Humberto (José Luis Gómez, 'Broken Embraces') has just turned 80, and like so many people in his position of status and age, he questions his legacy and lasting memories of his life. Pondering his place amongst the elite, the wealthy businessman decides that the arts are his best chance of immortality, so he decides to put a bucketload of money into making a film. It’s every child's dream - or at least mine - to have so much money you could just produce a film at the drop of a hat, and gather the best talent around to give it the best chance of success.
In Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat's 'Official Competition', said talent comes in the form of the director Lola (Penélope Cruz, 'Parallel Mothers', 'Pain & Glory'), and legendary screen actors Felix (Antonio Banderas, 'Shrek 2', 'The Skin I Live In') and Ivan (Oscar Martinez, 'Wild Tales'). Lola is an artist in every sense of the word. Eccentric and outspoken, she lives and breaths her vision into existence, and believes in her art so strongly that she will put her actors through seemingly bizarre and emotionally straining exercises to reach her goal. Felix is the egocentric, vain star magnet that might not take his occupation seriously, but his undeniable talent shines through when the camera starts to roll. Ivan, on the other hand, seems to be his every opposite. A graceful, thoughtful and serious actor, Ivan thinks about his every move, never acting on impulse or chasing fame, his pretentious nature may earn him accolades and admirers - but few friends.
'Official Competition' follows these clashes of character over the 9-day rehearsal schedule in the lead-up to the hopeful smash-hit film. Lola believes that these two actors will bring the best out of each other, and therefore the best possible outcome for the film, but it will mean testing their very nature and limits.
I had an absolute blast with this film. Shot predominately within the confines of the rehearsal space, audiences are privy to both the overly dramatic and almost whimsical characters on screen. Some of the exercises are completely ridiculous, and the seriousness in which they approach the absurdity of it all genuinely made me laugh. It's deadpan while also somehow slapstick, a combination which is incredibly difficult to master. Jokes don’t work well when it's obvious to the characters that a joke is being made.
Unbelievably, this is the first time Banderas and Cruz have co-starred in a major feature together. It’s a crime we seat fillers have not until now been granted such an audience with the best in their fields together. Much like their on-screen characters, Banderas, Cruz and Martinez seem to be bringing the absolute best of themselves to the forefront, matching each other toe-to-toe and vying for the most memorable on-screen moment.
All of which is so easily digestible from the way 'Official Competition' is shot. Cohn and Duprat position the set pieces in this rehearsal space, but it's hardly a cramped backstage room in an underground theatre. Rather, the canvas these characters get to work with is a vast, architecturally awesome and grand space. This choice works so well as it not only acts as constant reminder of how they see themselves within the world, but it juxtaposes seamlessly with frequent close-ups that completely open up the actors' vulnerabilities. The camera positioning flows effortlessly and often frames the shot with striking backgrounds or off-centre compositions. It all aids the eccentric and artistic tone that Lola surrounds herself with. Furthermore from a technical standpoint, the sound design rivals some of the best I’ve seen in recent memory - I thought at one point that my sound was having an issue until it all unfolded and made sense.
The seriousness in which they approach the absurdity of it all genuinely made me laugh. It's deadpan while also somehow slapstick, a combination which is incredibly difficult to master.
'Official Competition' is probably not as clever as it thinks it is, nor does it necessarily say anything that hasn’t been said, but that doesn’t detract from the often exhilarating ride it offers. As an onlooker to the madness, I was completely on board with the competitive masochisms they inflict on one another, and would have gladly witnessed even more screen time with these characters. It’s unfair to say that Banderas hasn’t been this good in a while, because he’s honestly brilliant in everything, but his screen presence helps him really stand out as this obnoxious and self-righteous imbecile. He plays a more airheaded and exaggerated version of himself, and I loved every minute of it.
But this film would not work without a brilliant ensemble. Cruz is equally captivating here, and I love her deliriously absurd approach to her work. She is steadfast at pitting the two actors' personalities against each other, and it’s a really wild ride. Martinez is no slouch either. The straightest of the three, he still brings an element of buffoonery and ego to the table that is more subtle, but equally narcissistic.
At a time when celebrities are simultaneously worshipped, derided, pitied and envied, 'Official Competition' tells us that these wounded souls are just that - fragile artists. They can be sensitive, serious and silly, but it all services the art they wish to produce. This film is more surface level than I had hoped, and I’m not sure how much I'll be mulling it over as time passes on, but I nonetheless had a marvellous time exploring these method artists and sitting in on their rehearsals. Lola points out that art is only about what we take from it, not what’s given to us. With 'Official Competition', I took from it a really good time - and there’s little more important than that.