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Cinema Esperanto

An argument can be made that Spain was the America of antiquity, a polyglot of a nation crisscrossed by centuries of adventurers and opportunists. Certainly a deep affinity manifests itself time and again through Spanish movies. Where filmmakers from other countries imitate the American idiom to their detriment, the Spaniards instead often seem to have originated our vocabulary altogether. Sex, gunplay and squealing tires are no stretch for a nation addicted to that last vestige of Roman blood sport, the bullfight.

Indeed, the tragic inevitability that bullfights embody permeates the culture to the advantage of drama. Heroes often die in Spanish films -- sometimes they even die in comedies. (The young man we’re led to think will be the protagonist of Pedro Almodovar‘s All About My Mother dies minutes into the picture.) The vitality inseparable from such honesty about life and death is one clue as to why, of the many national showcases presented each year by the American Cinematheque, the annual Spanish series has proved so durable and reliable at connecting with a popular audience in Los Angeles. An American moviegoer is afforded all the comforts of home in terms of style and exuberance, while being treated to exotic feats of courage in theme and content.

Over the past decade, the concerns of Spanish filmmakers have charted a linear progression away from costume drama and comedies about flawed machismo, and focused on more contemporary settings, as well as on far more complex views of sexual identity, male and female. (As Orson Welles said, late in life, “These days I’m more interested in ‘these days.’”) This year‘s crop of 23 features varies wildly in tone, careening from such nightmare farces as Common Wealth, starring Carmen Maura and directed by Alex de la Iglesia, to Yoyes, a tautly constructed drama about terrorists by first-time director Helena Taberna. A seven-film retrospective has also been organized in honor of Catalan director Ventura Pons, a sharp-eyed humanist and humorist whose work is lamentably unknown in this country. In addition, memorable talents encountered at previous roundups of Spanish cinema -- writers Angeles Gonzales-Sinde (Second Skin, ’99) and Elvira Lindo (My First Night on Earth, ‘98); directors Santiago Segura (Torrente: The Dumb Arm of the Law, ’98), Daniel Calparsoro (Jump Into the Void, ‘95) and Jose Luis Borau (subject of a ’98 retrospective) -- are all back in force with new work.

Ana Torrent, the actress who made her debut at age 6 in Victor Erice‘s Spirit of the Beehive (1973), plays the title role in Yoyes, a true story. Dolores Gonzalez (“Yoyes” for short) successfully leads a ring of Basque terrorists during the Franco years only to discover that, despite the general amnesty for anti-fascist activists that followed the dictator’s death in 1975, her own legendary status bars her from resuming an ordinary life. She may be free to go home from a legal standpoint, but in the eyes of her most rabid former comrades, to do so would be an unpardonable treachery. Director Taberna, who co-wrote the film with Andres Matorell, coolly charts the confluence of poisons acting on the Spanish power structure, even in a time of democracy. The pure intent of the terrorists has so calcified that they are blind to how easily they can be manipulated, especially by old enemies bent on playing them off each other. Taberna‘s depiction of corrupt wheels going round is as admirably unadorned as any prison break in Robert Bresson. She has a slight weakness for symbolism involving pretty horses, and there’s a cliche bit of slow-motion surrounding the climactic gunshot, but these incidental blurts are more than compensated for by the central performance, which is as intricate as it is understated. Torrent must age 15 years in the course of events, and she makes this transformation so palpable that (without much outward change) the soul in her eyes withers to age 150.

A similar complexity is built into BelovedFriend (1999), a key entry in the tribute to director Ventura Pons. Here, we follow a merry-go-round of romantic relationships through the course of a single catastrophic day: Jaume (Josep Maria Pou), a university professor nearing the end of his life, discovers that his prize student, David (David Selvas), has been supporting himself as a male hustler. David, fiercely opposed to the brilliant academic career his professor wishes for him, has at the same time impregnated the daughter of Jaume‘s closest friend, Pere (Mario Gas), a powerful faculty member who would love nothing better than to see the young man’s future destroyed. (Perhaps this is what Good Will Hunting might‘ve been like if Almodovar had directed it.) Pons’ gentle style causes one to laugh more in anticipation of moments than at their outcome, and the complicated tensions he wrings from two-character scenes is masterful.

A passage in which Jaume confesses to Pere that he has been in love with him ever since they were young is a particular beauty: All the charged, subterranean movements in the psyches of two men, one homosexual, one hetero, are brought wonderfully to the surface in this conversation. Pere, who‘d seemed like a typically bombastic macho only a few beats earlier, is smoothly revealed to have an unusually vulnerable, tolerant dimension. We are different selves with different friends is Pons’ point, and he carries this idea forward into Anita Takes a Chance (2000), in which a middle-aged movie-house cashier (Rosa Maria Sarda, a luminous comedian who also has a strong role in BelovedFriend) renews herself by having an intensely sexual affair with a construction worker.

Elvira Lindo‘s screenplay is one of the strengths of the thriller Plenilunio, in which a homicide detective (Miguel Angel Solaa) finds himself cursed with two mysteries, the most immediate being the search for the killer of a young girl, the more punishing being the ache over his own identity. He was orphaned during the Spanish Civil War, and every record of his family was destroyed, because his parents were anti-fascist: The ghosts of that war are never far from the heart of Spanish cinema, even 60 years down the line. The detective’s conversations with the elderly priest who raised him (Fernando Fernan Gomez) are haunting; his gradual romance with a schoolteacher (Adriana Ozores) makes a moving counterpart to glimpses we‘re given of the killer (Juan Diego Boto) and his wretched home life. Director Imanol Uribe spins an effective Silence of the Lambs--like aura of tension around the puzzle of the murdered girl, and there’s a harrowing sequence in which a second murder is attempted. Yet there‘s also a dash of creepy voyeurism regarding the bodies of the little girls, and a garish bit of bogus gunplay in the grand American manner that mars the finale.

By contrast, the swooping, spooky crane shot that opens Alex de la Iglesia’s Common Wealth -- followed by an antic close-up of a cat licking the fingers of a cadaver, followed by a twisted yarn that climaxes with Carmen Maura on all fours brandishing a knife to protect a cache of ill-gotten lottery winnings from her menacing neighbors -- takes us away from both Spain and America and lands us in an absurdist Neverland where Hitchcock, Buñuel and Polanski all seem equally at home. We may be entering an era, signaled by the current Oscar nomination of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for Best Picture, in which the American public‘s fabled anathema toward foreign-language film flies out the window. Languages may vary, but the grammar of film, and with it a sense of life’s meaning beyond words, has become more truly international. The success of Crouching Tiger may be less a byproduct of its exhilarating choreography than a backhanded tribute to its truthfulness about love, and loss. This is a challenge to which Spanish filmmakers continue to rise, with a comparable power.


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