At the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in March, the stars aligned when enlightened screen legend Penélope Cruz sat down at the Arlington Theatre for a memorable evening with SBIFF domo (and informed Cruz scholar) Roger Durling. Then an Oscar hopeful for her masterful role in Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers, Cruz comported herself with moving sincerity and passion. The night was inarguably a pinnacle of SBIFF 2022.
Fans of Cruz, of film-about-film notions, comedy — subtle and otherwise — and the old art-versus-commerce shooting match must make haste to see Official Competition, screening for a week at the Riviera Theatre. The Spanish-Argentine production, directed by Gastón Duprat (also the co-writer) and Mariano Cohn, is a brilliant and often stealthily hilarious satire of the movie/filmmaking machinery and its egomaniacal house-of-mirrors. But it is also a surprisingly beautiful philosophical film, sometimes flecked by Beckett-like absurdity. It’s all good fun, and sometimes deep fun.
At the story’s core is a volatile triangle. In a remote, starkly Modernist compound, a slightly manipulative director (Cruz, adding a new “type” to her repertoire) wrestles with her two lead actors, each with his own male ego trip to bear. Ivan (respected Argentine actor Oscar Martinez) is the more self-consciously “serious” actor, craving prestige, in contrast to — and in “official competition” with — the handsome and knowingly shallow box office king Félix (Antonio Banderas). Sparks fly, pranks unfold, and a soon-to-be-archetypal award-shredder scene all line the rocky road to actually shooting the film within the film, aptly named Rivals.
Despite the film’s bounty of comic setups and payoffs, and occasional tufts of poignancy, the film itself quietly and artfully seduces us. Cinematographer Arnau Valls Colomer’s luminous compositions and visual savvy and the strategically understated use of sound and music place the film more in the realm of the arthouse than the popcorn movie palace. But the filmmakers also take jabs at the pretensions of arthouse/festival fare, right up to the witty, loopy ending — a cheeky, meta-minded reflection on the culture of film finales.
Hopefully forgivable spoil alert: the film literally ends with a lingering hyper-close-up of Cruz’s face. That alone is worth the price of admission.
Official Competition screens Friday-Thursday, July 1-7, at SBIFF’s Riviera Theatre (2044 Alameda Padre Serra). For showtimes and tickets, see sbiffriviera.com.