The opening moments of Fernando Colomos identity-politics comedy The Near East, which screens as part of the American Cinematheques 13th annual survey of recent Spanish cinema, are a delight: a swirl of skin tones European, African and Asian nestled inside burkas, Adidas gear and shopkeeper aprons. This quick sketch of bustling multiethnic/racial/cultural Spain dives right into one of the thorniest issues around the globe the growing presence of Islam and its faithful in predominantly non-Muslim countries. When schlubby, bighearted Cain steps up to marry the young Muslim woman whom his womanizing brother Abel has impregnated and abandoned, he finds himself overwhelmed by the dictates of religious and cultural tradition. Colomo fills his comedy with slapstick and a coterie of colorful secondary characters in whats essentially a plea for understanding on behalf of moderate Muslims who themselves are grappling with a changing world. The naiveté and charm of both the film and its characters are often strained, but the determinedly uplifting Near East stays just on the right side of cloying in its clear mandate to be a crowd pleaser. Elsewhere in the program, Antonio Chavarrias Celias Lives is an engrossing thriller about the murder of a teenage girl and the impact her death has on the family of her best friend. The films fractured storyline and abrupt jumps forward and backward in time demand close attention, but the payoff is a host of wonderfully observed psychological profiles, from the dead girl and her circle of friends, to the best friend whose family is a hotbed of dark secrets, to the cop investigating the case. In the highlight of this years showcase, writer-director Daniel Sanchez Arevalos sly, gently moving DarkBlueAlmostBlack, a put-upon young janitor, who puts his life on hold in order to care for his abusive, invalid father, becomes swept up in the romantic drama of his jailbird brother and the brothers girlfriend (herself in prison). And then the janitors best friend finds out that his own unloving father is gay and starts blackmailing him! What could have been a wildly over-the-top farce stays sharply focused as Arevalo keeps the human element in view, resulting in a very smart take on how and why we settle for so much less than we dream of, and why were sometimes happy to do so. In addition, director Vicente Aranda will receive a special tribute that includes screenings of many of his films (including Lovers, with Victoria Abril) and will attend a Q&A following the screening of his latest work, The Maidens Conspiracy, which was unavailable for preview. (American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre; thru March 24. www.americancinematheque.com)
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