Egos and philosophies clash during nine days of rehearsals in this twisted and thoughtful Hispanic satire of Hollywood.
Whether it’s for the frenetic pace at which it moves or the eccentric celebrities that populate it, the film industry is always ripe for satire, and no one knows this better than the Argentinian arthouse filmmaking duo of Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat. After getting their start with the interactive program Televisión Abierta in 1999, they slowly but surely have completed a transition into cinema, and their newest film, Official Competition, is a dry but funny and absorbing satire about the state of the industry today that’s made captivating by a clever sense of humor, phenomenal performances from its three lead actors, and answers to questions about the ongoing conflict between a film’s existence as a piece of art and commerce.
Official Competition begins with pharmaceutical executive Don Humberto Suarez (José Luis Gómez) after his 80th birthday longing to be remembered for something more than his wealth, so he randomly elects to finance a film version of the fictional book Rivalry despite never having read it. Suarez is introduced to Lola Cuevas (Penelope Cruz), a rising auteur of avant-garde cinema who agrees to write and direct a loose adaptation of the novel with actors Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas) and Iván Torres (Oscar Martinez) in the two lead roles.
From there, Lola meets Félix and Iván for nine days of rehearsals, and the two actors don’t see eye-to-eye from the get-go; Iván is a prestigious actor but a stuffy academic who’s studied the art of performance for years, while Félix’s international stardom is as big as his ego. Félix drives to out-act Iván, who aims to keep the art of acting alive as Lola strives to get the both of them to coexist despite belonging to different worlds in order to make the best movie of her career.
The lifeblood of Official Competition can be found in its acting ensemble. Penelope Cruz exudes impeccable dry wit in conveying Lola’s eccentricities, even wearing them on her sleeve in the form of a giant mane of beautiful red curls. But she also demonstrates Lola’s authority with a stern, internal confidence, such as when Iván suggests one of his lines be trimmed of some dialogue, to which she responds, “It’s better to say it as it is written.” Oscar Martinez also makes Iván’s inner pretentiousness hysterical as well, particularly when he explains an unusual exercise he teaches to students, after which he demonstrates it for Lola and Félix in a moment of brilliant comedic timing.
Meanwhile, Antonio Banderas has been most famous for action films and Almodovar dramas, but his turn for the comedic here steals the show through both verbal and non-verbal means. An example of the latter comes as Félix’s eyes shift in disbelief when he can’t hear a recognizable difference in Iván’s delivery when he reads a menial line repeatedly under Lola’s orders. An instance of the former, however, takes shape when he states his simplistic process of delivering lines with conviction will help the audience understand Manuel because he is just “black ink on white paper”, conveying Félix’s oblivious overconfidence.
Banderas’ dramatic side also has a place in the second half of Official Competition, especially during instances where Félix’s monstrously huge ego and the thrill of competition drives him to use deceit in order to gain Lola and Iván’s confidence in his ability and arguably the audiences’ as well, as Cohn and Duprat shoot the film predominantly in compositions that make viewers wonder if these characters are being genuine with each other, or if they’re just playing for the professionals as they do in front of the camera for the audience.
The script is very thoughtful regarding its commentary about the artifice that exists on all sides of moviemaking from pre-production to the festival circuit, as well as the process of acting during production. This leads to blisteringly funny scenes where the superficiality and eccentricities of artists are poked fun at with grounded absurdism, such as when Lola has Iván and Félix recite their lines underneath a giant, threatening boulder suspended above them. But Iván’s pompousness and Félix’s vanity are not safe either, as the former gets skewered when he mistakes the banging on an outside wall of his apartment for sounds on an experimental music album, and the latter gets scorned when Félix assumes a passer-by is one of Lola’s girlfriends, only for Iván to inform that she is his wife.
The film’s narrative takes a shocking turn that may leave audiences looking for closure disappointed in the end, and the characters are based on tropes that are familiar to other movies about filmmaking. But Lola, Félix and Iván are written with honesty as well as a compelling trajectory by Cohn and Duprat, and they are portrayed with realism by its strong ensemble cast. Audiences will laugh in shock as Lola’s directorial methods grow more absurd and outrageous by the scene, become unnerved as tensions between Iván and Félix reach their fever pitch, and even wonder to themselves if Penelope Cruz’s voluminous hairstyle is real itself. But what is real is the fact that Official Competition is a darkly funny takedown of the narcissism on which the film is based, and one that is worth your time and attention.