Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas devour the art-house in the frenetically funny “official competition”
If there’s a common denominator as to what plagues serious low-budget filmmakers, it seems to be the subject of resources – there’s never enough money, there’s never enough time, and they’re still chasing those two things like a cartoon character chasing the lit fuse on a stick of dynamite. So what would happen if these two problems were here, erased like so much nothingness? For example, what if an angel investor in the form of an artless billionaire at the end of his life suddenly decided to pour in unlimited funding with the prospect of leaving behind something vaguely significant – something under the form of a film? It’s the delightfully sneering proposition at the heart of Official competitionArgentinian director Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat’s scathingly funny satire on the international arthouse scene – think of it as The place for filmmakers, but only if you immediately sink into the ribs for calling something,”The place for filmmakers.
Humberto Suárez (José Luis Gómez), the artless billionaire in question, first thinks of building a bridge on which to inscribe his name, speaking heritage. But a second later, without any rhyme, he decides no, it should be a movie instead! Humberto doesn’t seem to know anything about movies, or care about anything about movies – you might be able to see the flashes of celebrity adulation flash in his eyes as he stares into space at this moment – there, if you squint hard enough, but it might as well be gas.
Either way, freshly thrilled by his sudden impulse, Humberto demands that his personal assistant find only “the best” – find him the “best” director, find him the “best” most serious story. Just find him the best of everything, whatever that means. If his personal assistant had been a huge Adam Sandler fan, we’d be in for a very different movie! But no, her first thought goes to forward-thinking director Lola Cuevas (a never-so-funny Penelope Cruz), whose previous credits include the perfect-sounding movie trilogy titled Haze, The voidand my favorite reverse rain. Still, it’s not too surprising that this woman leaves a memorable mark once we see what a huge shadow she casts in any room, and I’m not just talking about hair. But we should probably start with this hair – fiery red curls stacked like the mane of a lion that gets too close to an electrified fence, this hair seems to get bigger from scene to scene; by the end of the movie, she’s almost a sentient wig with legs. A fashionable Cousin It for the Volpi Cup set. It’s really the gag that keeps on giving.
Director completed and purchased, Humberto & Co. then shelled out another heap of cash for the rights to a Nobel Prize-winning book that no one but Lola herself appears to have read, although Cliff’s version Notes on the Rival Brothers she quickly sums up is so hilariously indifferent to the details that we wonder if she’s read it either. Lola’s fascination seems more geared towards the casting thing she has in mind for the brothers at the center of the story – she wants them to be played by two equal but opposing cultural forces. Spare no expense! One will be played by an international movie star named Félix Rivero, who is in Official competition played by international movie star Antonio Banderas, having fun skewering his own wayward Hollywood stabs and no doubt many of the big movie stars he’s met along the way. And the other brother will be played by a hugely respected serious comedian named Iván Torres, who in turn is played by serious real-life comedian Oscar Martínez. Coincidentally, Martínez won the Volpi Cup for Best Actor in Venice for the 2016 film titled The Distinguished Citizen, which was whaddya-know also directed by these same directors here. This is a movie that loves its self-referential hits! This is Cry 3 for the filmmaker set! (Okay, I’ll stop saying “filmmaker” now.)
Thus the war between Art and Commerce wins its figureheads, and from there Official competition holds nothing back from his relentless mockery of the huge peacock egos on every end. Lola demands a long rehearsal period, and Humberto gives the trio an unfettered run from a hilariously huge Gehry-esque convention center to do it. Reminiscent of the pristine architectural spaces of Bertolucci The conformist– only scalped of any sense of history, time, place and meaning – we then watch Lola, Félix and Iván attempt to strive for the intimacy necessary to make this brotherly bond seem authentic, while shouting at each other opposite ends of an aircraft hangar. Infinite resources quickly become a wacky abyss from which no real art can escape. A quicksand resembling a silver pit of anything becomes an endless possibility, it in turn seems impossible that a movie could ever arise from these ridiculous circumstances. And that’s before Lola even pulls out the shredder.
Indeed, the absurd intimacy of the filmmaking process seems the truest and fiercest target of Cohn and Duprat’s goal – that anything ever come out of tossing stacks of emotionally stunted narcissists and egocentrics into heavy eye-sockets of each other for several weeks and then asking them to reveal their innermost selves in the name of cinematic immortality is itself a peculiar kind of outrageous but age-old buffoonery. The one that sometimes bears fruit, but which ends up even more often in disaster. Contentious, emotional and violent gibberish disaster. And given the whole world to play with, it seems reasonable that, like an insult uttered through a twisty vacuum tube, that shit would eventually come back only to bite our ass off. Fortunately Official competition makes it all a seditious snack.
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Image sources (in order of publication): IFC Films,