Last month, Catalan auteur Agustí Villaronga swept pretty much every prize out at Spain’s Malaga Film Festival with “The Belly of the Sea.”
The plaudits prized Villaronga’s large artistic ambition in re-creating arguably the most ghastly shipwreck in history — the 1816 sinking of French frigate Meduse off the coast of modern Mauritania — in a film shot in an abandoned wine cellar. It mixes historical re-creation, contemporary photo and doc footage and sea sculptures of the barnacled bodies of the drowned.
Next up for Villaronga, however, is what he describes as a tender comedy, “3,000 Obstacles,” about a former elite athlete now suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Director of resonant features that are elliptical (“Pau and His Brother”) or pointedly meandering (“August Days”), Marc Recha is now developing a quirky comedy thriller about a blind man helping a friend to find some religious relics hidden by two Slovenian monks.
Ibon Cormenzana’s Arcadia Motion Pictures is also moving into comedy for only the third time in 16 years. It is producing Laura Mañá’s “Un novio para mi mujer,” a remake of Argentine smash hit “A Boyfriend for My Wife.”
Isaki Lacuesta, director of the acclaimed and low-budget near-documentary “Between Two Waters” and a San Sebastian Golden Shell winner, is now helming far bigger-budgeted fare, the Studiocanal-sold drama “One Year, One Night.” Starring Nahuel Pérez Biscayart and Noémie Merlant, it turns on a couple confronting the trauma of the Paris Bataclan nightclub terrorist attack.
Why such illustrious filmmakers are exploring more open arthouse fare is another matter. “I’ve always wanted to make films of all types and sizes,” Lacuesta says. “‘One Year’ will still be auteur-driven, but with the biggest budget I’ve ever had and the aim of reaching larger audiences.”
The move makes industry sense. Challenging arthouse plays to diminishing theatrical audiences in Spain. Foreign sales are now a question of all or nothing: Either a film breaks out to multiple territory deals or, more usually, does next to nothing in overseas sales.
More than anything else, however, the move toward more accessible movies seems to be a gut reaction to COVID-19. In what seems “a necrophilic world run by Big Pharma, we need some respite in cultural leisure, without abandoning a critical edge,” says Luis Miñarro. Co-producer of Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” Miñarro will now direct “Impalpable,” a surrealist comedic road movie.
Villaronga agrees. “I’ve just come off an ‘anti-comedy,’ ‘The Belly of the Sea,’” he says. “Suddenly, I feel like seeing the light. With age you mellow — without forgetting your concerns — but you want to look toward the brighter, more uplifting side of life.”
In that vein, Jaime Rosales — whose time-juggling tragic mystery thriller “Petra” was well received at 2018’s Directors’ Fortnight — describes new film “Wild Sunflowers” as a play for broader audiences through “a story of love and overcoming, a feeling of hope and happiness.”
A growth in often brighter, uplifting and more open art cinema isn’t the only thing changing in Catalan film production.
Its main axes — accounting for most of its 66 feature films produced in 2020, down from an average 77 in the prior four years — remain the same: a robust auteur and documentary cinema; a strong line in smart genre; occasional but notable higher-budget and more mainstream propositions.
Yet the exciting new generation of young cineastes, often women, which broke through broadly from Carla Simón’s “Summer 1993,” a Berlin first feature winner in 2017, is also now maturing.
“Next year will be impressive with the release of films by the most established directors, such as Lacuesta and Rosales,” says Mar Medir at Catalan Films. “But we’ll also see the consolidation of a new wave of young directors, who are filming or producing second and third films with a more mature vision, leaving behind personal themes and evolving towards a more auteurist standpoint.”
Reflecting evolving themes and mores, directors are coming in on gender issues from fresh angles. In Critics’ Week player “Libertad,” Clara Roquet depicts the sexual awakening of two girls from different sides of the tracks. Enric Ribes follows a legendary drag queen in a working-class Barcelona neighborhood in “Singing on the Roofs”; in “Sinjar,” Ana María Bofarull examines women’s role in Islamic extremism. Ainhoa Rodríguez’s “Mighty Flash” relates with humor the sexuality of women aged 50 and above in rural Spain.
