Starring Penelope Cruz, Antonio Banderas and Oscar Martinez, Official Competition serves as a send-up of the vapid and profit-hungry nature of the entertainment industry mixed with a cautionary tale.
We start with billionaire entrepreneur turned Industry Producer, Humberto (Jose Luis Gomez). He wants to make “art” because art has value and will make him famous in addition to being more rich. Also, his daughter Diana (Irene Escolar) wants to be an actress and this is a perfect opportunity to give her a start. Humberto hires auteur director Lola Cueva (Cruz) to direct and she agrees with a high price. She’s an eccentric, with wild auburn curls and unshaven pits. She believes in the authenticity of art and the cancellation of ego through her own excessiveness sort of belies this belief. This seeming hypocrisy is one of the many themes that outlines the film.
She tells a story of a movie that’s loosely based on a book Humberto obtained to turn into a movie. It was a Nobel prize winning book, but Lola has other ideas. She sees it more as a two hander, wherein brothers become at odds with one another, and their families. She calls on superstar Felix Rivero (Banderas) and prestigious stage actor Ivan Torres (Martinez).
The film is to begin quickly so the three get together to workshop, prepare and rehearse. Lola’s vision has very little room for adjustments, but she sees each man is in need of their own realignments to fit the script. The men are resistant in most areas, accepting in some, but through it all, they can’t seem to step outside of the business.
The film surprisingly marks the first time Cruz and Banderas have headlined the same film and it’s a pairing I hope to see more of. They work so well off of each other as their characters each possess a type of mania that is magnetic to the other. Martinez is a wonderful straight man who may not be as straight-laced as he seems, but tries valiantly to keep the peace. Every moment they are together brings new challenges, some are surprising successes while others have disastrous consequences.
The film was written and directed by Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat and received additional writing from Andres Duprat. I’m sad to say I’m not as familiar with their work, but I did learn that Mariano Cohn directed The Distinguished Citizen where they found Martinez. As a team they seem to lean towards quirky, dark comedies and it’s a genre that fits them well.
One of the great feats of Official Competition is how lived in the film feels. The three main actors are pros, but they play their parts so beautifully. The moments of awkwardness, or showing off, of capitulating in the name of getting the work done are all grounded and real and give way to the smaller zanier moments. In one scene Ivan and Felix are wrapped together, bound with cellophane as they are forced to confront their own egos. The image is over the top, but the three have created an atmosphere where the bar for normal had a very different starting point.
‘The show must go on!’ is a salient throughline, but it means many different things and possesses varying degrees of intensity depending on the scene. By the end of rehearsals, Felix and Ivan feel like brothers to one another, but how long will that last when one of them crosses the invisible line in the sand? The line that stands between fame and riches and common human decency?
Official Competition is such a fascinating film that can either be watched with a bowl of popcorn or a notepad and pen and a glass of wine. It’s nearly a choose-your-own-adventure book in that you can actively decide how invested you want to go, how deeply you want to think about the message it may or may not have. It’s truly brilliant in that way and completely entertaining. I highly recommend the film.
Official Competition was released to select theaters on June 17th. It will be available on VOD August 2nd.