Greetings again from the darkness. Satire is one of the most challenging cinematic genres to get right. The script and performances are crucial, and the director must walk a fine line between too subtle and over-the-top. The long-time collaborative filmmaking team of co-writers and co-directors Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat, along with co-writer Andres Duprat, strike just the right chord and deliver a gem that is funny, insightful, and quite entertaining. The film was well received at last year’s Venice Film Festival, but is only now getting distribution.
We open on Don Umberto Suarez (Jose Luis Gomez), a wealthy pharmaceutical businessman, as he peruses the many gifts that have arrived for his 80th birthday. He’s in a reflective mood and wonders what he can do to secure his legacy so as not to be forgotten. Suarez debates between building a bridge or financing a “great” movie, one that will stand the test of time. He knows nothing of the film industry, and doesn’t bother to read the best-seller book he secures the rights to. He then meets with eccentric film director Lola Cuevas (Oscar winner Penelope Cruz, VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, 2008), yet seems oblivious to what we see – her vision runs contrary to his, as evidenced by her production notebook that looks like a teenager’s scrapbook from summer camp. She buys in to his “best cast” demands and leaves him believing “his” film is in good hands.
Ms. Cruz is so perfect in this role that even her giant frizzy flame-red wig is simpatico with director Lola’s intense personality as an auteur. Things really take off when rehearsal begins and her two lead actors arrive. Antonio Banderas plays Felix Rivero, a global movie star who lives the rock star life with women and sports cars. He’s the personality antithesis of his co-star Ivan Torres, played by Oscar Martinez, a self-absorbed stage actor who views his world as prestigious, while mocking the glitz, glamor, and money that rules Felix’s world. An architecturally stunning art institute funded by Suarez serves as the rehearsal site, since it sits empty and unused.
Felix and Ivan are to play rival brothers, and the tension that develops between the two men is hilarious … and further spurred by Lola’s acting exercises. She prods Ivan on the simple line, “Good evening”, forcing him to repeat it multiple times, just as she toys with Felix on his level of intoxication (a range of 1 to 10). To increase the tension, Lola has the men rehearse underneath a giant boulder dangling overhead by crane. As the two actors battle it out for respect from the other and favoritism from Lola, the humor escalates at the same pace as egos are wounded. After scoffing at the mention of Felix’s awards, Ivan secretly practices his Oscar-acceptance speech in his dressing room. It becomes clear that each of the men want what the other has: Felix wants prestige, while Ivan wants recognition.
There are so many terrific scenes and moments here, including a foreshadowed twist and a sequence that combines industry awards, an industrial shredder, and the strength of Saran Wrap. All three lead actors are having a blast, and the supporting cast lends authenticity to this skewering of wealth, ego, art, and the film industry. Especially effective in support are Irene Escolar as Suarez’s daughter who has been cast in the film, and Pilar Castro as Violetta, Ivan’s equally pretentious wife. This is satire at it’s finest, and the filmmakers (and Ms. Cruz) even nail the ending. Kudos to one of my favorite movies of the year.