Women still have some way to go to parity, however. It’s still very hard for women to become to producers or make high-budget features, says film director Judith Colell, president of the Catalan Cinema Academy, whose latest movie “15 Hours” explores gender abuse in a cultured couple. Very few women make genre films, she adds. “I can name just two.”
Key Catalan Titles at the 2021 Cannes’ Film Market:
“15 HOURS,” (Judith Colell)
San Sebastian Jury Prize winner Colell delivers the story of a seemingly perfect couple. Selene Films, Turkana Films produce.
Sales: The Open Reel
“LIBERTAD,” (Clara Roquet)
Cannes’ Critics’ Week player, the anticipated feature debut turns on an intense summer friendship between two girls from opposite sides of the tracks.
“LOS RENGLONES TORCIDOS DE DIOS,” (Oriol Paulo)
From acclaimed Paulo (“The Invisible Guest”), a period mystery thriller set in a psychiatric ward. Filmayer, Nostromo co-produce.
“MEDITERRANEO: THE LAW OF THE SEA,” (Marcel Barrena)
Two Spanish lifeguards head to Lesbos after seeing a photo of a drowned child. Currently in post, Lastor Media, Fasten Films, Arcadia Motion Pictures and Heretic Productions produce.
“MIGHTY FLASH,” (Ainhoa Rodríguez)
An uncommon depiction of life and sexual awakening of women in their 50s. Co-produced by Cannes-awarded producer-director Luis Miñarro.
Sales: Patra Spanou
“THE BEAST,” (David Casademunt)
Produced by Rodar y Rodar for Netflix, Casademunt’s debut, about a boy and his mother in the country, pursued by an eerie presence. Inma Cuesta, Roberto Álamo, Asier Flores star.
“THE BELLY OF THE SEA,” (Agustí Villaronga)
Malaga-awarded rumination on migration and the human condition via history’s ghastliest shipwreck, that of French frigate Méduse. Turkana Films, La Perifèrica co-produce.
Sales: Antidote Sales
“THE GOOD BOSS,” (Fernando León de Aranoa)
Javier Bardem headlines an ensemble cast as an impresario up for an award just as his business goes awry. From the Mediapro Studio.
“THE HOUSE AMONG THE CACTUSES,” (Carlota González-Adrio)
‘70s-set psychological thriller about a large family living in rural Gran Canaria. 365 Films, Virtual Contenidos, La Terraza and Ikiru Films co-produce.
“ON THE OTHER SIDE,” (Iván Guarnizo)
Cineast Guarnizo searches for his mother’s caregiver, sequestered for 605 days by FARC guerrillas. Gusano Films produces.
“ONE YEAR, ONE NIGHT,” (Isaki Lacuesta)
Nahuel Pérez Biscayart and Noémie Merlant star as remorseful survivors of the Paris’ Bataclan attack. Produced by Bambú Producciones, Termita Films, Mr. Fields and Friends and Noodles Production.
“OFFICIAL COMPETITION,” (Gastón Duprat, Mariano Cohn)
Penélope Cruz, Antonio Banderas and Oscar Martínez star in a meta feature about a billionaire entrepreneur who decides to make a film. Produced by the Mediapro Studio.
Sales: Protagonist Pictures
“ON THE EDGE,” (Giordano Gederlini)
Fasten Films, Noodles and Frakas back the sophomore feature of “Les Misérables” co-writer Gederlini, a thriller about a Spanish exile. Sales: Le Pacte
“SINGING ON THE ROOFTOPS,” (Enric Ribes)
Aging Barcelona drag queen Eduardo struggles to get by performing, but his priorities change when 3-year-old Chloe arrives in his life.
“WE’VE GOT THE NIGHT,” (Joe Sol)
Unclassifiable Sol (San Sebastian hit “The Taxi Thief”) reflects on life and art following two filmmakers. Shaktimetta produces.
“WHAT WENT WRONG?” (Liliana Torres)
Pushing 40 in a cycle of failed relationships, Lili tracks down former lovers to ask, “What went wrong?” Torres writes, directs and stars.
“WILD SUNFLOWERS,” (Jaime Rosales)
Fresdeval, A Contracorriente, Oberon and Luxbox produce Rosales’ broadest drama so far, about a woman questioning her new partner.
Sales: Film Factory