A wealthy Spanish businessman in need of a legacy considers a bridge with his name on it but settles for a film starring the two biggest actors of the time, directed by a woman so pretentious she seeks inspiration doing word associations into the tube of a vacuum cleaner while lying on a concrete floor.
It is a movie about making a movie that manages to be satirically inane without abandoning the home truths underneath.
The rich man’s vanity project brings together in all their genuine stardom the Spanish actors Antonio Banderas and Oscar Martínez, as the rival male marquee names Felix and Ivan, with Penélope Cruz as the loopy director, Lola. Without these three, Official Competition would struggle for the vibrancy it achieves. Watching serious actors performing appalling versions of themselves is the strength of a film that mocks the hand that feeds it.
Felix and Ivan are polar opposites: Felix is loud, sexy – in an ageing, film-star-with-a-Maserati kind of way – and deliberately provocative in the vocal warm-up he does by shouting into the noble face of Ivan, a far more serious stage actor who has no need for such pretensions. This is the key to their rivalry; one is more famous, the other the better actor. Now, they must play two warring brothers in a family saga backed by a man who doesn’t know who they are.
Lola, whose massive head of unruly curls marks her as an auteur, decides the way to bring out the best in the actors is to crush their egos, which she does in such a literal way they are left speechless. Talk to the producers, she says, when they threaten to sue – she’s just doing her job.
It is full of this kind of conceit; the actorly techniques and egotistical undermining that we suspect go on behind the scenes more often that anyone admits. Lola’s refusal to let Ivan get past the first line of his script until he says it with just the right intonation is diabolically clever, and a credit to the luminous Cruz for pulling it off.
The jokes are all on the inside, which does raise the question of how appealing this will be outside of a festival audience.
Movie aficionados will find much to savour in three fine actors tossing around ideas of ego and insecurity as they play caricatures of themselves. For others, an absurdist film within a film about a movie made for all the wrong reasons may not give much in the way of overt laughs – but it does offer three very attractive stars who are remarkably easy to watch.
Official Competition is screening at various times throughout the Moro Spanish Film Festival, which is at Palace Nova Eastend Cinemas until May 18.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.