plenty of good, restless filmmakers around, young and old,” says helmer Monzon.

Perhaps the fact that they are working in such a range of styles indicates a lack of shared purpose. But it also reveals the kind of healthy pluralism that would bring greater commercial returns if only the infrastructure on which its artists depend would set about updating its life support system.