Critipeg: Official Competition

★★★★ out of 5

Supplied photo

Plays Sept. 8 to 18 at Cinematheque

Although the Argentinian film Official Competition is billed as a comedy, there are some dramatic twists, and the story has a different ending than one usually associated with the comedic genre.

The film is co-directed by Gastón Duprat, who wrote the screenplay, and Mariano Cohn. Duprat and Cohn are business partners from Argentina who met in 1993 and started their career in TV in 1999. The creative duo have garnered several awards including one for best cinematography at Sundance in 2010.

This film is engaging from the beginning. It’s fun to witness the characters’ outlandish behaviour. The plot is fast-paced and unpredictable. Equally fast are the English subtitles, as they try to keep up with the rapidly spoken Spanish. I had to replay scenes a few times to not lose parts of the story.

The opening scene shows expensive gifts galore on display, post-birthday party. The honoured guest is a dissatisfied pharmaceutical billionaire. He stands alone in a room gazing at all the presents showered on him for his 80th birthday.

He ponders his career, feeling unfulfilled. It seems he has the fortune but not fame or prestige, so he decides to make a movie that will leave his mark on the world.

Enter Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz), the eccentric star director who the billionaire hires to direct his movie.

Felix Rivero (Antonio Banderas) is brought on board as the big-name actor (with an even bigger ego), along with seasoned thespian Ivan Torres (Oscar Martinez). Felix and Ivan’s personalities clash, and the disparate approach to their art makes them natural rivals. A competition ensues between the two actors during rehearsals as egos battle for top billing.

Banderas does a credible job, and it’s easy to develop an ever-increasing aversion toward Felix. Ivan is more progressive and socially conscious. Martinez adeptly brings out Ivan’s petty, competitive side, despite the fact that his character is known for his open-mindedness.

In an early scene, Lola meets Felix and Ivan for the first time and shows them the thick scrapbook she’s compiled as part of her directing process. It’s a bizarre ensemble of photos of big breasts, scrawly sketches and cutouts. The puzzled look on Ivan’s face is a truly sublime comedic moment.

Cruz, with her frizzy, wavy hair and general oddness as Lola was nominated as best actress in an international production at the 2022 Spanish Actors Union Awards.

Often exasperated at the immaturity of the actors under her helm, the erratic Lola confidently uses over-the-top techniques to draw out top-notch performances from the actors.

In one scene, the camera hovering from above zooms in on Lola lying down on the floor alone. She has one end of a long piece of tubing to her ear and the other to her mouth as she talks and listens to her neurotic self.

In one of the final scenes, we see the billionaire as he is rewarded for his movie’s huge success. He has achieved the crowning glory to his career. We see him at a ribbon-cutting ceremony where a bridge has been named after him.

The unfettered desire for fame plays out throughout and and remains ever-present. Official Competition is an art film which presents humanity’s shallow side when people use power to gain recognition. Frequently, it’s at the expense of powerless victims who are without defense.

It’s refreshing to see a film depicting how allowing one’s ego to drive one’s life can be destructive. Yes, in this case, the bad guys win, but, in the audience’s mind, they are the true losers.

Published in Volume 77, Number 01 of The Uniter (September 8, 2022)

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