Critique of “official competition”: art imitates life and it is dramatic

In Official competition, cinema can only be made if commerce and art collide. At the start of this new Spanish film from directors Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat, an 80-year-old business tycoon is going through an existential crisis. Humberto Suárez (José Luis Gómez) stares out the window of a skyscraper and begins to doubt the significance of his financial accomplishments. Is his M&A portfolio the only legacy he will leave behind? He then decides to finance a film, to ensure a certain notoriety before leaving this mortal spiral.

Official competition gradually morphs into something more than an inside view of the pre-production process when Suárez hires Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz), an award-winning avant-garde filmmaker, to turn a Nobel Prize-winning novel into her film. Cuevas is a natural storyteller, like a Spanish Scheherazade. As she describes the story of two brothers who will form the center of the film, the clarity of her artistic vision fascinates Suárez. Without concluding his story, Official competition then launches into a behind-the-scenes look at Cuevas’ rehearsal process with her two stars — she turned her story into reality.

Penelope Cruz in “Official Competition”. (Courtesy of Manolo Pavon/IFC Films)

Although their film features at least three actors who worked in Pedro Almodóvar’s tragicomedies and melodramas, the mood Cohn and Duprat set is closer to the claustrophobic of Alex Garland. Ex-Machina (2014). Cuevas’ rehearsals with Félix (Antonio Banderas) and Iván (Oscar Martínez) take place in a state-of-the-art building isolated from the outside world. We get no glimpses of city streets, crowds or gatherings, shops or restaurants – nothing beyond a cement courtyard.

The film clearly distinguishes Félix from Iván. The costume designer, Wanda Morales, dresses Felix in luxurious, elegant and brightly colored fabrics. One of the coats he wears sparkles like molten rubies. Iván is dressed like a 1970s Ivy League professor. His earth-toned outfits are a dark set of grays, greens, and browns. Above all a theater actor, the pretentious Iván represents a noble ideal of art for art’s sake. Felix is ​​an international movie star and a box office draw. On the first day of rehearsal, he rides in a bright red sports car with a much younger girlfriend behind the wheel.

The man and the woman are dancing in an empty white stone space
Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz in “Official Competition”. Courtesy of Manolo Pavon. An IFC Films release. (Courtesy of Manolo Pavon/IFC Films)

Cuevas deliberately chooses these men in his film because of their competing personalities and acting styles. She wants to extract the palpable tension between them as they progress through the scripts. As Cuevas corrects their line-readings and confuses their minds, the friction and disdain they feel for each other in real life begins to creep into their performances. Before the cameras even start rolling, the actors are destined for a dramatic showdown.