Official Competition REVIEW
Don’t let the fact that it’s a film about making a film put you off: Official Competition is fabulous, writes GARY STEEL.
Screening in NZ from Thursday September 15.
Films about making films can be a real drag, and I’m hesitant about even writing that in the first line, because to some it’s an instant turn-off. This isn’t one of those films. Official Competition is intriguing from its first frames, and this Spanish film’s smart script, stylish set design, gorgeous cinematography and phenomenal acting performances make its two-hour duration seem too shortish.
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It starts with an unlikely premise: rich businessman Humberto (José Luis Gómez) is turning 80 and wants to leave a remarkable legacy. Instead of building a bridge, he settles on the idea of financing a movie. Having bought the rights to a critically acclaimed novel about two warring brothers, he wins the services of acclaimed (and very eccentric) film director Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz). It turns out that the two brothers Iván (Oscar Martinez) and Félix (Antonio Banderas) hate each other in real life every bit as much as their characters.
The first part of the film sees Lola take Iván and Félix through a seemingly more and more bizarre series of pre-rehearsal tests to try and extract just the right performances out of them. Some of these are excruciating and comical in equal measure (like having to read their lines sitting under a giant rock held aloft by a groaning crane) and others intensify the distaste the two very different actors have for each other. Banderas plays a populist actor (and ageing heartthrob) who cares less for the quality of his projects than the number of awards on his shelf, while Martinez is an old-school actor whose sense of ethics made him reject fame for a career teaching young actors.
The idiosyncratic behaviour of Lola/Cruz is so outlandish and unpredictable that it makes Official Competition more than just a film about a film where two “brothers” are at each other’s throats. And it has to be said: she’s extraordinary here. It’s in the second half that we finally get into the proper rehearsals and things start to go seriously askew, with one of Lola’s tests angering the actors so badly that they come up with twisted ways to get back at her. The film almost ends with a glittering pre-filming function where the elderly businessman declares the production is all-go, but there’s still a big surprise in store.
Directors Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn have stage-managed a masterful movie that’s both gently subversive and hugely entertaining. It’s easy for movies about making movies and films about actors and directors doing their thing to be indulgent, bogged down in stuff that the punters couldn’t give a fart in a jar about. Thankfully, they’ve kept their minds on the job and come up with a story about filmmaking that’s actually worth telling.