Film Review – Official Competition
It’s been said that any movie – regardless of quality – is something of a miracle. That’s because cinema is the most collaborative artform. Painters have themselves, a brush, and a canvas to work with. In contrast, it can take dozens (sometimes even hundreds) of people to make a movie, all inhabiting different disciplines. Producers, directors, actors, writers, editors, cinematographers, costume designers, makeup artists, grips, and assistants, etc. – there are a lot of moving parts that go into a production, each with their own creative input. In the grand scheme of things, it’s mindboggling to think how any film is completed given the many obstacles standing in its way.
The Spanish Official Competition (2022) lampoons the process that goes into the production of a movie. Oscillating between a dark comedy and drama, it examines the quirks and eccentricities of its characters as they clash toward one shared goal. Written and directed by Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat (with Andrés Duprat contributing on screenplay), the narrative is equally about the toxicity of ego as it is the magic of moviemaking. When everybody believes their way is the best way, how does anything get done? We’ve certainly seen the trials and tribulations of the industry depicted on screen before. Luckily, Cohn and Duprat add just enough of a unique twist to make a familiar road feel new again.
The biggest stand out is in the strength of its cast. Each of the primary players tackle their roles with conviction, handling both the funny and hard-hitting scenes with relish – everybody seems to be having fun. Lola (Penélope Cruz) is a renowned director who has been given a new film at the behest of a wealthy businessman (José Luis Gómez). When we meet her, Lola is deep in pre-production, focusing on rehearsals between her two leads. However, that task is more difficult than anticipated. Félix (Antonio Banderas) is an international superstar, who relies on his charm and wits to carry his roles. His foil is Iván (Oscar Martínez), a super serious veteran actor who cares more about the “art” of acting as opposed to the fame.
Lola, Félix, and Iván form a trio of clashing personalities. With each rehearsal, the tension – and laughs – mounts. Félix and Iván’s differing approaches to their characters creates immediate static. To make matters worse, Lola subjects them to increasingly weird exercises – such as rehearsing underneath a boulder or being tied up in plastic wrap like conjoined mummies. The joy of seeing this scenario play out is in how the three try to work together without going at each other’s throats. With her big red hair and enormous scrapbook of ideas, Cruz’s Lola is a mixture of experimental artist and mad scientist. Félix and Iván exist on opposite ends of the acting spectrum. Félix is glitz and glamor whereas Iván is all pretension. Where Félix spends his days working out and elevating his brand, Iván teaches acting classes or sits at home drinking wine and listening to abstract music. The balance between standing for one’s artistic beliefs and having to compromise for one another creates an explosive atmosphere. The more stressful the situation becomes, the funnier things get.
The set design and art direction place the rehearsals in a large, modern facility with cold floors and sharp angles. The minimalistic style creates a kind of arena for the interactions to unfold. Because there is nothing warm or comforting about this location, the dynamic between the characters feels strangely amplified. Even though the space is cavernous, there is a claustrophobic way it bears down on them. When the trio enters the theater/stage area, the vast empty seats feel ominous and menacing.
Although the narrative aims to satirize the filmmaking process, Cohn and Duprat utilize several cinematic techniques to punctuate their scenes. Arnau Valls Colomer’s camera focuses in on the performers in closeup, capturing every facial tick and reaction. Lola mirrors this when she records one of Félix’s monologues, with the video projected on a large screen behind him. The image is striking, allowing us to see Banderas’ performance up close and from a wide angle simultaneously. Sound is also put to tremendous use. During one rehearsal, Lola sets up numerous microphones around her subjects. With the volume turned up, we can hear every little breath and sound coming from the actors. This sequence, coupled with the immediate reactions of those watching, make for the funniest moment of the entire film. I dare not get into any further specifics, lest I ruin it for you.
There is a twist that happens in the latter stages that nearly upends everything leading up to it. Although there is plenty of fun to be had between Lola, Félix, and Iván, this late inning revelation adds a grim tone to the proceedings. While this did not bother me (in fact, I admire the risk taking) others might think it overly melodramatic. Seeing the three push and pull against themselves is amusing, so once we get to this dark point, there is a chance that audiences may be too off put by what happens. These characters are willing to push themselves for the sake of their art, maybe even to the point of self-preservation. But how that theme resolves is a challenge that may not sit well for some.
With that said, I had a blast with Official Competition. The title works as a double entendre. Not only does it represent the “competition” of a film festival, but also the “competition” between the main characters. They each have their own method to the madness, but does any stand above the rest? If a film works, are the means justified? Is the beauty of art about the final product or the daily grind of making it? Can competition truly exist in a world of subjective interpretation? Whether or not this film answers those questions, it at least examines them in a funny, entertaining, and captivating way.