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MEXICO CITY (AP) — What is art? Do awards make you a better artist? Are successful films reserved for pseudo-actors? These are some questions raging in “Official Competition”, a comedy starring Penélope Cruz, Antonio Banderas and Oscar Martínez in a battle of egos.
Throughout the film, directed by Argentinians Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat, the mortal sin of vanity is experienced with great intensity. This is felt from the start, when an old businessman (José Luis Gómez) seeks to make history by financing a film about two brothers fighting to the death directed by a renowned filmmaker — even s he’s never read the novel it’s based on.
The director is Lola Cuevas (Cruz), a fierce woman with no filter, passionate about cinema down to the smallest detail, but with an unconventional approach.
“She thinks her actors have to suffer to get a better result,” Cruz said in a recent interview from New York, where the film screened at the Tribeca Festival ahead of its Friday theatrical release in the United States.
“She’s a very particular character, very eccentric, but that’s why she’s so fascinating. When I read her (I said) ‘how wonderful, how lucky to be able to play a person like that, a being unfiltered who says everything she feels and thinks and doesn’t care what people think of her,'” the Oscar-winning actress added.
One of Lola’s first jaw-dropping comments about the film is that “an artist without children has a great advantage, he can create freely, without fear. When there are children, there is panic.
Cruz, who is a mother of two, disagrees with her character’s statement.
“You can integrate (motherhood) into your work, for sure it’s a great injection of creativity. Even if you’re much more tired all the time, it doesn’t matter, it’s worth it said the actress, who recently received the 2022 Spanish National Film Award for her contribution to art.
In “Official Competition”, Lola summons two equally recognized but diametrically opposed actors: Iván Torres (Martínez), a very experienced Argentinian who has his own school, does theater and hates the deceptive glitter of fame; and Félix Rivero (Banderas), a star of international stature with numerous awards and blockbuster films, but who tends to be late to rehearsals. The tension is present from the first reading of the script and increases but, secretly, little by little, Iván and Félix begin to do things that they learn from each other, while trying to demonstrate their superiority.
“They are dangerous animals. They can destroy themselves to get the predominant position in this production,” Banderas said in a video call from New York.
For the Spanish actor, one of the points of the film is that “you can see how easy it is for people to become what they criticize”. He avoided falling into the mistakes of Felix, despite having a world-famous career, precisely by meeting actors like his character in real life.
“My career was built bit by bit,” Banderas said. “I started basically with theatre, which is very useful, because theater confronts you very strongly with yourself every day, you have an audience that responds or does not respond to everything you do, and you start to analyze you in a completely different way than movie actors do….I think it’s sometimes very dangerous when you have a very successful career early on.
In “Official Competition”, Lola plays the role of referee, but also of sparring partner, inciting confrontation between the two actors – if the tension is real, her film will be better, she thinks. One of the tests she puts on them to fight their egos is the destruction of their awards, including her own Palme d’Or and Silver Lion.
“You may take this very seriously, you may just think this is a very real exercise for any human being just to break that kind of attachment that we have to objects, and those objects that they represent things that we get in life,” Banderas said.
It was one of Cruz’s favorite scenes, along with another in which the director is alone on the floor talking to herself through a plastic tube, insulting herself.
“I think it’s a very funny and pathetic moment, where you also see the lost girl that she has inside,” said Cruz, whose character sports big, curly red hair.
“It was a big statement,” she said of Lola’s appearance. “She’s not trying to hide, she wants people to see her, to look at her. She thinks she always has the most interesting things to say in the room. She is so selfish.
Coupled with the big personalities of the three main characters, the film, shot in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain, takes place in a cultural complex whose dark and modern architecture contrasts with the absurdity of the scenes, but also gives the impression to be a conceptual art performance.
“Being in these spaces raises so many questions about art – what’s wrong? What is fair? said Cruz. “Being in this space, it’s like all this information is floating all over the room.”
Filming began in early 2020 and was cut short in March by the coronavirus pandemic. They were able to resume it in September of this year.
“The good thing about it is I see the movie now and I don’t remember what was shot in March and what was shot in September. I think we’ve gotten back to the tone we had when we left the movie…and luckily we didn’t lose inspiration,” Banderas said.
Playing a director only fueled a spark that Cruz has had since she was 16. The actor directed a documentary, “Yo Soy Uno Entre Cien Mil” in 2016, as well as two short films for Agent Provocateur, a lingerie brand.
“It’s something I definitely want to do in my life,” Cruz said. “I am currently preparing a documentary which will take me a few years, because it is complicated and requires different treatments, different places. This is not an easy subject to discuss. I need time to get it right,” she added, without revealing any details.
Although they’ve known each other for about 30 years and consider each other friends, “Official Competition” is the first film in which Cruz and Banderas have extensive scenes and dialogue together. Before, they had shared small scenes in Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory” and “I’m So Excited!”
“It was fun and especially in a comedy world, even though deep down it’s a very thoughtful and complex movie,” Banderas said. “To see her create a character…that has nothing to do with her, that is so different from who she is, it was very beautiful.”