Thursday, January 26, 2023

Venice Review: Penelope Cruz & Antonio Banderas In ‘Official Competition’

Official Competition (Competencia Oficial) announces its meta intentions with its very title. Here is a Venice Film Festival competitor about the making of a festival film. Lampooning the very world in which it exists, the Spanish comedy-drama is a highly entertaining entry with winning performances from Penelope Cruz, Antonio Banderas and Oscar Martínez.

An eccentric director is hired by a wealthy businessman who decides to produce a film, on a whim, based on a prize-winning novel he’s never read. The fact that this director is played by Cruz is a nice touch, given that such fictional helmers are usually male by default. Asked to hire “the best,” Lola Cuevas summons Argentinian thespian Iván Torres (Martínez) and showy box office star Félix Rivero (Banderas) to her mansion to rehearse for their roles as warring brothers. Her idea is to pit two opposites against each other and milk the sparks on screen; her methods become increasingly elaborate.

Wondering just how far this film will go is half the fun, and directors Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat choose their moments to push the tone from sharp observational comedy into absurdity — though it’s probable that most of this is drawn from experience. Lola sets “exercises” for the two actors that test their fragile egos — chairs are broken, feelings are wounded, the line between reality and fiction is blurred amid a sea of fibs.

Then there are details of Hollywood fame; from Félix’s workout contraptions to the contract stipulating that nobody can touch his face. There’s a deeply uncomfortable scene in which both men are required to kiss the very young female lead (Irene Escobar). Then, Lola decides to demonstrate. The gender switch dissipates the tension and heightens the humor, while still reinforcing the idea of a wealthy, privileged director who has little respect for the privacy or feelings of her actors.

Lola goes on to torture her cast in a way that has fetishistic overtones, aided by the coldly stylish, modern look of her home. Hair, make-up and wardrobe also play a big part, from Lola’s enormous red curls to her edgy fashion sense that tips into OTT territory at just the right moment to undermine her pretentious utterings.

It’s credit to the actors that these characters are still very engaging, for all their flaws. Martinez is spot-on as the judgmental lecturer, while Banderas is hilarious, whether he’s apologizing for a possible erection, or demonstrating how to act drunk on a scale of 3/10. Their polarized attitudes to the craft of acting are explored with a knowing wink, and an acknowledgement that both methods may have their merits. Cruz is tremendous, her character brimming with a confidence that may or may not be misplaced, adopting a distinctive gait and voice that manage to be believable as well faintly ridiculous.

Journalists don’t escape critique, either: questions at a festival press conference tend towards the self-regarding or obvious, and are responded to with an eye-rolling that will be familiar to many festival goers. And with its references to the Volpi Cup, this is the Venice competition at its most self-referential – and funny.


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