We’re looking at a gilded picture frame in rapid, brushing close-ups. Images flutter as if our eyes were somehow being blinked for us. It would appear we‘re exploring a well-known masterpiece by Francisco de Goya, The Clothed Maja — only we find in the next elliptical glimpse that we’re also looking at its scandalous counterpart, The Naked Maja. Her clothes keep appearing and disappearing in witty little butterfly cross-dissolves.

This playful montage opens Volaverunt, a 1999 film from writer-director Jose Juan Bigas Luna, and serves as a telling curtain raiser on the Recent Spanish Cinema series currently at the American Cinematheque. Where American cinema has lately calved like a glacier, dividing movies into two easily distinguishable types — big-budget crowd-pleasers and low-budget edgies — the Spaniards seem vigorously immune to such schizophrenia, making films which, high and low, are rich in production value and strong on character.

Set in 1802 and focusing on the palace intrigues around Goya‘s nude and clothed portraits of the Duchess of Alba, Volaverunt stars Aitana Sanchez-Gijon as the charismatic duchess and Penelope Cruz as the peasant girl who envies and may well be out to destroy her. Luna’s best-known films — the comedies Jamon, Jamon (1992) and Golden Balls (1993) — so beautifully nail the carnal greed and confusion of our own times that the effort it requires to re-create a historical period (as he did in his lovely The Chambermaid on the Titanic) might seem a waste of his energies. Yet, in Volaverunt, Luna employs a dynamic present tense in period disguise. His graceful, lightly mobile camera compositions are not only elegant in themselves, they‘re designed to detonate on the cuts from scene to scene, even from person to person. A pillar bracketing an imperial doorway on the left of one shot is framed to identically match the vertical line of a luminous, dusty highway seen from above in the next. A curve of red curtain concealing an eavesdropper matches the hourglass waist of the goblet containing a fatal dose of poison: There are almost as many good examples as there are cuts, and they expertly serve the story. Is it the eavesdropper who’s placed the poison there? Is the demise of the duchess being planned by an adversary, or a lover?

The appearance of Penelope Cruz in Volaverunt‘s ensemble subtly reproaches those American filmmakers who plainly grasp her rare qualities but never quite know how to use them. Cruz so often appears at odds with the pictures she gets cast in here because she’s just as often the most truthful presence in them; her earthy comfort in her own skin X-rays the flaws in any film that tries to enshrine her as a celestial being or turn her into an exotic lollapalooza. One welcome aside to this year‘s series is the chance it offers to rediscover her true range. A career tribute to director Fernando Trueba kicks off with his Oscar-winning Belle Epoque (1992), which gives us Cruz at age 18, stealing the hero’s heart from among a throng of sisters more beautiful than she. What makes her stand out — as Trueba makes wonderfully clear, not only here but in The Girl of Your Dreams (1998), showing later this month — is that Cruz is first and last a happy demon, a fireball of ambition and curiosity. Her eyes all but lunge at what they behold; she seems to take in everything and lose nothing. This makes her unforgettable.

Memory has always been a potent force in Spanish cinema. Trueba‘s first feature, Opera Prima (1980), centers on a 30ish divorced man who is comically paralyzed with longing for his young cousin, with whom he had an affair several years back. There are never any flashbacks: If anything, the present is all the more pregnant with tension for being structured around tongue-tied silences and jealous misbehavior in which remembrance is the unseen agitator.

Similarly, Sex and Lucia, the new film from Julio Medem — and another highlight of the festival — seems structured, again not in flashbacks as such, but in terms of memories that are being created before our eyes. Or rather, as Medem’s intelligent camera invites us to stare — at plains of grass waving underwater, at a busy waitress trapped in a bad phone call with a depressed lover, at two strangers sharing an indelible orgasm in a moonlit sea — we‘re made to feel that something worth remembering is about to happen. In a film, this is a mark of great poetry.

Medem, Trueba and Luna all have poetry in their blood, but, to a degree, a reverence for the textures of life’s mysteries informs even the festival‘s unlikeliest films. No Pain, No Gain — a farce of adolescent passion directed by Garcia Leon and co-scripted by Trueba’s son, Jonas Groucho — moves its lovestruck hero through any number of Adam Sandler–ish degradations, but does so with a rhythm that feels observed in life, not other movies. Sure, he raids the beautiful girl‘s trash, suffers having a tooth pulled by the girl’s mother (a moody dentist in a rage at her husband), dopily ignores the bespectacled geek-beauty who has a crush on him (and one can guess where that‘s going), but Leon’s direction — which admirably refuses to cue our reactions with music, even pop music — routinely outfoxes any expectations one might have developed from seeing too many American youth comedies.

Santiago Segura‘s Torrente: Mission in Marbella, the follow-up to his hilarious gross-out fiesta Torrente: The Dumb Arm of the Law, fits into two categories dear to American movies: It’s a sequel and a cop spoof. (With its sexy, greasily twisted Bond-style title sequence, it even raids Austin Powers territory.) Yet Segura, who wrote, directed and stars, doesn‘t fall into the American trap of creating a type — instead, he creates a character, and steadfastly resists any and all opportunities to make him likable. Torrente is not only monumentally stupid and a physical coward, he’s corrupt (not above stealing purses from old ladies, if he feels he‘s in the right), a card-carrying fascist (he nostalgically names his dog Franco) and, just when you think you’re about to forgive him, a racist who pees in public swimming pools. Such willingness to really look at character, to take on — and be held accountable for — what people are truly capable of, good and bad, is a necessary grace in films of any nationality.

In Spain such excellence is of a piece with the culture‘s anti-puritanical stance in relation to sex, as well as its stoic views of heroism and death. In the U.S., good drama and good comedy both grow, as Roman Polanski put it, “out of the compromises that are not made.” Once again, as ever, Spanish film demonstrates the beauty and vitality inherent in resisting any compromise at all.

LA Weekly